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We'll be previewing the entire Final Four field in Morning Madness this week. First up is Virginia, a program in search of its first championship and making its first Final Four appearance since 1984. Here's everything you need to know about the last ACC team standing as it prepares for a bout with Auburn.
How They Got Here
Virginia’s redemption run started with a slight scare against No. 16 seed Gardner Webb. It trailed by six at half before outscoring the Bulldogs by 21 in the second stanza. The Cavaliers breezed by No. 9 Oklahoma in the Round of 32 before running into Oregon in the Sweet 16. The Ducks presented a challenge with their tricky defense and lengthy lineup, but another second half defensive lockdown brought the ‘Hoos a win.
Their Elite Eight matchup then came down to the wire after an impressive 42-point performance from Purdue’s Carsen Edwards—his second of the tournament. Despite 10 threes from the Boilermakers star, it was a two-point jumper from Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite at the buzzer that tied the game and brought the two teams to overtime, where the Cavaliers were able to punch their ticket to Minneapolis.
One Big Thing We've Learned
Defense just might be able to win championships—if you’ve got the right balance. Between Virginia and Texas Tech, two of the country’s top three defensive teams are heading to the Final Four, but they also boast a hoard of talented two-way players to keep their offenses afloat. Even while Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer, was struggling through a shooting slump in the first three games of the tournament, Virginia walked away with wins as his teammates stepped up. Tony Bennett has enough depth on his bench to navigate two more wins.
Auburn didn’t look nearly as imposing in the Elite Eight as it did in the Sweet 16. That might be due to the loss of sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL during Auburn’s upset of Carolina. Best-case scenario for Virginia is that the Tigers continue to struggle defending the paint without their 6’8” star (they allowed Kentucky to shoot 55% from two), setting up De’Andre Hunter and Diakite for success. Big contributions down low, a strong night from the Cavaliers' backcourt on the perimeter, lockdown defense and limited turnovers are a pretty perfect recipe for Virginia to reach the title game.
Ideally the Pack Line defense forces tough shots from the perimeter, which could be problematic if Auburn’s offense gets hot from deep. The Tigers’ three leading scorers are shooting over 37% from the arc. (One of them is the injured Okeke.) It was a three-point barrage by the Tigers that secured a win over the Tar Heels. After knocking down 17 three balls in the Sweet 16, Auburn only shot 30.4% from deep against Kentucky in a much closer game. While the Tigers don’t need to dominate from three to win, they proved they’re still capable of doing so.
If Virginia has an off night offensively (which has already happened in the tournament) while Auburn starts sinking threes and continues to force turnovers as it does, things could get messy for the Cavaliers.
X-Factor: The Pack Line Defense
Virginia’s success is predicated on its defense, and when it plays it well, it’s a thing of beauty. Kentucky was the best defense Bruce Pearl’s team has played this postseason and it was the group's toughest win. The Tigers needed overtime to edge the Wildcats. Virginia’s Pack Line (not to mention the return of Kyle Guy to his normal sharp-shooting form) could be the thing that stops Auburn’s tear through the tournament.
One Shining Moment Candidate: Kihei Clark
If you thought his time to shine was against Oregon’s Peyton Pritchard, think again. The 5’9” guard is arguably Virginia’s best on-ball defender, especially when it comes to sharp-shooting guards. Cue: Auburn’s Jared Harper (5’11”, shooting 39.9% from the field and 37.1% from three) and the team’s leading scorer, Bryce Brown (who stands at 6’3” and is shooting 44% from the field and 41% from deep). Expect Clark to help contain the Tigers' most potent threats while posting a few points of his own as an extra spark for the Cavalier’s offense.
• March Madness may have gotten off to a dull start, but the wildest weekend in NCAA tournament history sure helped turn the narrative around. (By Joan Niesen)
• Why Michigan State—and not Virginia—should be considered the Final Four favorites. (By Eric Single)
• Previewing a pair of unlikely Final Four matchups: Auburn-Virginia; Texas Tech-Michigan State. (By Michael Beller)
• Duke falling short of the Final Four wasn't as earth-shattering as it once seemed, but it raises the question of why the Blue Devils went down. (By Jeremy Woo)
• John Calipari and Kentucky have agreed to a "lifetime" deal, the university announced on Monday.
Virginia takes down Auburn for a shot at redemption in the title game against a Michigan State team that ended its March Madness run twice in the last four years. While it won’t be quite as much of a rock fight as a Texas Tech vs. Virginia championship would’ve been—or as much of a crazy contrast as an Auburn vs. Texas Tech clash—two of the country’s most talented and most balanced teams will meet in Minneapolis next Monday. Tom Izzo vs. Tony Bennett for the title. Let's go.
At the Buzzer
What's the best way to show school spirit? Reenacting your basketball team's season-saving miracle play at the buzzer, of course.