Why Virginia might actually be the perfect matchup for Auburn in the Final Four
I realize that there’s a chance that what I’m about to say might blow up in my face.
If Auburn is sitting there stuck on 15 points at the final TV timeout of the first half, at least a couple people on the internet will circle back to this column and say, “wow, you couldn’t have been more wrong.”
But I think Virginia could actually be the perfect matchup for Auburn in the Final Four.
Wait a minute. Aren’t the Cavaliers the team that boasts the top defense in the nation (and second in America defending the 3-point shot) that plays at a frustratingly slow pace? Isn’t that why the oddsmakers have Virginia as a 5-point favorite? Aren’t the Cavaliers going to impose their will against Auburn, which will be without Chuma Okeke?
That’s certainly possible. I just don’t think that’s what will happen.
You see, I have a different scenario in mind. It’s a scenario in which Auburn, a team that can create its own shot as well as anyone without relying on half-court sets, gets a few early buckets and gets a nice lead against a Virginia team that isn’t built to rally from significant deficits.
Am I crazy? Probably. Then again, this whole Auburn run already defies logic.
I already outlined why the belief that Auburn can only win one style of game should be out the window. What the Tigers did to beat Kentucky, who had P.J. Washington playing at his absolute best, should not be overlooked.
Contrary to their record-setting achievement this year, it wasn’t the 3-point shot that fueled Auburn. The Tigers scored 77 points against an elite Kentucky defense despite being held to just 7 triples and 30 percent from beyond the arc. Bryce Brown and Jared Harper combined for 50 points, but only a third of their made field goals came from 3-point range. So even if Brown and Harper aren’t lighting it up from deep, it’s certainly not the end of the world.
But let’s not forget. While Virginia is extremely solid on the defensive end, it isn’t immune to a guy going off. Take Carsen Edwards, who put up 42 against the Cavaliers in the Elite Eight matchup. Edwards can get his shot from anywhere from 3-point range.
Sound like anyone else you know?
Harper and Brown are savvy enough to be able to create their own shots, no matter how good of a defense they’re facing. They’re capable of doing what Edwards did. And while Edwards’ effort didn’t result in a win, let’s not forget that Virginia needed to pull off one of the most incredible plays in NCAA Tournament history just to force overtime.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 31, 2019
As good of a job as Virginia has done to move on from the UMBC disaster, I still have memories of watching little 6-2 Jairus Lyles putting up 28 points and scratching my head while the Retrievers knocked down 12 3-pointers en route to the blowout victory.
A lot of this is going to depend on how Auburn defends. The ability for the Tigers to play at their pace is dependent on getting steals and getting out in transition. That’s when they’re at their best. UMBC forced Virginia’s guards into bad shots that ultimately led to run-outs and open looks from 3-point range.
OK, I promise no more UMBC talk. That is a different season and clearly, this Virginia team has a different mindset.
While it might not require Auburn to get Reggie Miller-kind of hot from deep to beat the Cavaliers, this is still going to need to be an all-hands-on-deck effort like it was against Kentucky.
More big minutes from Okeke’s replacement, Danjel Purifoy, would be a welcome sight. If Malik Dunbar could have a momentum-swinging block or 2 again, that would certainly benefit Auburn, as would Anfernee McLemore using his length to keep De’Andre Hunter from getting to the rim.
Let’s look at that Dunbar block one against Kentucky more time just because:
“DENIED!!! MAJOR BLOCK BY MALIK DUNBAR!!!” pic.twitter.com/fV60y9qb38
— Power of Dixieland (@PwrofDixieland) March 31, 2019
I’ve said it before, but that’s the thing that’s been lost in the shuffle during this Auburn run. The defense isn’t at a Virginia-level, but Auburn figured out how to use it to fuel the offense. A deflection here, a long rebound off a miss there and it seems like within a couple seconds, Harper is already to the opposing 3-point line ready to make a play.
There will be times in which he can do that against Virginia. If that happens frequently in the first 10 minutes, it could turn into a long night for Tony Bennett’s squad.
I realize that’s the minority opinion.
It seems like UNC is being used as the barometer for both teams. Auburn beat UNC because the Heels allow teams to play at an up-tempo style, which meant the Tigers were never forced to adjust their offense. But Virginia is the opposite of that. And because Auburn and UNC operate similarly, the thinking is that a Virginia team that beat the Heels in Chapel Hill will follow that same model of success against Bruce Pearl’s squad.
Maybe that’ll prove to be true. Maybe it’ll also feel like Virginia hasn’t seen a team as offensively sound — and confident — as Auburn yet. With all due respect to Oregon, Purdue, Gardner-Webb and Oklahoma, the Cavaliers definitely haven’t faced an offense in the NCAA Tournament quite like what they’ll see on Saturday.
Kentucky forced Auburn to add yet another characteristic to this newfound, nothing-can-get-in-our-way identity.
Don’t be surprised when Virginia becomes the latest team that fails to slow down the Auburn freight train Saturday.