6:09 PM EST, CBS – Line: Virginia -5.5, Over/Under: 131
And then there were four. After a wild two weeks of the NCAA Tournament, the big dance’s penultimate round begins with the final No. One Seed standing, the Virginia Cavaliers, facing off against the red-hot Five Seed Auburn Tigers, from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The road to redemption continues for Virginia (33-3, 16-2 in ACC), who after last year’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Maryland-Baltimore County, becoming the first One Seed to ever fall to a Sixteen, have now advanced to the program’s first National Semifinal since 1984. In ten years in Charlottesville, Tony Bennett has taken the Cavaliers to seven NCAA Tournaments, including each of the last six, though had previously never advanced further than the Elite Eight, largely on the strength of employing a brand of basketball that isn’t necessarily en vogue these days. The ‘Hoos play a deliberately slow-paced game that places a heavy emphasis on execution on both ends of the court, with them oftentimes suffocating their opposition on the defensive end. This season has been no different, with Virginia yielding the fewest points in the nation (55.4 P/G) on 38.4% shooting for the field (5th Overall), including 45.4% from within the arc (23rd Overall) and 28.7% beyond it (4th Overall), all the while permitting just 8.8 Assists (4th Overall). Efficient offensive teams, particularly those who can speed up the tempo, can get them out of their element, but more often than not, when you play these guys, you’re playing THEIR way. So how did they get to this point, you ask? After overcoming an early deficit in the their First Round matchup with Sixteen Seed Gardner-Webb, Bennett’s charged roared towards a comfortable 71-56 victory, followed by a route of Nine Seed Oklahoma (63-51) that wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate. The Second Weekend was a different story though, beginning with a tightly-contested affair with Twelve Seed Oregon, whom they survived 53-49. This was a defensive slugfest in which both teams were right at home, though the Cavs managed to stave off a furious Ducks’ rally after controlling the First Half. In a game in which both teams shot well below 40.0% from the field, the South Region’s Top Seed earned the victory due to their unwavering desire; despite shooting just 35.7% overall, Virginia attempted eleven more Field Goals than Oregon, thanks in large part to forcing Ten Turnovers, and outrebounding their opponent 31-29, including 8-5 on the Offensive Glass, which both led to second-chance points. Furthermore, they shot 11-of-23 from inside the arc (47.8%), quite an edge over the 8-of-20 (40.0%) netted by their counterpart. Four out of five starters scored in double-figures, led by Junior Guard Ty Jerome (13.3 PTS, 43.5% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 22.6 PER), with Thirteen Points on 5-of-12 shooting (41.7%), including 3-of-8 from downtown (37.5%), along with Six rebounds, Six Assists, and a pair of Steals.
When we last saw Virginia, they met their stiffest challenge in the form of Three Seed Purdue, who were fresh off of upsetting Second-Seeded Tennessee. If you’re a March Madness Romantic, then this game was right up your alley; Junior Guard Kyle Guy (15.2 PTS, 44.6% FG, 42.7% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 20.4 PER) returned after suffering an early ankle sprain to help rally the Cavaliers back from multiple deficits, while the Boilermakers’ Carsen Edwards out on a show, scoring Forty-Two Points on 14-of-25 shooting from the field (56.0%), including a staggering 10-of-19 from beyond the arc (52.6%). There was late drama as the Third Seed missed a slew of late Free-Throws, allowing Bennett’s troops to climb back into the affair, with Mamadi Diakite (7.5 PTS, 55.7% FG, 35.7% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 0.3 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.6 BLK, 20.9 PER) making an impromptu mid-range jumper to send the contest to Overtime, where the One Seed eventually pulled away to earn a hard-fought 80-75 victory. As they did in the previous round, Virginia overcame a relatively poor shooting performance (41.5%), by outworking their opponent on both ends of the court, outrebounding Purdue 38-30, including 17-7 on the Offensive Glass, which helped lead to a stark contrast in Second-Chance Points (Plus-8). The aforementioned Jerome and Guy combined for Forty-Nine Points on 15-of-37 shooting (40.5%), including 9-of-22 from three (40.9%). With his father, Dick Bennett, in the stands, the symmetry was rather remarkable; Bennett has Virginia in the Final Four after besting Purdue in the Regional Finals, nineteen years after his father took Wisconsin to this same stage after beating the Boilermakers in the Elite Eight.
