The Final Four in Minneapolis. Two wins away from glory.
After narrow wins in the Elite Eight, the Auburn Tigers and Virginia Cavaliers meet with a berth in the national championship game at stake. Neither team has had an easy path to this point, but those are in the rearview mirror now. All that matters is the opponent on the other sideline, and Bruce Pearl and Tony Bennett are two of the best in getting their squads to focus on just that.
Only in 1986 had Auburn ever tasted the Elite Eight. 23 years later, the Tigers (30-9) have danced their way into the Final Four for the first time in program history. Pearl’s group followed a resounding 97-80 Sweet 16 win over top-seeded North Carolina with a six-point escape against fellow SEC foe Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The Tigers trailed by five at halftime, but sent the game into overtime where they scored more than half as many points (17) as they did in either half (30 in each). The backcourt duo of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper carried the load for Auburn, as they combined for 50 of the Tigers' 77 points with no other teammate tallying more than eight points.
Virginia (33-3) reached its first Final Four in 25 years with an 80-75 overtime win over Purdue in the Elite Eight. While the Cavaliers had no answer for Carsen Edwards’ 42 points, they held the rest of the Boilermakers in check with their trademark defense and didn’t allow another double-figure scorer. Meanwhile, Kyle Guy (25 points, 10 rebounds) notched Virginia's only double-double and Ty Jerome added 24 points and seven assists while playing the full 45 minutes.
Final Four: No. 5 Auburn Tigers (30-9) vs. No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers (33-3)
Time: 6:09 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: U.S. Bank Stadium (Minneapolis)
Keys for Auburn
Auburn hardly lets its opponents shoot, as the Tigers’ 9.4 steals per game rank as the third-best rate in Division I. They transition that aggressive nature to the offensive end, where they score more than 80 points (80.2) per game, to rank among the top 30 scoring offenses nationally. Where the Tigers are most dangerous, however, is from deep: no team has made more three-pointers than Auburn’s 445.
Auburn does not rely on just a single player to turn opponents over; in fact, Auburn claims four of the SEC’s top 15 in steals this season: Chuma Okeke, Samir Doughty, Harper and Brown. Okeke (who is out after suffering a knee injury in the Sweet 16) and Doughty average 3.2 steals combined, so there is still plenty of the steals pie to go around. The issue for Auburn, though: Virginia only averages nine — count them, nine — turnovers per game, the lowest mark in the country.
Keys for Virginia
This matchup could very well become a defensive battle, but not a low-scoring, grind-it-out type of game as one might expect. No, it will be a test of which team’s defensive scheme establishes itself early in the game. Virginia’s scoring defense (55.4 ppg) is the best mark in the country, aided by an opponent shooting percentage at 38.4 percent, which also ranks in the top five& nationally.
The Cavaliers hold opponents to a measly 28.7 percent from 3-point range, best in the ACC and the fourth-lowest rate in the country. Simply put, teams have an extremely difficult time scoring on Virginia. On only four occasions has an opponent hung at least 70 points on the Cavaliers: Maryland scored 71 and lost by five, Duke scored 72 and 81 in a pair of wins, and Purdue scored 75 last weekend. That’s it. That’s the list. It doesn’t happen often, though Auburn will do everything in its power to reach that elusive 70-point threshold.
This one will be a classic battle of defensive strengths: Auburn loves to put up points in a hurry, while Virginia’s bread and butter is all about forcing difficult shots and playing stifling defense. On the other end, the Cavaliers hardly ever turn the ball over, while the Tigers are one of the best in forcing turnovers (17.33 per game, seventh in Division I). Can Pearl’s group continue chasing destiny, or can Virginia set itself up for one of the greatest postseason rebounds in sports history?
Prediction: Auburn 70, Virginia 66
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.