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Final Four: Contrast in Styles Makes Virginia-Auburn Saturday’s Most Compelling Game

Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)

Unstoppable force. Immovable object. Something’s got to give.

All the cliches.

The narrative is decisively clear heading Saturday’s Final Four opener at U.S. Bank Stadium. Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers make more 3-pointers than any team in the nation thanks to their up-tempo style and floor-stretching offense. Virginia defends the 3 fourth-best in the country, the result of their “Pack Line” defensive system that has made the Cavaliers notoriously difficult to score against, and they play at one of the slowest tempos in college basketball.

Unstoppable force. Immovable object. Something’s got to give.

“We definitely think we want to push the tempo of the game,” said Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore. “They’re going to want to be a little more patient with their offense, but you know we like to run-and-gun-fast, so we’re just going to continue with our playing style and make them adjust to our speed rather than slow down to their style.”

The Tigers make 11 3s per game — only hitting fewer than five in one game all season. They attempt 30 per game on average, and as many as 41 back on Jan. 30 against Missouri. Amongst tournament teams, only Duke and North Carolina have attempted more field goals this season than Auburn.

“They’re quick and they are fast, and they can really shoot it,” said Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite, who hit the dramatic game-tying shot that kept the Cavaliers alive in their Elite 8 win over Purdue. “We’ll just have to use the best of our abilities to guard them as a team.”

Auburn’s frantic pace frazzles opposing offenses, leading them to force an NCAA-high in turnovers this season. In 27 of 39 games, they’ve coaxed 10 or more.

Then there’s Virginia’s Pack Line, which emphasizes strict on-ball defensive pressure and rapid help defense in order to coax kick-outs and jumpers. Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett then trusts his group of mobile defenders to close out on shooters. In recruiting he finds lengthy defenders with big motors who can play his demanding style.

“They build a wall, and they just don’t let you see over it,” said Tigers coach Bruce Pearl. “Their greatest strength as a defense is our greatest strength as an offense.”

The Cavaliers held opponents to 28.7 percent on 3-point shooting this season and under 30 percent in over half their games. Their defense was top in points against, in no small part because of the Cavaliers’ salt-the-game-away offense that ranks last in tempo according to KenPom and Basketball-Reference.

That offense rarely turns it over — the sixth fewest times in the nation.

“We try to turn people over,” said Pearl. “We turn people over almost 25 percent of possessions … and the more you try to turn them over, the better you make their offense. So the challenge for me is do we do what got us here, or do we play them the way you need to play them in order to be able to contain that system?

“So I don’t think we’re going to be able to change the tempo of this game. We’re most likely, if we’re going to win, beat Virginia at their own pace.”

The only year of Tony Bennett’s decade-long tenure that Virginia ranked in the top 300 in pace was his first season in 2009, when they were 295th. The next three seasons they moved down into the bottom 20, ranking 13th, 12th and 16th, respectively. Then they got slower, ranking fifth-to-last for two straight years. Then they get slowest. For four straight years they’ve led (or trailed) the nation in slowest pace, often by a wide margin.

Bennett, of course, takes after his father, Dick Bennett, who coached Wisconsin from 1995-2001 and Washington State from 2003-06 with a similar mindset. While pace rankings aren’t available for that time frame, four out of his six years the Badgers ranked in the bottom 50 percent in field goal attempts and twice were seventh-lowest overall. The Cougars at Washington State were 300th or lower in field goal attempts all three of Bennett’s seasons.

“I think that’s what the beauty of college basketball is,” said Tony Bennett, “there’s so many different ways to build the program, and there’s so many different styles and systems of play, and I love that about the game. It’s pure. You don’t have to say, well, this is a cookie-cutter way to do it.

“So our formula has always been, what I observe and when my father coached at Wisconsin, when we went to Washington State, how can you build a program that can compete against the best in your conference? And it was get guys experienced, get them to where they have two or three years where they learn and maybe learn the hard way, and then when they’re upperclassmen, they’re ready to play against the best.”

The Auburn philosophy has only evolved recently, hand in hand with the general evolution of NBA basketball that places a greater emphasis on pacing and spacing. Pearl’s team has shot over 400 more 3s than it did when he took over in 2014-15. He’s also had a chance to recruit a full team that can play his style.

Remember, Pearl was out of the coaching game for three years as he served what amounts to a three-year ban after getting sanctioned for illegal recruiting activities at Tennessee. In 2017, his associate head coach Chuck Person was arrested for corruption and bribery as part of another NCAA investigation that implicated numerous programs.

Pearl’s checkered past is hard to forget completely, but the narrative around his team is a refreshing change for the once-disgraced coach. As 5.5-point underdogs against an imposing Virginia establishment, Pearl has a team that’s aesthetically pleasing to watch; a team that has already knocked off blue-bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky with its distinctive style.

“I was comfortable that if we stayed the course, that we were going to be fine,” said Pearl. “Our job is to protect our student-athletes from things like that, and when we don’t do our job, there are consequences. But I didn’t think it was going to disrupt our program.”


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