Meanwhile, as the lowest remaining seed in this Tournament, Auburn (30-9, 11-7 in SEC) has quickly become the darling of the Big Dance, surviving what was billed as the toughest region in the tourney by eliminating a who’s who of the nation’s most prominent programs. In his fifth year with the school, Bruce Pearl has done a remarkable job of rebuilding what was clearly a downtrodden program, but certainly not without the requisite financial resources and facilities to become a powerhouse in not just the Southeast Conference, but the country overall. After getting embarrassed in the Second Round of last year’s Tournament, the Tigers endured quite the rollercoaster of a season, entering the campaign as the Preseason No. 11, before starting the term 11-2 and rising to as high as Seventh in the Polls. However, a disappointing midseason swoon in which they meandered away at 7-7 in SEC Play left them out of the Rankings altogether, with a humiliating 53-80 defeat at Kentucky serving as their nadir. At 18-9 and unlikely to be selected to the NCAA Tournament at all, Pearl’s charges promptly went on a whirlwind run that has continued to this day, winning twelve consecutive games, including their final four outings of the Regular Season, followed by running the table in the SEC Tournament. That momentum has carried over into the Big Dance, where after barely surviving Twelve Seed New Mexico State 78-77, they absolutely obliterated Fourth-Seeded Kansas in an 89-75 thumping, that served as the Jayhawks’ worst tourney defeat in school history. However, Auburn wasn’t done there, for it seems that they’ve developed quite the taste for bigger game, as they humbled Top-Seeded North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen in similar fashion, 97-80. After a tightly-contested First Half, the Tigers blasted the Tar Heels over the course of the final period, outscoring them 56-41. On the day, they shot a blistering 54.5% from the field, including 17-of-37 from beyond the arc (45.9%), outscoring their counterpart by a staggering Thirty Points in that regard. Six different players scored in double-figures, led by Chuma Okeke (12.0 PTS, 49.6% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.8 STL, 1.2 BLK, 24.5 PER), with Twenty Points on 8-of-11 shooting (72.7%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), though the Sophomore Forward tore his ACL late in the contest. His premature departure aside, this team has been absolutely unconscious from beyond the arc during this stretch, shooting 38.6% from long-range during this winning streak, outscoring the competition by an average of 12.3 Points in this manner, and this has only ramped up since the advent of the Tournament. Auburn has shot a ridiculous 40.5% from three in the tourney, owning a sizable 18.0-Point advantage, which makes them arguably the most dangerous side left at this stage. Then again, their prolific performance from deep shouldn’t come as a surprise, for no team in the country has knocked down more Three-Pointers than the Tigers (445 3FG), who can boast four different players in their rotation that shoot over 37.0% from that distance. Senior Guard Bryce Brown (16.0 PTS, 44.0% FG, 41.0% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 19.2 PER) has been by far and away the most lethal, drilling 137 Three-Pointers, the most in the SEC this season.
Virginia wasn’t the only member of this Final Four to survive an Overtime War, for when we last saw Auburn, they were doing very much the same in a landmark 77-71 victory over fellow SEC brethren Kentucky. This particular matchup was personal for the Tigers, who had been beaten by the Wildcats in each of their previous two meetings this season, including that aforementioned 27-point loss at Lexington back in late February. Trailing by five at Halftime, the Five Seed fought tooth and nail to keep pace with their rivals, as the injured Okeke was wheeled out behind the Bench early in the Second Half, providing a wellspring of inspiration for his teammates. Jared Harper (15.4 PTS, 39.9% FG, 37.1% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.2 STL, 20.5 PER) tied the game at 60-60 with just thirty-eight seconds left, sending the affair to extra time, with the Point Guard setting off the opening salvo with back-to-back layups, as the Tigers outscored the Wildcats 17-11 the rest of the way. On the night, Auburn cooled off considerably (40.0%), particularly from beyond the arc (7-of-23), even missing all but one of their first attempts from distance, but earned quite an advantage from the Charity Stripe (18-of-24), outscoring their counterpart by Six Points, and took advantage of Fourteen Turnovers. Harper and Brown were instrumental in the upset, combining for Fifty Points on 15-of-30 shooting (50.0%), including 5-of-13 from three (38.5%), Six Rebounds, Five Assists, and Six Steals.