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FINAL FOUR BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Auburn Tigers

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Through four games in this tournament, Virginia Cavaliers basketball has been able to play their style of basketball. For the most part, the teams they’ve played have been content to play a half-court game with Virginia, which plays to the strengths of the Wahoos.

The Auburn Tigers, on the other hand, has played two games against up-tempo teams (UNC and Kansas). In those games, they scored 1.28 points per possession and allowed 1.06 points per possession, winning by an average of 15 points. The Tigers have also played two games against slow teams (New Mexico State and Kentucky). In those games, they scored 1.07 points per possession and allowed 1.03, winning by an average of 3.

In other words, Auburn is much more comfortable in an up-tempo game. Yes, they ranked just 153rd in tempo this year. But last year, they ranked 18th and the year before they were 10th. And that’s with largely the same roster. Just one underclassman saw extended minutes this year, Chuma Okeke. As you may have heard, Okeke tore his ACL against UNC and is out for this game. Okeke is the best interior player for the Tigers, and really their only guy post scorer. His absence makes them even more of a transition team. And yet, they managed to beat Kentucky without him and with only nine transition points.

In its nine losses, Auburn was outscored in transition six times (and tied once). In their 30 wins, they’ve been outscored in transition just three times (and tied twice). Of course, don’t expect Virginia to outscore Auburn in transition. The Hoos had an advantage in transition points just nine times all year, and many of those came early in the season against lesser opponents. More importantly, the average Virginia basketball game includes just over 10 transition points per game. Auburn games average over 18.

The easiest way to generate transition points it to force turnovers. Auburn is tops nationally in defensive turnover rate. The easiest way to prevent transition points is to avoid turning the ball over. Virginia is 12th nationally in lowest turnover rate. Virginia gives up fewer than 10 points of turnovers per game. Taking care of the basketball is priority number one for the Cavaliers against Auburn.

The Tigers are led in scoring by the backcourt duo of Bryce Brown (16 ppg) and Jared Harper (15.4). Brown takes nearly ¾ of his shots from downtown, making 41%. He is also good in transition. In the half court, he’s not really going interested in going to rim very much. Harper, on the other hand, is more capable of dribble penetration. He’s taken 53% of his shots from downtown (making 37%), but he’s also 46th in the country in assist rate and leads the team in FTA by a wide margin. He can beat many defenders off the dribble, though at 5’11” 175 he can struggle to finish against the big boys inside. Instead, he’ll often look to dish once he gets into the lane.

This is a drive and finish from Harper. Watch how his big man screens off the interior defender, giving Harper an open lane to the rim. Carsen Edwards did this a few times last weekend, giving him easy finishes inside. Here’s an example.

Auburn’s guards are small and aren’t great finishers. They are one of the worst teams in the nation at having their shots blocked. With several shot blockers inside, Virginia will look to contest on Auburn’s drives.

This tournament has been a coming out party for Kihei Clark. He’s averaging over six points and almost five assists per game, while also providing his stellar defense. Yes, Carsen Edwards lit it up for 42 points, with Clark as the primary defender, but Edwards was so unconscious that he might’ve dropped 60 against a lesser defender. And Clark also forced four turnovers from Edwards (the last of which was important). And of course, Clark has written himself into Virginia (and NCAA Tournament) lore with his brilliant pass on “the play”.

In this game, Clark will be tasked with staying in front of Harper. Easier said than done, but Clark has dealt with better PGs this year, including Edwards. Although Brown leads the team in shot attempts, Harper is the straw the stirs the drink. If Clark can keep Harper off balance all game, Auburn’s offense is going to struggle. Harper leads the team in usage rate by a wide margin (not as wide as Edwards leads for Purdue, of course).

In their Elite Eight win over Kentucky, Harper had 26 points on 7/18 from the field. But he went 11/11 from the stripe, which was big in a game that ultimately went to OT. Brown had 24 points on 8/12 from the field.

Here’s Brown firing off a three off a screen. This is a common look for Auburn in the halfcourt. This is a tough play to run against Virginia because of the hard hedge from the bigs. That shot just isn’t going to be there.

