After a close win against a 30-win New Mexico State team and three wins against the three winningest programs in NCAA basketball history (Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina), the Tigers find themselves in the first Final Four in program history.
Bruce Pearl’s squad got hot at the right time and despite losing star forward Chuma Okeke in the Sweet 16 matchup against UNC, Auburn rolls into its Final Four matchup with the nation’s longest win streak (12).
Led by the backcourt duo of junior Jared Harper and senior Bryce Brown, the Tigers are one of the most electric shooting teams in the country.
The fast-paced, high-scoring style of Auburn directly clashes with the hard-nose, pack-line defense of the Virginia Cavaliers, who the Tigers will face on Saturday. The Cavaliers are perhaps most famous for becoming the first one seed in men’s tournament history to be upset by a 16 seed when they were eliminated by No. 16 seed UMBC in last year’s tournament.
However, this year, Virginia is a legit title contender. The Cavaliers ranked first in the entire NCAA in scoring defense this season, only allowing an incredibly stout 55 points per game.
“Honestly, we got back last night, and we've just had a little bit of time this morning to begin to look at Virginia. So I know that just from a standpoint of defensively they allow just 29 percent shooting from three, they've got big guards and so they're able to extend enough defensively to challenge shots,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. "You know, we don't see the pack line (defense) as much in the SEC as they do in the ACC, so I know it will be a real challenge for us. Sometimes, we play against teams that do a lot of switching, take away the three ball, and you've just got to find other ways to be able to score.”
While good three-point shooting teams have given UVA trouble in the past due to their lack of offense, the Cavalier offense has taken a step forward in 2019. Head coach Tony Bennett’s squad has put up a respectable 71.8 points per game.
While Virginia may not be an offensive juggernaut, its backcourt trio of Kyle Guy (15.6 points per game), Ty Jerome (13.3 PPG), and likely first-round draft pick De’Andre Hunter (14.9) should provide enough scoring to at least somewhat keep pace with Auburn and possibly cause trouble for Auburn’s star guards.
If Auburn wants to continue its run of knocking off top-tier programs, someone other than Harper or Brown will likely have to get involved. Even without Okeke, Bennett recognized Auburn’s speed, athleticism and depth.
“Well, obviously, you're into film-watching now and getting a feel for them, but Coach Pearl was at actually Milwaukee when I was at Wisconsin and certainly know of him as a coach and the job he did, and seeing the years he's had at Auburn, you understand obviously their quickness, their ability, just how scrappy they are and just a really good team, as everyone is when you get to this stage that's playing good basketball. Just continuing to dive in, and obviously have great respect for what they've done,” Bennett said. "I know they lost one of their key players, but the way they played without him was very impressive against Kentucky, and because of their depth, it seems like they can really absorb different kinds of things — foul trouble or different players. They have a wide range of guys.”
It will be the first Final Four appearance for both Bennett and Pearl as both coaches look to take their teams one game closer to cutting the nets. Tipoff for the Tigers matchup against UVA is scheduled for Saturday at 5:09 p.m. The game will be televised on CBS.