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Final Four Q&A with Auburn blog College and Magnolia

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Breaking down the Tigers’ hot streak and who to watch in Saturday’s national semifinal

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs Kentucky Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Final Four showdown between the Virginia Cavaliers and the Auburn Tigers promises to be a clash of styles, pitting each program’s willpower against the other’s. Before the Hoos take on Bruce Pearl’s red-hot squad, we got some inside insight from Will McLaughlin of College and Magnolia, SB Nation’s Auburn community. Be sure to check out our answers to their questions, as well!

Streaking the Lawn: Auburn beat Kentucky without star forward Chuma Okeke, who is lost for the year with a torn ACL. What did Okeke contribute that will be missed the most, and who is the most important piece to play in his stead?

College and Magnolia: Everyone talks about Jared Harper and Bryce Brown and rightfully so, but Chuma Okeke was arguably the team’s best player. He was certainly Auburn’s best NBA prospect and was the best player on the floor for either team against North Carolina. He had 20 points and 11 rebounds in 25 minutes and was on his way to a 25-15 game at a minimum before his injury. He could defend just about anybody on the court and was completely snubbed from being on the All-SEC Defensive team. That’s what will probably be missed the most although his ability to spread the floor and knock down a 3 will be missed as well.

I think the two players that have to step up in Chuma’s stead are Anfernee McLemore and Danjel Purifoy. McLemore had his own awful injury that ended his season last year and that was really the end of any hopes Auburn had at making a deep run in the tournament last year. McLemore has played well at times this year and came up big against Kentucky, especially in OT. He can also go out and make a 3 and stretch the floor, just not as well as Okeke.

Then there’s Danjel Purifoy who has waited 2 years for an opportunity like this. He’s played sparingly this year after being suspended all of last year plus the first 9 games this year. But Purifoy has been good in the tournament and hit 4 3-pointers after Okeke went down in the second half. He’s been really good on the offensive boards as well, something Auburn has to do well in this game.

STL: The Bombs Away Backcourt (trademark pending) for the Tigers—Jared Harper and Bryce Brown—have combined to shoot almost 600 threes this year. What makes them work well together? What’s the best recipe for stopping one or both?

C&M: I like it! I think the best thing for both Harper and Brown is Bruce Pearl gives them the freedom to take any shot they get. There’s no such thing as a bad shot even if it’s from the mid court logo (you may see Harper do this a time or 2 Saturday). Pearl trusts those guys and that gives them the confidence to work well together. They’re both extremely quick and both players aren’t afraid to take the ball inside to the basket, especially Harper. Auburn did well in the 2nd half Sunday against Kentucky by doing that. Harper is the QB of the team and when Auburn plays fast and chaotic, he is hard to stop. With Brown, he may start the game slow, but once he makes his first shot, he can make several in a row. There’s been games this tournament when both players have had rough 1st half’s but one or both catch fire in the 2nd half. If you slow them down and keep them from getting out in transition and don’t allow them too many open looks, you can potentially slow them down.

STL: This will be the second uber-hot team UVA has played in the tournament: coming into the game with Virginia, Oregon and Auburn were both on win streaks that date back to the same day (Feb. 23). What’s been the catalyst for Auburn’s emergence into a national semifinalist?

C&M: Auburn has had the talent to play like this all year but I’ll go back to after the Kentucky game on February 23rd where they got blown out 80-53. Auburn was 18-9 and 7-7 in the SEC and a lot of people weren’t sure if this team would make the tournament. But in the next game against Georgia, Auburn won by 3 in Athens, on an Okeke 3 with 25 seconds left and a defensive stand. It was the team’s first one possession win of the year and only the 4th of the year. That was the start of the winning streak they’re currently on and that moment seemed to galvanize this team. Also, Auburn has gotten big contributions from everyone during this run. Having different guys to lean on and step up in big moments has gotten Auburn to Minneapolis.

STL: Auburn’s formula for success seems to be repeating a sequence that goes (1) cause turnovers, (2) run, (3) rain threes. How do the Tigers force opponents to cough it up so frequently?

C&M: The changing of defenses as frequently as Auburn does. Sometimes they will press, sometimes they’ll play zone and other times man to man. They throw teams off balance by doing this. The goal each game is to force 20 turnovers. They get a lot of their turnovers via steals and this formula has worked well for Auburn this year. While Bryce Brown is known for his 3-point shooting, he’s also an excellent defender. As is Samir Doughty who held Tyler Herro to 7 points Sunday and clearly frustrated him.

STL: How does the fanbase feel about Charles Barkley: amusing mascot, or irritating clown?

C&M: We love Charles because of his unquestioned love for Auburn and the fact he says what’s on his mind, no matter what other people think about it. Auburn never won an SEC Championship or got to the Sweet 16 with him there in the early 80s but he set up a foundation for the best years of Auburn Basketball prior to Bruce Pearl arriving on campus. He’s been a great ambassador for Auburn and he’s extremely proud of what this Auburn team has accomplished.

STL: Bruce Pearl is now in year five of a rebuild that has to be considered a roaring success: given the dramatic improvement from 2017 to 2018, there are plenty of signs that this run is not necessarily a fluke. What have been the core principles of the Pearl Era, and what are the cornerstones of his process to remake the Auburn program?

C&M: Bruce Pearl is a legend in Auburn for what he’s been able to do with this program. People can say what they want about him but he’s a master motivator, marketer and salesman. But one of the best aspects of the Pearl Era is he’s made Auburn care about a sport besides football. Auburn will always be a football school but the last 2 years especially have shown that Auburn could be a terrific basketball school for years to come. This program was in shambles when he got to Auburn 5 years ago. His first full recruiting class included Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer, seniors on this team. He sold this team on being able to come to Auburn and make history, and play for championships. The talent level has increased as he’s recruited extremely well, especially in the Atlanta area. He also has brought in guys that many overlooked and it’s allowed this roster to play with a chip on their shoulder. Harper was a 4 star recruit but Auburn was in on him before most. Brown was a 3 star recruit. He sells his team on being the underdog, being disrespected and uses that as motivation. All of these hit pieces the national media write about him only serve as fuel to the fire as well.

STL: What is your prediction for Saturday night: both bottom line score, and how the game plays out?

C&M: This is a fascinating matchup because of the contrasting styles of these two teams. Auburn makes on average 11 3s a game and needs to make probably 12-13 to win this game. They made 17 against UNC and only 7 against Kentucky but as I mentioned earlier, Harper and Brown took over that game taking the ball inside. If Auburn is making 3s and are able to run in transition, I like the Tigers chances. If Virginia controls the pace of the game though, then advantage Cavaliers. I believe 70 is the magic number as Virginia only gave up that many in 4 games this year and are 2-2 in such games. If it’s a low scoring game, Virginia wins but Auburn is on quite a special run and I’ve picked them to win every game in this winning streak and I’m not gonna stop now.

Auburn 72 - Virginia 65