5. Auburn v. 1. Virginia (-5.5)
Total – 131
This is an extremely tough game to handicap. I found myself leaning Auburn at first glance, but got scared off after seeing that a majority of the money is coming in on the Tigers. I don’t particularly want to be on a square dog in as public of a market as the Final Four will be, especially given the recent success of favorites in this setting (6-0 SU, 4-2 ATS last 3 years). On the flip-side, do you really want to lay 5.5 points with this Virginia team that is cold as hell from 3 and after seeing what Carsen Edwards did to them last weekend? No. I have a strong opinion on Texas Tech +3; this one required a lot more digging. Let’s get into it:
If you look at the four respective “units” in this game, it seems relatively clear that this game will be defined by what happens when Auburn has the ball. While Auburn can force turnovers and Virginia is beyond efficient offensively, this game teeters on the other end. Auburn’s offense is good enough to blow out Virginia (0r anyone in the country, see, e.g., Kansas & North Carolina) if they are hitting threes and playing with the type of swagger that has defined their magical run to this point. Virginia’s defense is good enough to completely suffocate that, however, and if they can control the game stylistically and defend the 3-point line, there are only a very limited set of ways wherein Auburn can win.
While I mentioned in my article last week that the narrative about Auburn’s pace was actually somewhat overblown, their play in the tournament thus far does suggest a willingness to put their foot on the gas. They are still 153rd in KenPom’s tempo metric, but have played much faster in the tournament. Part of that, of course, is that when you’re forcing turnovers and hitting transition 3’s, you want to keep your foot on the gas because it’s so damn fun to play that way. As such, Auburn hasn’t played a game in this tournament with a pace of less than 70 possessions. Meanwhile, Virginia has only played one game this entire season with over 70 possessions, and that was back in the nonconference against Marshall. Virginia has yet to play a game in this tournament with more than 63 possessions, which makes sense. This is the slowest-paced team in America, and they are extraordinarily deliberate with every possession on both ends. Their execution in half-court offense and in the “packline” half-court defense means they have no need for transition.
Even though Auburn isn’t the fastest-paced team in the country, the fact that Virginia is the slowest-paced team sets up this game for polarity. Auburn’s chances of winning this game go down in a game at Virginia’s pace, which means their best shot of an upset is to go ahead and set this up as a clash of styles anyways. Auburn’s backcourt of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown is lethal in transition. They sprint down the floor and are able to shoot, create off the dribble, and finish at the cup. Both guys can make plays from all three scoring zones, which is crucial when you’re playing downhill and with pace. Virginia has improved its foot-speed on the defensive end with the addition of guys like Kihei Clarke and DeAndre Hunter, but the fact of the matter is they will not be able to keep up with Harper and Brown, especially when the matchups require that either Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome will have to check one of those dudes. Guy and Jerome are both top-level defenders… it’s not like you can have two liabilities on the floor and still be an elite defensive team, but you just don’t feel them athletically to the extent that you do a guy like Hunter.
As such, Auburn has no choice but to play this game like I would a game of 2k: hold down RT, and don’t let go. The packline defense can be absolutely suffocating in the half-court and the only way to get easy buckets against Virginia is to sprint out ahead of it. Once you get a few easy buckets in transition, the game opens up a little bit and the Virginia’s vintage vice grip on the flow of the game gets a little looser. I don’t see how Auburn wins this game without putting pressure on the rim in transition and getting their drive-and-kick game going. Auburn feeds off of energy and is literally hunting fist-pump moments in this tournament. Harper and Brown are going to be looking to run and gun, get everyone involved, and hit the types of “LFG” 3-pointers that define college basketball in 2019.
Auburn is eighth nationally in 3PA/FGA, and have been shooting it incredibly well in this tournament aside from a 7-23 performance against Kentucky (spoiler alert: they’re not beating Virginia if they only hit seven threes). While UVA has a superb 3-point defense, the Purdue game (and the UMBC game last year, to an extent) showed some chinks in the armor. The packline is almost like a phalynx, except they can’t do the thing they did in the movie 300 where they all put their shields over their heads to survive arrows being shot from afar. Carsen Edwards proved that you can go bombs away on this Virginia defense if you just shoot over the top of it; easier said than done, of course, but Harper and Brown are the kind of dudes that are threats to shoot it the second they step over half court.
The Auburn backcourt did just dominate Herro and Hagans of Kentucky. Their ability to shoot it from deep not only poses a 3-point threat but also has the now famous “gravity” effect made famous by Steph Curry and the Warriors. If Virginia’s perimeter defenders are worried about three-point shooting from above the wings, the packline is drawn further away from the hoop. Even if the primary ball defender is broken down, Virginia is elite in help. Drive-and-kick opportunities off the offensive initiation by Auburn’s guards won’t be wide-open shots against this defense, but time and room will be available. Virginia allows its opponents to shoot a lot of 3’s, opponents don’t make a lot of them. I don’t know if there’s a rhyme or reason to be added here besides the fact that Auburn is hot as fuck, but will need to hit a decent percentage of their three-point attempts that are somewhere in between open and well-contested.