However, this look could work against Virginia. Daniel Purifoy shows a screen, but slips it and spots up for an open jumper. Yes, it helps that his man trips and falls, but this play is meant to cause confusion. If Virginia’s bigs are going to hedge hard on that screen look, the screener is going to get open. That’s a wide open look, and Auburn isn’t going to miss that.

On the other side, neither Harper nor Brown are particularly good defenders. They both generate steals, but that comes largely from the pressure defense, and not from individual talent. Clark probably isn’t going to have big game offensively, because that just isn’t his role. But Brown is going to be guarding Kyle Guy, and that’s a good thing for the Cavaliers. Chasing Kyle Guy around screens for 20+ seconds every possession can be draining. It is no surprise that even though Guy has struggled in this tournament, the opposing SGs have also struggled.

Opposing Team Shooting Guards

Opponent Opposing SG Points Opposing SG FGA
Opponent Opposing SG Points Opposing SG FGA
Nate Johnson (GWU) 4 7
Christian James (Oklahoma) 13 13
Paul White (Oregon) 10 8
Ryan Cline (Purdue) 7 7

This isn’t perfect, of course, because of substitutions and rotations, but opposing SGs have scored 34 points on 35 shots. If that’s the kind of ratio Auburn gets from Bryce Brown, they’re in trouble.

Harper and Brown have taken 44% of the team’s shots this year and scored 45% of their points. That makes it very clear; shut down Harper and Brown and you shut down Auburn. That is especially true in the absence of Okeke, who was third on the team in both points and FGA. Against Kentucky, Brown and Harper combined for 50 points on 30 shots. The rest of the team had 27 points on 35 shots.

With Okeke out, the Auburn frontcourt is led by Anfernee McLemore, who isn’t a true “big”, at 6’7” 220. He’s taken just over half his shots from downtown, making 33%. He’s much more dangerous in transition, where he gets most of his buckets. He ranks in the top 100 nationally in block rate and is a a good on-ball defender. He will probably be guarding DeAndre Hunter, which will impact what Virginia does offensively.

Replacing Okeke in the lineup is a group effort. Horace Spencer and Austin Wiley each played around 13 minutes. Both were highly regarded recruits who simply haven’t developed. Both are solid defensively and on the boards, but neither has an offensive game. Purifoy played a season-high 32 minutes and was often the biggest Tiger on the floor. He’s similar to McLemore, but a better shooter. He had 12 points (4/6 from downtown) in 12 minutes against UNC.

With little size from Auburn, it isn’t surprising that Kentucky grabbed 11 offensive rebounds. Auburn is one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the nation. Virginia is not generally known for offensive rebounds, but they’ve grabbed over 35% of their misses in this tournament, which would’ve ranked in the top 15 nationally. This is a place where Virginia, again, has an advantage. Mamadi Diakite has been playing out of his mind for two weeks, and has 12 offensive rebounds in four games. He had 40 in the previous 32 games. Considering Auburn likes to run off misses, grabbing some offensive rebounds is a good way to slow them down.

The lead wing is Samir Doughty, a transfer from VCU. Doughty was mostly a slasher, making just 27% of his treys in his one year at VCU. But he’s made 44% of his treys this year, taking half his shots from beyond the arc. He’s also great in the Auburn full-court-press, with quick feet and quick hands. Doughty can be an afterthought in the Auburn half-court offense, but he’s somebody to be watched.

This is the kind of thing Doughty can do if you forget about him. He doesn’t always start, but he’s fourth in minutes. There’s a good chance Doughty and Ty Jerome are matched up for much of the evening.

The big takeaway for this game is tempo. Auburn wants to play a game with 70+ possession. Virginia wants to play at under-60 possessions. We know that Virginia is tough to speed up, though it does happen. Auburn averages 70 possessions per game (their adjusted tempo is about 68 possessions). Virginia has played just one game all year at that pace. If Auburn is able to speed the game up, they’re likely to win.

But assuming Virginia is able to play at their pace, the game may turn into a three point shooting contest. Auburn has attempted 30 threes per game in this tourney, making 40%. Virginia, on the other hand, is under 30% on 26 attempts per game. If those percentage hold true, Auburn is going to win. Purdue managed to shoot 42% from downtown against Virginia, but that was one guy having a monster game, as the rest of the team was just 4/13 (30%). How Auburn shoots against Virginia’s perimeter defense may determine this game.