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Final Four: Kihei Clark’s Defense will decide Saturday’s Virginia-Auburn contest

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The freshman will face his toughest opponent yet in the Final Four

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Virginia vs Oklahoma Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached that part of the week where the elation of the ‘Mamadi Miracle’ has begun to subside and is replaced by nervous energy leading into the Virginia Cavaliers’ Saturday’s Final Four game against the Auburn Tigers. The matchup features some usual storylines of past Virginia seasons, a fast-paced offensive opponent who loves to get out in transition against UVa’s ability to turn a game into a halfcourt battle and limit fast break points. While the Hoos have done a great job in the Tony Bennett era of forcing teams to play at their pace there are still two overarching ways that opponents have been able to find success:

  1. Catch fire from the three-point line; Picture Carsen Edwards by himself last Saturday or the entire Duke team during this year’s game in Charlottesville
  2. Have a quick point guard who can penetrate off the dribble; think K.J. Maura from UMBC last March or Seth Allen beating the Hoos at both Maryland and Virginia Tech

What makes Auburn such a dangerous opponent is their ability to do either. The Tigers lead the country with 445 three-pointers made this season, just 19 shy of Villanova’s NCAA record set last season. They shot 43% from beyond the arc against Kansas, and 45% against North Carolina before cooling off a bit against Kentucky in a game they won by shooting 24 free throws. Yet, assuming Virginia can control the pace, this is an outcome most fans could probably accept. The Hoos rank second in the country in three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 27.8%, and if Auburn can shoot a high percentage on contested threes in the half-court all you can really do is tip your cap, acknowledge an incredible performance, and celebrate a great season.

The far scarier possibility is that Jared Harper, Auburn’s 5’11” lightning-fast point guard, has success penetrating the packline on his own. Historically this has been the blueprint for less-talented teams to beat Virginia. The packline’s hard hedge and recover system makes it incredibly difficult for ball handlers to get penetration off of screens, but the defense is susceptible to agile guards who can get by their man without help. While this isn’t exactly unique, any defense struggles when guards can get into the lane, it has been the one persistent flaw for UVa and Auburn has the perfect personnel to take advantage of this weakness.

Harper may not be the best guard Virginia has played this season, that’s likely Edwards or Coby White, but he’s definitely the quickest and no team has had success defending him yet this tournament. The former four-star guard is a great finisher for his size, shoots 83% from the free throw line, and at 37% from three-point range opponents have to try and guard him close and risk getting blown past. Moreover at almost six assists per games he’s a dynamic passer who’s frequently surrounded by four legitimate shooters, making it impossible for the Hoos to help without leaving someone open from beyond the arc. He’s a matchup nightmare that seems all too familiar.

Enter Kihei Clark. I’ve been a critic of Clark’s all season, frustrated by his lack of a floater when driving and a refusal to shoot open threes that hamstrung the offense’s spacing, but even before he became the most clutch March Madness point guard in UVa history there was no denying his incredible on-ball defense. He’s likely the best defensive point guard the Hoos have had since Jontel Evans and his lateral quickness adds an element that Ty Jerome and London Perrantes simply haven’t brought to the defense. It’s no coincidence that Clark got the bulk of the defensive assignment against Edwards and White, and that all those examples of penetrating guards shredding the packline occurred in past seasons. He’s also done an admirable job of avoiding foul trouble, never fouling out despite routinely logging 30+ minutes.

Harper has the experience, the same undersized chip on his shoulder, and may be Clark’s toughest assignment yet, but Clark is also likely the best defender he will face this season. If Clark can cut off driving lanes and stay in front of Harper then it’ll take a Herculean effort from deep for Auburn to win Saturday. But if he racks up a couple early fouls or Harper proves to be just a hair too quick and experienced it could be a long night and a short stay in Minneapolis for the Hoos.