Auburn gets the 3rd-least amount of their points from 2-point field goals in America; that might be a great fit in this matchup because, again, their best strategy is to go bombs away from deep and hope they can shoot their way into a win here. At the end of the day, they’re either going to shoot 35-40% from three and win or they’re gonna shoot <30% from three and lose. Whichever side that coin lands on will probably determine if we have an outright upset or a Virginia cover. IF Auburn is hitting their threes (and that is a definite if), can Virginia hang in this game? Last year, UMBC hit 10 free throws, 12 threes, and 14 two’s to beat this Virginia team by 20. That game was actually played at Virginia’s pace (62 possessions), but the amount of 3’s UMBC hit allowed them to control the feel of the game despite a slower pace. That’s your formula right there. It’s not complicated at all but you do have to hit shots.
The first thing I’ll say about Virginia’s offense is that it is certifiably elite. They are 2nd in KenPom offensive efficiency out of nowhere, and their improvement this year on that end is a huge testament to the work that Tony Bennett and his staff have done in building this program. But, the second thing I’ll say about them is that there isn’t much to say about them. They are so solid its scary, with very little variance. They aren’t after total points but rather points per possession. Tony Bennett has taught us that you can embarrass a team while only scoring 65 points if you shrink the game with pace and play elite defense.
Auburn creates the most turnovers in the country, while Virginia doesn’t turn the ball over. Who wins that stalemate right there is absolutely crucial, because Virginia turnovers (and resulting Auburn transition) will tilt the pace heavily in Auburn’s favor. If Virginia protects the ball, Virginia will be able to control at least its own possession length and force Auburn into at best secondary transition. Virginia has four players in the top-400 nationally in not turning the ball over, and a junior-senior backcourt that I’ve fallen in love with over the past couple of years. Ty Jerome is a New York kid who plays accordingly, and Kyle Guy is just one of those dudes college basketball fans will never forget. The turnover battle feels like an aspect of the game that Tony Bennett will be harping on all week long. But still, it’s not like forcing turnovers against Virginia is the only way to put a run-and-gun feel on a game against them. Returning to the UMBC blueprint, the Cavs only turned the ball over seven times in that game despite it feeling like UMBC was getting up and down the floor at will.
Virginia will also have a marked advantage on the offensive glass. This cause for concern for Auburn is exacerbated by the loss of big man Chuma Okeke, the team’s leading rebounder. Auburn already struggled to clean the glass with Okeke, and enter this Final Four as the 333rd-ranked team in defensive rebounding percentage. Virginia isn’t elite on the offensive glass, but they are certainly good. I’m not sure Tony Bennett could have picked a better time to start really going with Salt, Diakite, and Hunter all on the floor at once. Per KenPom’s lineup data, that big-big frontcourt lineup is Virginia’s 3rd-most frequent over the last five games. It was crucial in their win against Purdue. Putting the two bigs on the floor together presents a real matchup problem for this Auburn team that is much more confident in what it brings on that perimeter than what it packs in the paint.
With regard to intangibles, this coaching matchup is absolutely incredible. The clash of styles in the team’s pace will be perfectly mirrored on the sideline. The heart of Bruce Pearl and the calm of Tony Bennett could not represent more different in-game coaching styles. I don’t really give an edge to either one, though I must admit that I’m way higher on Pearl than most.
At the end of the day, this game comes down to asking yourself a question: Will Auburn make threes? I’m gonna say yes to that. This has been the most fun team in the tournament by far and I trust their backcourt to both find holes in the packline and launch angles over the top of it. When this Auburn team gets rolling, it’s a god damn freight train. This is a team that hasn’t lost since getting blown out at Kentucky on February 23rd. Since then, they’ve beaten Tennessee twice and just went Kansas–UNC–Kentucky to get to the Final Four. That’s undeniably special, and I think we will see more special moments on Saturday night.
It can’t be emphasized enough how important the pace is in this game. The narrative out there is that Auburn will try to push tempo, Virginia will try to slow things down, and whoever wins that battle will win the game. When you really think about what this Auburn team has done and how they’ve played thus far in the tournament, though, I believe the role of tempo in this game will be far more nuanced than that simple war of opposites. Auburn succeeds by creating the illusion of pace; the onslaught of made 3’s, the endless toughness plays, and the spirit of Bruce Pearl come together to form this cyclone of energy that is infectious and captivates an entire arena. They have thrived all tournament long in an environment of controlled chaos that captivates the building and just leaves other opponents feeling lost. When is the last time you saw a Carolina team get run out of the gym like that? The game ends up feeling fast, regardless of the true tempo. Meanwhile, opponents are perpetually uncomfortable. Auburn creates the type of chaos that led to UMBC beating Virginia a year ago, and have the perfect backcourt and coach to execute it on this stage. As Jon Rothstein would say, Auburn Basketball. Welcome to the Jungle:
Smart Bet: Auburn +5.5 and Auburn +215