MINNEAPOLIS, MN (WSFA) - This year’s Final Four field welcomes two newbies, one team who hasn’t been there in ages, and another who hasn’t been since 2015.
The last time Auburn went to a Final Four? Don’t hold your breath, because it’d never been done until this year. The Tigers are going up against the Virginia Cavaliers who haven’t been to the Final Four since 1984, which means no player on either roster was born yet. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl was 24 years old, and Virginia head coach Tony Bennett was 14 years old.
With two teams with no experience in the Final Four, one would expect there to be nerves come Saturday night in U.S. Bank Stadium, but that probably won’t be the case.
Auburn leads the nation in three-point field goals made at 445, and is shooting 37.9 percent. They score 80.2 points per contest.
The Hoos have made a name under Tony Bennett for having a stifling defense. They allow just 55.4 points per game this season, but have also flexed their offensive firepower as well.
To beat Auburn, it’ll be a test of making shots. The Tigers shoot and make an insane amount. They’ve taken over 1,100 three-point attempts. Virginia has taken just 770, but have made 39.4 percent of those threes.
It’ll be unlikely that the Cavaliers hold Auburn to just the 55 points per game they allow, so scoring will be a big part of their game. Luckily for Tony Bennett, he’s got a guy who can score with Auburn’s Bryce Brown. His name is Kyle Guy, but he’s no regular dude. Guy leads Virginia in scoring at 15.2 points per game and shoots well over 40 percent from three - 42.7 percent.
Aside from Guy, redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter also gives the Cavaliers another scoring option to balance out with Auburn’s Jared Harper. Hunter averages a shade under 15 a game and also shoots over 40 percent from three.
But will these two be able to keep up with the Auburn backcourt that is Harper and Brown? Together, the two have combined to score 41.9 percent of Auburn’s points this tournament and have combined to make 56 percent of Auburn’s three-point field goals.
Both Brown and Harper are coming off of insane games in Auburn’s Elite 8 77-71 overtime win against No. 2 seed Kentucky. Brown scored 24 and hit 4 of his 7 threes. Harper dropped 26 and scored 14 of Auburn’s final 17 points in the game.
But Virginia had an overtime victory of its own in the Elite 8. The Cavaliers beat the Purdue Boilermakers 70-64 in the South Regional final thanks to Guy’s 25 points and 10 rebounds. Ty Jerome had 24 points to help the Cavaliers advance.
The two teams have taken different paths to get to this point - Auburn beating three blue bloods (Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky) and New Mexico State, and Virginia - a one seed - beating Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma, Oregon and Purdue.
Virginia has a lot to play for this year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed when they did so in last year’s tournament. They were heavy favorites to win the title, but had their season end in the tournament’s first weekend of games.
Auburn returns a team that has many of its players returning from its Round of 32 loss to Clemson last year in the tournament.
The key to success for Auburn will be the continuing to hit shots. On top of that, applying defensive pressure to create turnovers. The Tigers forced 14 Kentucky turnovers that turned into 17 points. Keeping Guy, Hunter and Jerome in check will bode well for the Tigers as well as keeping Virginia off the glass. Auburn’s Austin Wiley, Malik Dunbar, Danjel Purifoy and Horace Spencer were all in foul trouble just 10 minutes into the Kentucky game. Virginia shoots 74 percent from the free-throw line as a team. The Tigers will undoubtedly need their big rim protectors in Saturday’s game.
These four are looking to fill in for the absence of Chuma Okeke, who suffered a torn left ACL in the North Carolina game. In the Kentucky game, Auburn’s quartet of big men combined for 15 fouls and just 14 points.
For Virginia, the task will be to not treat Auburn like a normal opponent. The Hoos will look to run their Pack Line defense at Auburn, which is a man-to-man concept, but attempts to keep the opposing team out of the paint. For Virginia, that line of thinking won’t work against the Auburn Tigers. In order to beat Auburn, Virginia will need to pressure the shooters and communicate well in screen-and-roll situations - something the North Carolina Tar Heels did poorly in the Sweet 16. If they can run Auburn off the three-point line more times than not, they stand a chance.
In the Elite 8, Virginia gave up 42 points to Purdue guard Carsen Edwards. Edwards was 14 of 25 from the field and hit 10 of his 19 three-point attempts. If Brown and Harper even combine for 42 points for Auburn, the Tigers will be in good standing.
This is Virginia’s third trip to the Final Four after previously going in 1981 and 1984. As mentioned before, Auburn has never been. These two will tip things off Saturday at 5:09 p.m. Following will be Michigan State - who is returning to the Final Four for the first time since 2015 - taking on Texas Tech who, like Auburn, is making its first Final Four appearance.
Both games Saturday will be televised on CBS.