Last Updated: 2019-04-03
The Final Four will become the… Terrific Three? Tenacious Three?… when the final horn sounds for the semifinal matchup between the Auburn Tigers and the Virginia Cavaliers. US Bank Stadium is a 67,000-seat venue, so this will be a much bigger venue than either of these teams are accustomed to, as UVA’s NCAA Tournament shortcomings are well-documented and Auburn isn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse.
But, those two teams are still standing for the 6:09 p.m. ET tip-off on Saturday April 6 in Minneapolis. Most Final Four matchups are fascinating, but this battle takes it up a notch with a lot of different keys to the game. Tony Bennett and Bruce Pearl should have their squads ready to go with the extended layoff and the stakes as high as they’ve been for these two schools in program history.
Because there are enough of them, we’ll break this one down with the five keys of the game. The Cavaliers are favored by 5.5 with a total of 131. Not surprisingly, this is the lowest total of the year for an Auburn game, but it isn’t all that unprecedented, as the Tigers had a total of 133.5 in the first game of the SEC Tournament against Missouri and a total of 131.5 against Florida in the same tournament. Still, it does show that Virginia is expected to have some success with slowing the game down.
Here are the five primary keys to this game:
1. Auburn from Deep
Look, this handicap may be as cut and dry as this – will Auburn make threes? The Virginia pack line defense pushed the Cavaliers to the 22nd-best defensive two-point percentage against. But, UVA wasn’t a one-trick pony on defense. Opponents only shot 28.7% from three-point land. Auburn shoots a three-pointer 49.5% of the time.
It had to give Auburn some confidence to beat Kentucky while only going 7-of-23 from beyond the arc. The Tigers had made double-digit threes in eight straight games through the SEC Tournament run and the NCAA Tournament. The fact still remains that Auburn was outside the top 100 in two-point percentage success.
Ironically, Virginia is in the top 10 in three-point percentage. They’ve taken a much lower rate of three-pointers, but they’ve been pretty efficient with them. They have not, however, shot well from deep in this tournament and now the shooting backdrop of a gigantic football stadium is likely to have an impact on both teams.
2. Did Somebody Order a Turnover?
The Tigers can mitigate a poor shooting performance by giving themselves some extra possessions. Auburn hasn’t been a strong defensive team most of the season except for one key area. The Tigers are 209th in Effective Field Goal Percentage and 333rd in defensive rebounding percentage. They are also first in the country in turnover percentage at 24.8%. Turnovers are great because taking the ball away from the opponent means that they can’t score and it means that you have another chance to score. Virginia was 353rd in the country in tempo and Auburn was also below average at 190th.
Extra possessions for the underdog would mean that they can control the pace a little bit and also take away chances from a very efficient offense. Would that be enough for the upset? It would certainly help, especially with Auburn’s high-variance offense.
The problem is that Virginia ranked 11th in TO% on offense and has a very experienced backcourt that shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the moment.
3. I Ain’t Your Buddy, Guy
Virginia is at its best offensively when Kyle Guy looks like the player we all expect him to be. Guy had a special game against Purdue. He was overshadowed by the contested three circus act of Carsen Edwards, but he was just what the Cavaliers needed him to be. This is another important game for him.
The pressure is off for UVA because they’ve finally made it to the Final Four. That’s not to say that they are content with where they are, but it is to say that they’ve gotten a heavy weight off of their shoulders. For Guy, specifically, who has been part of two of those tournament exits, it has to be a watershed moment and one that should allow him to play with a little less pressure. That should have a trickle-down effect, as he’s the de facto leader of this team.
4. Battle of the Boards
Without Chuma Okeke, the Tigers still managed to hang in there on the glass with Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Okeke was third to Austin Wiley and Horace Spencer in OReb% during the season, but he played a lot more minutes than those guys. With Okeke out, Auburn’s rebounding was thought to be a big concern, but the Tigers had more offensive boards than th Wildcats and only fell a little short on the defensive end.
Virginia isn’t nearly as athletic when it comes to wiping windows as Kentucky, but the Cavaliers were just outside the top 50 in defensive rebounding percentage and ranked inside the top 100 in offensive rebounding percentage. If the Tigers aren’t making their threes, but can get some ORebs, that’s big. If they’re missing threes and getting beaten on the glass, then the Cavaliers are going to have a big edge. It’s hard to tell how this dynamic will play out, but it is a key part of the handicap.
5. Pearl vs. Bennett
This is the first Final Four appearance for both Bruce Pearl and Tony Bennett. Pearl has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience with his stops at Tennessee and then Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He also has his team playing its best basketball here late in the season.
Bennett has his share of early NCAA Tournament exits. The Cavaliers had an Elite Eight run in 2016, but most of the other tournament appearances have ended in disappointment. He’s a great coach and what he has accomplished in ACC play is exceptional, but now we have to wonder how he handles the spotlight here. After all, Virginia was mere seconds away from losing to Purdue before Mamdi Diakite’s soft toss into the basket. The Cavaliers did persevere in overtime, but it has been a struggle in this tournament overall.
Pearl hasn’t really had teams with seeds or expectations like this. He’s been emotional and he’s had a real connection with his team. They play hard for him. That’s not to say Virginia doesn’t play hard for Bennett, but we’ll have to see which team makes more adjustments, especially at halftime.
Pick: Virginia Cavaliers -5.5
The betting action for this game has been rather fascinating. The ticket count sides to Auburn and the money count is a lot more even. Virginia is the safer team with a more projectable performance because of Auburn’s reliance on the three-point shot. Virginia’s defense is the biggest asset in this game with an enormous venue and a challenging shooting backdrop. The Cavaliers are certainly good enough offensively to hold their own and the weight of not making a Final Four is gone, so now it’s just about getting to new heights.
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