The Final Four is finally here, and we get two great matchups on Saturday night. The right side of the bracket gives us a showdown between the 5th-seeded Auburn Tigers and the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers. Auburn is the worst team left according to seed while the Cavaliers are the only 1 seed remaining. Both teams have run through their competition to get to this point in the tournament and Auburn was on an 8-game winning streak before the tournament started. Auburn is probably the team that has played at its peak the most down the stretch. Virginia did lose to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals, but they have rebounded and found their way to the Final Four despite a few scares at times.
Auburn has been really hot over the past month or so, but almost all of that came with Chuma Okeke on the court. I thought the loss of Okeke and the addition of Washington for Kentucky would be too much for the Tigers to overcome in the Elite 8. However, the Tigers were able to pull out an overtime thriller to get to the Final Four. This overtime win came completely on the backs of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. These two are now Auburn’s clear two best players, and they will need to play like it on Saturday night. Against Kentucky, these two guards went for a combined 50 points while getting 6 steals and 2 blocks in the process. These two were all over the court, which is where the stylistic matchup will come in.
For Auburn, I do not expect them to really rely on an interior presence at any point in this game as their two starting forwards are really not great offensive threats. I will again harp on the fact that Austin Wiley is really talented, but he’s also really foul prone, and he can rarely play extended minutes. We saw him score 7 points in just 14 minutes of action. Virginia is not a team that forces a lot of fouls because they don’t have anyone that uses a lot of post moves, so maybe Wiley can get some offense going and stay out of foul trouble in this game.
Virginia is a really strange team that is full of fundamentally sound players. This Virginia defense is not as good as some of their defenses of the past, but their offense is better. I think this was on display in their first game of the tournament. Last season, we saw a 16-seed get a lead over Virginia, and they lacked guys that could go and score at will. Their threes were not dropping and they just never scored enough to catch up, even against an extremely inferior team. This year, they fell into the same situation, but they eventually were able to force their way inside to score more consistently.
Their win over Purdue had a lot to do with Kyle Guy stepping up and finally making shots. Guy and all of Virginia have REALLY struggled to shoot in the NCAA Tournament the last 3 year, including what was 5 straight games shooting at least 10% below team average for the season. In their last game, Virginia’s two volume shooters both shot over 40% from three, and they were able to pull out a close win. Virginia just needs to continue knocking down the shots they normally make in December, and they will be a force this weekend.
This matchup is really intriguing because now guard-centric Auburn will really want to get up and down, but no one in the country is better at controlling the pace than Virginia. I think Virginia is the better basketball team and will emerge victorious, but the -6 for the Cavaliers is too much. The pace that Virginia wants to play with will really limit this game from getting out of control, and any shooting slump from the Cavaliers will make this game a toss-up. I like Auburn +6 here.