|Efficiency drives Virginia vs. havoc-seeking Auburn|
Efficiency drives Virginia vs. havoc-seeking Auburn
Auburn leveled basketball behemoths Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky and escaped the Midwest Region to reach the first Final Four in program history.
"When your kids play hard, play unselfishly and together," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "Obviously, they're the Cinderellas of this tournament."
Auburn and Virginia, which outlasted Purdue in an epic overtime thriller, square off in the NCAA Tournament national semifinal Saturday night at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
The Tigers (30-9) are in Minneapolis without Chuma Okeke, who went down with a left knee injury in Auburn's win over North Carolina in the regional semifinal. Virginia (33-3) was the only No. 1 seed to claim a regional championship. The Cavaliers' 80-75 win over Purdue gave coach Tony Bennett his first Final Four appearance and Virginia redemption for a first-round loss -- to No. 16 seed UMBC -- as a No. 1 seed in 2018.
The calling card for Virginia is defense. Specifically, the pack line scheme that promotes help away from the ball over pressure. It's the opposite of Pearl's preferred defense -- pressure, limit ball reversals, and then pressure some more.
"We are a defense that kind of, or a team, that relies on being able to turn our opponents over to get some offense out of our defense," Pearl said.
The Tigers managed to slow Kentucky's perimeter shooters, swarmed to the ball and got off to the races upon rebounding missed shots.
"They tried to make all the catches hard," Kentucky's P.J. Washington said of Auburn after a 77-71 loss in the regional title game. "And they were boxing out and getting rebounds. They forced us to get one shot up and got back in transition and scored every time."
Virginia was the second-most efficient team in the country in 2018-19. The Cavaliers turn the ball over nine times per game, get to the foul line and make 74 percent of their free throws.
"Predominantly, it's your personnel. It's your versatility, how the guys have improved individually," said Bennett. "Just how they've gotten better to a man and the emergence of players, being able to play a little differently."
Matchups in Saturday's early game will be intriguing with Bennett deploying National Association of Basketball Coaches Defensive Player of the Year DeAndre Hunter against Auburn's fleet of waterbug guards. Senior Bryce Brown and junior Jared Harper -- who combined for 50 points against Kentucky -- are threats from long distance but ate the Wildcats alive with the midrange game, then dashed past closeout defenders for buckets in the paint.
Hunter, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, averaged 14.9 points per game but perhaps more important, he piloted a Virginia defense that led the nation in fewest points allowed (55.4 per game), ranked fourth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (28.7 percent) and fifth in field goal percentage defense (38.4 percent).
Pearl has countered all season with depth. He's using a nine-man rotation without Okeke, and said having the full team involved in every game has created unmatched chemistry rooted in trust.
"Some people think nine's a lot, but it isn't for me," Pearl said. "I've always played nine, 10 guys double-digit minutes. I think it makes for a healthy locker room. And when your guys begin to trust and rely on each other, it makes you, I think, a little bit more of a dangerous team."
Bennett is back in a Final Four for the first time since 2000 -- when he served as Wisconsin's volunteer manager -- and the Cavaliers haven't participated since 1984.
"I don't know how much experience I had in that one," Bennett said of his trip with Wisconsin. "I think, obviously, I'll visit with my dad. (Former Wisconsin coach Bo) Ryan, who I was under for two years at Wisconsin, has been there twice.
"When I've either read some things or heard things coaches said, whether first time (or not), it seems like it's the balance of you do have to enjoy it, but you do have to remain focused and prepare well because you can get pulled (into) so many different obligations. ... It still always comes down to preparing well with the right kind of focus, but also enjoying it in the right way.
"That's the advice that I've gotten from those people."
--By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media