On April 6, 2013, the Auburn men’s basketball team was looking for answers after recording its lowest win total in 24 seasons. One year later, the Tigers were three weeks into the Bruce Pearl era with dreams of building a program that could compete with the blue bloods of college basketball.
Fast forward five more years and Auburn has not only competed with those programs, but the Tigers have beaten them and could be playing for a national championship. On April 6, 2019, Auburn will be competing in a national semifinal for the first time in the program’s history.
After running through Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the Midwest region, the Tigers will play Virginia in the early game in Minneapolis on Saturday night. The game presents two vastly different styles but with a focus on defense and guard play.
Virginia (33-3) was the second No. 1 seed in the tournament. After losing in the first round to 16-seed UMBC last year, the Cavaliers are trying to put that behind them and write a new story.
This is the first time since 1983 Virginia will participate in a Final Four. The Cavaliers had the help of a pretty good player by the name of Ralph Sampson in those days but they still went 0-2 in national semifinals and have not been back since.
The Cavaliers have been known for their defense over the last decade under coach Tony Bennett. Much like Pearl has done at Auburn, Bennett took a floundering program and gave it an identity to build it into a winning one.
Virginia has allowed 60 points per game in a season only once since 2011. This year, the Cavaliers have held their opponents to below 60 points in 27 of their 36 games but all three of their losses came when allowing 69 points or more.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Tigers have been held to below 60 points just twice this season. Auburn (30-9) lost both of those games and is 4-5 this season when scoring 72 points or less.
Auburn will put a lot of its fate in the hands of leading scorers Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. The two scored 50 of Auburn’s 77 points in the win over Kentucky and have proven to be one of the most exciting backcourts in the country while combining for 35.7 points, 8.7 assists and 2.5 steals per game during the tournament.
The Tigers will look to get both Brown and Harper hot in the early going but if they are not, the team has shown it is not the end of the world. Malik Dunbar and Danjel Purifoy, who combined for 25 points in the blowout Sweet 16 win over North Carolina, will be key role players in Saturday’s game.
Dunbar is one of five Auburn players to average at least one made 3-pointer per game this season and while he can be a streaky shooter, the Tigers are much better when he is on his game. Auburn is 9-2 this season when he makes at least two 3-pointers, including wins in the last five games Dunbar reached that mark.
Purifoy saw his minutes take a big jump after Chuma Okeke went down with an injury during the regional semifinal win. He played 30 minutes for the first time this season and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds to go with six points, two assists and a steal.
Dealing with the injury to Okeke is not a simple task but Purifoy has shown he can be a go-to player when needed, scoring 11.5 points per game and shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc during his freshman season.
Virginia counters with a trio of guards, who remember that loss to UMBC all too well. Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome will always remember being on the wrong end of that historic upset but now they have a chance to write their names on the good side of history.
The three players have combined for 43.4 points per game this season, scoring 61 percent of Virginia’s points. All three of them shoot 40 percent on 3-pointers and lead the seventh most efficient 3-point shooting team in the country (24 spots ahead of Auburn in that category).
The Cavaliers are going to play at a very deliberate pace and keep control of the ball to force Auburn into a half-court game on both sides of the court. That’s easier said than done though as the Tigers counter with a defense which has forced the most turnovers in the country this season.
The guards from both teams will be fun to watch in this one but the difference will be made in the turnover battle, the 3-point efficiency and controlling the pace. Auburn has already made history to get here but now the Tigers battle with another team looking for its first national title and nothing will come easy.