With Virginia basketball in its first Final Four since 1984, I thought it’d be fun to bring back in one the most knowledgable basketball people I know, who doubles as a huge Virginia fan: Spencer Percy. Prior to the Sweet 16, Spencer joined me to help preview Virginia’s matchup with Oregon. And now we’re grateful to have him back for the Final Four.
(Spencer is the owner of Queen City Hoops, a Charlotte Hornets blog, formerly of the True Hoop Network. He’s also a co-host of the Buzz Beat podcast and a former high school basketball coach. And like I said, he’s also a big fan of the ‘Hoos.)
1. First, and be honest, how many times did you watched the replay of Kihei Clark’s pass to Mamadi Diakite, which has to be one of the more memorable passes in tournament history?
SP: I watched it 25 times today, and about 50 yesterday. The number has dropped as the days pass, but watching that replay has dominated far too much of my week. Just kidding: no, it hasn’t.
As sports fans, we all have those moments of pure elation that remind us of why we put ourselves through this stuff. That Kihei Clark pass to Mamadi Diakite for the miracle buzzer-beating floater was one of those moments. Those three seconds will forever live in my memory.
BG: Yeah, no joke. I think with a lot of things we can turn kind of jaded — even with sports. Then a genuinely cool moment like that happens and it can be a reminder: hey, these things are pretty fun.
1a. Secondly, how much did you actually sleep Saturday night after the win? Wait…did you actually sleep, like at all?
SP: I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but dozed off in a sweet state on my couch at some point in the night. Woke up the next morning and had to check my phone to be certain it wasn’t a dream. Wow, so Virginia’s style does win in March…who would’ve thought?
BG: Yeah, that enitre notion — “This style can’t win in March!” — was a fallacy. Of course it can work; in fact, it was only a matter of time before this program broke through and got to a Final Four. That said, I’m sure it was frustrating for you to constantly have to deal with that narrative.
Playing low-possession games can leave you susceptible to certain risks in the game of basketball; however, it was asinine to use it as a disqualifier for postseason success.
2. It’s likely one of the more obvious storylines for this game, but what are your thoughts on the difference in pace — Auburn vs. UVA?
SP: It’s severe, at least offensively. Auburn was top-70 in the nation in average time of possession offensively this season (16.5 seconds), so they prefer to push the pace.
Defensively, though, it’s a different story — the Tigers forced their opponents to use an average of 18.4 seconds per possession, comparable to Virginia, and a top-20 mark in the nation. Auburn possesses a unique combination of being aggressive defensively (13.3 percent steal rate, No. 1 nationally) while also keeping the ball in front, and forcing opponents to operate deep into the shot clock.
Their style of defense (15.7 percent block rate, a top-five number) should’ve set off more alarms than it did coming into this tournament. This kind of aggressive versatility is what forces the opponent to adjust to you, and we’ve seen that consistently with Bruce Pearl’s group in four games.
Of course, Chuma Okeke was a key ingredient baked into the cake of how Auburn could pull off this unique style. Okeke’s brutal ACL injury appeared as if it was going to bite the Tigers against Kentucky, but these dudes play with a real chip on their shoulder and will not deviate from their system. That’s a credit to Pearl.
What worries me the most about this matchup for Virginia is that Auburn appears to be a group that can play whatever style the game demands. Virginia got over the hump against a Purdue team that sped the game up and very clearly forced the ‘Hoos out of their comfort zone, but Auburn has more than one horse — Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are a two-headed backcourt monster that are capable of giving any defense nightmares.
BG: It’s hard not to like Auburn’s style of play, right? The Tigers want to get up and down, spread the floor and chuck 3-pointers. Auburn ranks eighth nationally in 3-point attempt rate (49.5 percent); the Tigers are one of 11 Division I teams with at least 48 percent of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc.
Entering the Final Four, Auburn has 26 games with 10 or more 3-pointers; four of the team’s nine losses have come when it failed to hit at least 10 3-balls. Auburn likes to look for triples in transition, too, especially Harper and Brown.
Auburn has 65 points off transition in their 4 NCAA Tournament games. Virginia has 68 points off transition in their last 20 games pic.twitter.com/PUe7vvvKEi
— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) April 4, 2019
Brown really is a monster in transition: 1.31 points per possession (70.4 eFG%), according to Synergy Sports. UNC actually did pretty well stopping Auburn’s transition 3-point arsenal, which Adrian Atkinson noted on Twitter, but Brown still shook loose.
It’s obviously not just those two guys, though. In the win over North Carolina, J’von McCormick (57.3 eFG%) showcased what this team has in reserve behind Harper.
3. Any concerns beyond that? How about pick-and-roll coverages against Auburn’s shooting?
SP: I expect lots of Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite, hard hedging on ball-screens involving the dynamic backcourt of Harper and Brown for Auburn. I’m not sure how Jay Huff gets minutes in this game unless Virginia’s offense becomes anemic for a stretch — totally possible.
There are too many defensive concerns with Huff attempting to corral Harper or Brown in the pick-and-roll; Huff’s struggles with ball-screen defense are well-documented. He basically has to defend ball-screens “flat”, opposed to hedging hard, as you see regularly from Salt and Diakite.
My guess is Bennett wants to avoid this as much possible. All this said, Auburn has the firepower and athleticism to score behind the play when you trap their guards, but you’d rather someone other than Harper or Brown to beat you.
