AUBURN — Bruce Pearl woke up Monday morning, remembered that Auburn was going to the Final Four, and couldn’t stop shaking his head.
“I can’t even believe how that sounds, how that feels,” the Tigers' head coach said.
But it is true. The Tigers’ magical postseason run is still going. They have won 12 straight games — four to end the regular season, four to win the program’s first SEC tournament championship since 1984, and four more over New Mexico State and bluebloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky so far in the NCAA tournament — and they have more basketball left to play.
Up next is a national semifinal against No. 1-seed Virginia inside U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday. The Cavaliers aren’t a traditional blueblood like the Jayhawks, Tar Heels or Wildcats — they’ve never won a national championship and are in the Final Four for the first time since 1984 — but they’ve been one of the most consistently successful programs in the nation over the past six seasons.
They’re in the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed for the second straight season and fourth time since 2014, survived an all-time performance from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards in the regional finals and have plenty of unfinished business themselves after becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16-seed last season. They have the best national-title betting odds of any team left in the field.
And Auburn will have to play them without star sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who underwent successful surgery to repair a torn ACL on Tuesday in Pensacola, Fla.
“The task is obviously daunting,” Pearl said. “Certainly, going to Minneapolis without our most valuable player in Chuma Okeke makes it even more challenging. But we're going to represent the Midwest Region, and we're going to represent the SEC and go see if we can't win two games."
Here’s everything you need to know about Auburn’s Final Four opponent, the Virginia Cavaliers:
WHAT: No. 5-seed Auburn (30-9) vs. No. 1-seed Virginia (33-3)
WHEN: 5:09 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota
ON THE AIR: TV — CBS.
LINE: Virginia by 5
VIRGINIA LINEUP: G Ty Jerome (6-5, Jr.) 13.3 ppg.; G Kihei Clark (5-9, Fr.) 4.4 ppg.; G Kyle Guy (6-2, Jr.) 15.2 ppg.; G De’Andre Hunter (6-7, So.) 14.9 ppg.; F Mamadi Diakite (6-9, Jr.) 7.5 ppg.
Know your foe
Virginia never quite ascended to the top spot in the AP Top 25 Poll, but coach Tony Bennett’s squad was never far off, ranking between No. 2 and No. 6 the entire season. The Cavaliers won their first 16 games and 13 of their final 14, with their only three losses this season coming against Duke (twice, by two and 10 points) and Florida State in the ACC Tournament (also by 10). They finished the regular-season with more Quadrant 1 wins than all but one team in the country, going 14-3 in those games. Virginia defeated Gardner-Webb by 15, Oklahoma by 12, Oregon by four and Purdue by five in overtime to reach the Final Four.
The Cavaliers are known for their pack-line defensive system, which features heavy pressure on the ball and four players in man-to-man packed close to the paint in order to prevent penetration. One of the ways to beat a pack-line defense is to avoid that on-ball pressure and be able to shoot over the top of it — a strength of Auburn's — making this a fascinating matchup on that end of the floor.
Player to watch
Hunter. There are actually a lot of similarities between the starting fives of Virginia and Auburn. Both teams have point guards averaging 13-plus points and five-plus assists per game (Jerome and Jared Harper), dead-eye outside shooters (Guy and Bryce Brown), and lanky, undersized big men (Diakite and Anfernee McLemore). But without Okeke, Auburn is missing its match to Hunter, a versatile 6-foot-7 scorer averaging 14.9 points on 51.8 percent shooting (42.4 percent from 3), five rebounds and two assists per game. He’s the player that Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy will likely be charged with defending on Saturday in Okeke's stead.
—Virginia will counter Auburn’s nine-man rotation with just eight. It starts four guards but brings three bigs off the bench in 7-foot-1 Jay Huff, 6-foot-10 Jack Salt and 6-foot-8 Braxton Key, a former Alabama p[ayer.
—That group is the most efficient in the entire country, per KenPom, ranking second in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency.
—The offense is one of the two slowest in Division I, ranking dead last in adjusted tempo and second-to-last in average possession length. But it does average north of 71 points per game, which is the highest mark of the Bennett era.
—While there are more efficient defenses, none are as stingy as Virginia’s, which allows the fewest points per game (55.4), ranks fourth nationally holding opponents to 38.4-percent shooting from the floor and third keeping them to just a 28.7-percent mark from beyond the arc. Auburn, which shoots 38.3 percent from deep, scores 43.4 percent of its points on 3-pointers.
—The Cavaliers rely less on the 3-ball than the Tigers do (35.4 percent of their points) but they shoot it at an even better clip (39.4 percent), which ranks eighth nationally. They also rank top-75 nationally in 2-point percentage (52.6) and free-throw percentage (74.4).
—Auburn’s strength on defense is turning opponents over at a 24.9-percent clip (tops in the nation), but Virginia turn it over fewer times per game (nine) than any team in the country. That’s a turnover on just 14.7 percent of their possessions, which ranks 11th nationally.
Auburn and Virginia have met seven times before — three times between 1919-31 as members of the Southern Conference and four times in nonconference play between 2001-09. The Tigers are 4-3 in those games and have won two straight in the series, sweeping a home-and-home with a 58-56 win in Charlottesville on Dec. 20, 2008, and a 68-67 win inside Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum on Dec. 7, 2009.
Pearl and Bennett have never coached against one another, but the Auburn coach is very familiar with the Virginia coach’s father, Dick Bennett, who was a coaching legend in the state of Wisconsin from 1965-2001. Pearl said one of the first videotapes he ever bought was the elder Bennett’s “Pressure Defense: A System,” an instructional video on man-to-man defense. Bennett would later shift philosophies and adopt the pack-line defense his son uses with the Cavaliers today, but Pearl adopted that first tape and still teaches some of those same principles. "I would say Dick Bennett taught me, through clinics and tapes, a lot of how we try to guard even still to this day," he said.
Fans of the Auburn Tigers say, “War Eagle.” Fans of the Virginia Cavaliers say, “Wa-hoo-wa,” which bears a close relation to the unofficial nickname of both the university’s athletic teams and alumni, the Wahoos or ‘Hoos. The chant came first — it actually started at Dartmouth in 1878, but Virginia’s yearbook regularly printed yells of other colleges, and students stole that one as their own (Illinois later did the same). The origin of the Wahoos nickname dates back to 1890, when Washington and Lee baseball fans called Virginia players “a bunch of rowdy Wahoos,” and it stuck. Some also claim that the nickname stems from the wahoo fish, which is a type of bass fish capable of drinking twice its weight.
They said it
"Coach Pearl was at actually Milwaukee when I was at Wisconsin and certainly know of him as a coach and the job he did, and seeing the years he's had at Auburn, you understand obviously their quickness, their ability, just how scrappy they are and just a really good team, as everyone is when you get to this stage that's playing good basketball. Just continuing to dive in, and obviously have great respect for what they've done. I know they lost one of their key players, but the way they played without him was very impressive against Kentucky, and because of their depth, it seems like they can really absorb different kinds of things — foul trouble or different players. They have a wide range of guys." — Virginia coach Tony Bennett
To be determined. The winner of Saturday’s game between Auburn and Virginia will face the winner of the nightcap between No. 2-seed Michigan State and No. 3-seed Texas Tech in the national championship game on Monday.