By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
When the NCAA Tournament regions were announced, Auburn’s path to the Final Four looked almost impossible. The Tigers had a tough opening round game against No. 12-seed New Mexico State. The Aggies entered the matchup with 30 wins and they had not lost since early January. If Auburn beat NMS, the Tigers needed to likely beat the three teams with the most wins in college basketball history in order to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history. Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky stood in Auburn’s way, and the odds were slim at best.
The Tigers caught a break in their opening round win over the Aggies and then stormed past Kansas to reach the Sweet 16 in Kansas City. Despite being underdogs, Auburn rolled past North Carolina, 97-80, to reach the Elite Eight. Bruce Pearl’s team led at the half despite Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combining for only two points. The Tigers were led by sophomore Chuma Okeke, who scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Okeke tore his ACL with eight minutes remaining in the game, however, somewhat spoiling the school’s second all-time berth in the Elite Eight.
Okeke emerged as Auburn’s best overall player over the course of the season. He was a presence in the post and his perimeter game improved drastically from a season ago. Okeke d-minated in the North Carolina game before the injury and his teammates rallied around him after he left the game, especially Danjel Purifoy, who scored 12 points on four three-pointer baskets against the Tar Heels. J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty scored 10 points apiece off the bench, while Malik Dunbar netted 13. Brown finished with 12 points on the night despite being cold in the first half.
In the Elite Eight, the Tigers met a familiar foe in Kentucky. The Wildcats had beaten the Tigers twice in the regular season. In January, Kentucky knocked off Auburn, 82-80. In the second meeting, the Wildcats handed the Tigers their worst loss of the season in an 80-53 rout.
Auburn has not lost since then.
Despite the absence of Okeke, Auburn battled back from a double-digit deficit and forced overtime on a Jared Harper layup with 38 seconds remaining. Harper then scored 12 points in OT and finished 11-of-11 from the free throw line to propel his team to a 77-71 victory.
Harper finished with 26 points and Bryce Brown scored 24 as the veteran backcourt outplayed Kentucky’s young guards. P.J. Washington led the Wildcats with 28 points and 13 rebounds, but it wasn’t en-ough as Auburn advanced to its first Final Four berth in school history. John Calipari’s team finished the year with a 30-7 record. His UK teams have made the Elite Eight in seven of his 10 seasons.
Like Kentucky, Tennessee earned a No. 2 seed in the tournament. The Volunteers struggled in the second half of their opening round win against Colgate and blew a 25-point lead against Iowa in the second round before winning in overtime. In the Sweet 16, the Vols trailed Purdue for the majority of the game but a second half surge forced another overtime game. Ryan Cline and Carsen Edwards led the Boilermakers to a 99-94 victory over Tennessee in overtime, however, and the Vols finished with a 31-6 record.
LSU’s season ended with an 80-63 loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The Spartans controlled the game throughout, and the Tigers finished the season with a 28-7 record. It was a tumultuous season for LSU, but the Tigers won the regular season SEC championship and made the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. LSU is likely pleased with the results with one exception. Head coach Will Wade was suspended indefinitely for allegedly offering to pay a player, and it’s unclear if Wade will return or if the school will terminate him this offseason.
Final Four Preview
Of the four coaches in the Final Four this season, three are making their first trips. Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Texas Tech’s Chris Beard and Virginia’s Tony Bennett are all competing in the Final Four for the first time. Auburn and Texas Tech reached the Final Four for the first time in school history, while Virginia is making its third appearance all-time and first since 1984. Michigan State is making its 10th Final Four appearance, and this will be the eighth trip for head coach Tom Izzo.
Izzo has the experience and arguably the best team remaining. Virginia has been the more consistent team this season, but the Spartans are playing better than anyone right now. Michigan State knocked off No. 1 overall seed Duke in the Elite Eight and cruised past LSU and Minnesota in the Sweet 16 and second round, respectively. The Spartans are a 2.5-point favorite over Texas Tech in the semifinals.
Texas Tech won its first three tournament games by double digits and dominated Northern Kentucky, Buffalo and Michigan. In the Elite Eight, the Red Raiders upset Gonzaga to earn their first-ever Final Four berth.
Virginia has been one of the best programs in college basketball in the last six years but has not translated that success to the NCAA Tournament until this year. The Cavaliers beat Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma and Oregon in the first three rounds but did not exactly play their best. In the Elite Eight, Virginia survived a 42-point effort by Purdue’s Carsen Edwards to advance to the Final Four in an overtime thriller. The Cavaliers are a 5.5-point favorite in the first semifinal over Auburn.
Auburn’s run to the Final Four has been historic, but the Tigers will be without Okeke this Saturday in Minneapolis. Virginia is the most efficient team in college basketball, and this matchup includes a drastic contrast in styles. The Cavaliers play at the slowest pace of all 353 teams in college basketball, while Auburn plays at a much faster tempo.
Virginia is known for its pack-line defense, making it very difficult for other teams to drive in the lane. If the Cavaliers lose or struggle, it’s typically because the opponent is hitting 3-point shots. Auburn is a very good shooting team and will need Brown and Harper to have great performances to have a chance to win. Otherwise, Virginia will slow down the tempo and make the Tigers guard for all 30 seconds on the shot clock.
Final Four Prediction: Virginia 65, Auburn 58; Michigan State 67, Texas Tech 63
Championship: Michigan State 66, Virginia 62