One things for certain: Virginia won’t play cat and mouse with their defensive scheme — the ‘Hoos are coming after you aggressively with their pick-and-roll defense, so it’ll be interesting to see what Bruce Pearl has up his sleeve.
BG: This, to me, is one of the two or three most important things in this matchup: the success of Virginia’s ball-screen defense against Auburn.
When Salt and Diakite hedge hard, how will Auburn choose to attack? Pearl and the Tigers will have a week to cook up whatever strategies they want to deploy against UVA. On multiple occasions in this year’s tournament, we’ve seen teams slip those screens and work to score 4-on-3.
Is this something Auburn will try to mix into its half-court attack on Saturday? If so, how will Virginia adjust? They could, as you say with Huff, choose to defend those screens more flatly, but that’s risky, too, with a special offensive talent like Harper.
To its credit, Virginia has seen guys like Harper this season — Coby White, Markell Johnson and Carsen Edwards: speedy shot-makers with deep 3-point range.
Still, Harper’s a fearless pick-and-roll scorer (0.99 points per possession, 53 eFG%) who can generate scoring from off the dribble; of the 94 3-pointers Harper’s hit this season 59 have come unassisted.
Fortunately for Virginia, this type of pick-and-roll cover — a sort of half-hearted switch from Luke Maye — isn’t in the playbook. The bigs will either hedge hard and try to get the ball out of Harper’s hands, or stay flat. Of course, that presents problems, too. You can’t let Harper or Auburn’s other guards just dribble into lightly-contested pull-up 3s.
(On the flip side when Auburn defends, this kind of stuff can’t happen for the Tigers; Virginia punishes teams that self-inflect with mistakes. Get caught in between coverages or botch a switch, and the Cavs will make you pay.)
4. How much of a bummer is it that we’re denied a Hunter-Okeke matchup?
SP: It sucks, for sure, but Virginia fans probably aren’t all that bummed out. Personally, I just feel for Okeke due to the money he lost in the draft because of this injury. The guy was creeping up to possibly being a lottery pick, and now is a pure eye-of-the-beholder gamble in the NBA Draft this summer coming off an ACL tear. Injuries are the worst.
Okeke’s absence is going to increase the probability that Hunter defends one of Harper or Brown if they see a few shots go down. Tony Bennett has to avoid another opposing guard having an out-of-body experience — they won’t survive a Carson Edwards kind of performance twice. The key to this game for Virginia defensively is very simple: slow down Harper and Brown.
BG: The injury is devastating, for all of the obvious reasons. Similar to Hunter, Okeke was emerging as one of the top 3-and-D prospects (2.5 steals and 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes) of the 2019 draft class; however, his ascent was more rapid as this season played out.
Okeke is still a sizable NBA prospect, but the immediate opportunity cost of this injury could be potentially millions of dollars over a rookie scale contract. Ban injuries, man.
Specific to this game, I couldn’t agree more with how it opens up the chessboard for Bennett defensively. Everyone saw what Okeke did to UNC in the first half of the Sweet 16 contest: spot-up 3-pointers, offensive rebounds, paint efficiency — it was a masterpiece. That’s what he’s done all season, too.
According to Synergy, Okeke (24 dunks) shot 61.8 percent around the rim this season; at 6-foot-8, he also scored 1.21 points per possession post-ups (58 FG%). He also posted a monster effective shooting rate of 59 percent on 121 half-court catch-and-shoot attempts this season, per Synergy. This is exactly the defensive assignment Hunter would’ve drawn.
Without Okeke, though, it frees Hunter up — to some extent. On numerous occasions this season, UVA has deployed Hunter as its defensive talisman — moving him around to guard elite perimeter scorers. At times, he’s matched up with Coby White, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Lykes, Tyus Battle and Carsen Edwards.
If this game gets tight, which I think it will, don’t be surprised to see Hunter used against Harper or Brown in leverage situations.
5. How will Bennett matchup with Harper, Brown and Dunbar?
SP: My guess is Kehei Clark on Harper, Ty Jerome on Brown, and Guy on Malik Dunbar (45-lb. discrepancy with this matchup). Bennett could also swallow hard and attempt to hide Guy on Anfernee McLemore (non-offensive threat). How Virginia matches up to start this game is something to take note of, especially as Auburn tries to lift the defense.
Something else to keep an eye on: How aggressive will the ‘Hoos be with tagging the rolling bigs off pick-and-roll from the corners? Auburn has plenty of good secondary spot-up players, like Samir Doughty (1.02 points per possession on spot-ups, 42.6 3P%). Doughty could get some good looks against Virginia’s defensive rotations.
It’d be nice to see Bennett not have to adjust his defense to Auburn early in this game, but I’m afraid the Tigers are too talented on that end. It’s the Final Four —all hands and schemes on deck.
BG: I like that; Clark feels like a no-brainer on Harper. Say what you will about his size, this is one of the things you brought Clark in for: ball pressure.
The Tigers aren’t exactly the Sacramento Kings, but this team wants to play fast and let Harper attack against a spread floor. Harper doesn’t turn the ball over all too often (16.7 percent turnover rate) — in part because he shoots a lot from off the dribble (25 percent usage rate). However, Clark’s ball pressure could swing a possession or two in favor of Virginia; considering how frequently Auburn likes to let if fly from deep, that could be significant.
At the least, it could force the Tigers to run offense later into the shot clock — more of a challenge now without Okeke’s efficient offensive output.