Breaking down Auburn with an Xs and Os expert: How the Tigers really match up with Virginia
Believe it or not, I’m not an Xs and Os expert when it comes to hoops. I can spot a slip screen from a pick and roll, but I’m by no means capable of breaking down hours and hours of game film.
Fortunately for Auburn fans, I called on someone who does exactly that. He offered some of his expertise ahead of the Tigers’ Final Four matchup against Virginia on Saturday.
His name is Gibson Pyper, AKA @HalfCourtHoops on Twitter. He’s an assistant high school basketball coach at Cary (N.C.) Academy near Raleigh, but what earned him over 29,000 followers on Twitter and 18,000 subscribers on YouTube was his free clips breaking down plays at the college and pro levels.
Pyper also has a members-only website called thebasketballplaybook.com, where he does video breakdowns of the entire playbook of college/NBA teams. NBA and college coaches are members because of the time he puts in.
Pyper just put together a video playbook for Virginia. That “only” took him about 9 hours because as he said, the offense is basically 2 schemes with different variations off it.
Auburn, on the other hand, was more like 12 hours of work for Pyper. That’s because he went through all 2,800 clips to track their roughly 65-70 set plays.
Auburn Tigers 2018-19 Playbookhttps://t.co/V1A1NJkllH
-PDF Playbook (70 Plays)
-Video Playbook (40 Minutes)
-Primary Break Video (40 minutes)
-4 Out Motion Video (55 Minutes) pic.twitter.com/WyNJZqngZv
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) April 4, 2019
So yeah, let’s start right there.
Auburn isn’t just the team that chucks threes
Despite the fact that Auburn is 19 3-pointers from breaking 2017-18 Villanova’s record for the most triples in a season, the offense is more diverse than that.
It isn’t all just run and gun. Pyper noted Auburn’s use of back-door cuts and slips off screens is a big part of the offense:
Another Auburn backdoor set late vs Kentucky: pic.twitter.com/w5Lukitvet
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) January 19, 2019
Auburn | Slip Set pic.twitter.com/SkVrT9VLPt
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 21, 2019
Pyper said that Auburn was actually one of his favorite video playbooks to put together because of all the wrinkles that are part of Bruce Pearl’s offense. They have, according to Pyper, 5-10 go-to sets and a bunch of counter possibilities that they’ll run over the course of a game.
“What you’ll notice is that when they don’t have the transition, they’ll actually pull it out and run some of their stuff,” Pyper told SDS. “They run disciplined sets. They have really good counters, so you’ll see the same action start the same way, then you’ll see like a slip-counter or a back-door counter or it flows into a double ball screen. It’s just tough action to guard.
“And when they do get a switch, they’ve got quick enough guards where they can either take advantage of that with an ISO or get some ball movement.”
What that ball movement does is often catch a defender slow to switch on the screen away from the ball, which can often result in a high-percentage look down low. Pyper broke down what some of that half-court ball movement looks like on his YouTube channel:
As Pyper also pointed out, Auburn really didn’t play at a high tempo against Kentucky. Sure, the Tigers got some transition buckets and Bryce Brown went on an 8-0 run by himself, but that game wasn’t played at the pace that the Kansas game was (Auburn only had 7 made 3s).
“They play in multiple ways. They run really good ball screen actions, What I think is harder to visualize at the college level is that this is where the game is going,” Pyper said. “Auburn is playing how the game is gonna be played in 5 years. Everybody is gonna try and play faster, everybody is gonna try and shoot more 3s.
“When people are seeing that, they’re like, ‘Oh, they’re just taking too many 3s.’ It really is just a math problem of the 3 being a better shot overall. When they initially see that, they’re like, ‘Auburn just throws it up in transition.’ Well, transition 3s are actually a pretty valuable shot in some ways if you’re a good shooting team, obviously.”
How will the Chuma Okeke loss impact Auburn against Virginia?
Pyper admitted he didn’t expect Auburn to beat Kentucky without Chuma Okeke.
The emerging sophomore was a 2-way threat who opened up the floor for the Tigers and made them tougher to guard. Against an even tougher Virginia defense, Pyper said the loss of Okeke could be felt more than it was against Kentucky.
“It does change a lot. When you look at the sets and stuff that they ran this year. He was not a focal point, but definitely a huge factor,” Pyper said. “They’d run some isolation stuff for him, some high-low, having him be able to pick and pop and attack off the bounce. He did give them a little versatility.”
Monster showing from #Auburn's Chuma Okeke before his tough knee injury:20 PTS, 11 REBS, 2 STLS, 1 BLK, 8/11 FG's + 3/5 from 3's in just 25 MIN. Really helped himself prior to going down. The 6-7, 230 pound + 20-year-old F prospect was extremely aggressive at both ends pic.twitter.com/o9XVFAnnoK
— DraftExpressContent (@DXContent) March 30, 2019
In the 4 games before his season-ending injury, Okeke was 12-for-24 from 3-point range. It was easily the best shooting stretch of his young career. Having Okeke would have created a key potential advantage against Virginia’s pack-line defense, according to Pyper.
