Virginia saw all the jokes and memes from last year’s historic upset and have used them as fuel for its year-long revenge tour. On Saturday, Auburn takes on a Cavaliers team that is desperate to prove that they belong among college basketball’s elite.
There’s a reason why Virginia is in Minnesota for their first Final Four since Ralph Sampson in 1984. According to Kenpom.com, the premier site for college basketball analytics, not only are the Cavaliers the best team that Auburn has played all year, they’re the best in the whole sport.
Virginia has lost three times this season, twice to Duke and once to Florida State in the ACC tournament. Florida State reached the Sweet 16. Duke has Zion Williamson. By no means are these bad losses.
So why doesn’t this team get more credit? Well, in short, they’re not fun to watch. Think of the Cavaliers as the Tigers without any of the running or the excitement. They love to shoot threes at a high rate, but they’re at their best when the game is played at a slow crawl.
Head coach Tony Bennett’s “Packline” defense is like a giant squid that squeezes the life out of its victims, dragging the highest of octane offenses down to play at Virginia’s slow pace. Opponents score 55 points a game against this defense, the lowest mark in the country. In the Packline, defenders matchup with their man at the four corners of the key, while one player pressures the primary ball handler. The fundamental idea is to force dribble penetration and make teams shoot from the outside over closeouts.
That last line should jump out to Auburn fans. Virginia wants the opposition to shoot on them because on average they convert on only 28 percent of them. ACC Defensive Player of the Year Deandre Hunter makes it absolutely treacherous for anyone to score.
While on the other end teams are figuring out how to score, Virginia has it down to a science. This group is highly efficient at putting the ball in the hoop, fourth in the nation in fact. Kyle Guy has a lot to do with that.
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Guy, who seems to be the most Virginia player ever, is a sharpshooting guard that captains the offense. He started the tournament off cold but is currently a human flame thrower. Last game against Purdue he went toe to toe with the walking bucket, Carsen Edwards, and ended on the winning end with 25 points and 10 rebounds. After the loss to UMBC last year he’s made it his sole mission to silence the critics and so far he’s delivered.
After the road its taken to get here, it seems ridiculous to say Auburn’s hardest games are still ahead, but it’s the truth. Auburn will have to play at its highest level all season to get past this championship driven Virginia team. Three-pointers will be hard to come by as the Cavilers will look to take away all of the flex cuts in Bruce Pearl’s offense, which the Tigers use to get open looks. Most of them will have to come off the dribble or in transition.
Playing in transition is the key for Auburn. This game will be one of the starkest contrasts in style. Even though it’s true that the Tigers' pace slows down once they’re in the half-court, they are at their best when they’re fast. Just ask Gus Malzahn.
Forcing turnovers will spread the Cavilers out and make them uncomfortable. Turnovers will also be the death of the Tigers if they throw lazy cross-court passes as they did against Kentucky. Virginia will not be as forgiving. This is the game to live and die by the three.
As both teams look for validation amongst the college basketball world, their core philosophies will be tested. May the best style win.
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