“One of the things that Virginia struggles with is teams that can have 5 potential shooters on the floor, and Okeke did give Auburn that,” Pyper said. “They could go a little smaller with him at the 5 at times and have him be a pick-and-pop option, and have him really stretch Virginia’s defense, similar to what Gardner-Webb did in the first round where they gave (Virginia) a lot of problems with some middle slips and stuff like that.
“Not having Okeke is a pretty solid loss in that aspect of it, but they’ll still probably go spread-ball screen and go a little smaller depending on the lineups that Virginia has on the floor.”
Then what can Auburn take advantage of against Virginia?
Virginia’s defense — as elite as any — isn’t without flaws, according to Pyper.
“One of the things that Auburn likes to do is set side ball screens with pick and pop action, and that’s a weakness of Virginia’s defense at times because of the way they defend ball screens,” Pyper said. “They’re a little more aggressive on the ball screens than most teams, even on the side. Usually you’ll get two (defenders) on the ball and it forces a rotation from the weak side or the low man inside the paint.
“The pick and pop could be there for Auburn and if Virginia eventually switches that action, you can get mismatches and pick what you want to do.”
Hmmmmmm. When else have we seen that before, you ask? As you recall, Virginia struggled to slow down Carsen Edwards, who went off for 42 against the Cavaliers in the Elite Eight.
Here’s Virginia being aggressive on the ball screen and instead of dishing it, Edwards is actually still able to get a shot off cleanly:
Purdue | 2 High Shallow
GREAT action against teams that hard hedge. You can see Salt tell Jerome to hedge, but when Jerome's man makes the shallow cut, it freezes him and it is a late hedge. Open 3. pic.twitter.com/8VYXOanWjS
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 31, 2019
“De’Andre (Hunter) was able to guard him a bit until Edwards went nuclear,” Pyper said. “Auburn is going to have to find someone who can take over like that. Like Brown did last game for Auburn. He had that 8-0 run by himself against Kentucky. Having something like that is really important against Virginia because they’re so disciplined and they’ll bleed the clock.”
Having someone deliver an Edwards-like performance would obviously be a major boost. Brown and Jared Harper are plenty capable of that.
But getting ball movement against the pack-line defense is still important. As great as Harper is at finishing in traffic, the odds of doing so against a rim protector like Mamadi Diakite aren’t great. What seems more likely is Harper collapsing the defense to hit Danjel Purifoy or Malik Dunbar for an open 3.
“Virginia, they don’t beat themselves, so the key for Auburn is gonna have to be to get to the second or third ball rotation or ball reversal because that’s where you can maybe make an open 3 or get a drive and kick opportunity off of that,” Pyper said.
So … can Auburn do that and make some more history?
Virginia’s half-court defense against Auburn’s high-powered offense could end up being one of the great battles of the tournament. Which team imposes its will is likely the one moving on to the national championship at night’s end.
So how does Pyper think Auburn will handle the Cavaliers’ half-court defense?
“Well, they might (struggle),” Pyper said. “You don’t know because Virginia is an elite defensive team. However, if you’re going to beat a pack-line defense like Virginia, you have to be able to beat it down the floor quickly in transition. That is a good thing for Auburn because they are very good in transition.
“You have to beat them down the floor first and then you have to make them move, but also be able to take advantage of a mismatch.”
Nobody will have to pull Auburn’s arm on that. The Tigers seem to be at their most comfortable when playing fast, which isn’t a secret by now. It’s what allowed them to jump out to the massive lead against Kansas, and it’s what helped the UNC game get out of hand.
Any chance to do something like this, Auburn figures to take:
Auburn is really hurting Kansas in early offense, running their break to perfection. pic.twitter.com/LoogYDsUfy
— Half Court Hoops (@HalfCourtHoops) March 24, 2019
But when the transition opportunities aren’t there — Virginia isn’t high-scoring, but it is efficient in its slow-paced offense — it isn’t like Auburn is racing to get a shot up early in the shot clock. That gives Pyper some doubt about the Tigers’ chances of pulling off another upset.
“They don’t go fast when they like to set something up. They just walk into it, and what I don’t like about that is that it allows Virginia’s defense to set. Once Virginia’s defense gets set, it’s really difficult to score against,” Pyper said.
I closed with Pyper by asking him the question that’s on the minds of every Auburn fan/person with a gambling interest — who wins on Saturday night and why?
“I think Virginia handles it,” Pyper said. “One thing that’s really, really important in the Final Four is defense, and Auburn is a good defensive team. However, I think Virginia is just a little more elite on the defensive side. When the game becomes that half-court game, that’s what Virginia wants.
“As much as Auburn excels in it, and I think they’ll be fine, I don’t think it’ll be a blowout. I think it’ll be close, but I think Virginia, all they’ll have to do is make like an 8-0 run in the second half under 11 minutes and that’ll push them and propel them to the final.”
Whether Pyper is right or not, I’m convinced of at least one thing. He’ll have the full video breakdown to explain exactly why Auburn’s run either ended or continued into Monday night.