#5 Auburn Tigers @ #1 Virginia Cavaliers -5.5

Auburn Tigers:

Auburn has provided much of the surprise in this year’s NCAA tournament, having largely rolled through opponents thus far. They knocked off multiple giants based on seeding and national prowess,  #1 North Carolina, #2 Kentucky and #4 Kansas, while maintaining a ruthless and consistent playing style. However, there shouldn’t have been this much surprise if you break down their play over the last month. Since February 16th, the Tigers have gone 10-1 prior to entering the tournament.

During that stretch, including the NCAA tournament, Auburn recorded 1 game shooting under 40% and only 3 shooting under 35% from deep. They have recorded 8 steals or more in all but one game and have forced at least 10 turnovers in each outing since mid-February. Their play has been outstanding to say the least.

They’re style is aggressive on both ends of the floor. Experienced guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown lead the team in creating turnovers on defense and movement on the offensive end. Auburn does not run a frantic pace at all points in the game, but they’re top 10 in field goals attempted and made for a reason. Not even mentioning their huge reliance on the deep ball (1st in 3s made and 2nd in attempts nationally). However when the deep ball isn’t dropping, this team creates turnovers, cranks up the full-court pressure and defends shots very well.

Virginia Cavaliers:

It’s been a remarkable turn of event for this UVA team, after last year’s tournament disaster. #1 Virginia got the unfortunate honors of becoming the 1st team in NCAA history to fall at the hands of a 16-seed: UMBC. The Cavaliers had the worst game of their season at the wrong time, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that they were one of the best teams nationally last year and are even better this go around.

The Cavaliers have only lost 3 games on the year, twice to 1-seed Duke and once to Sweet 16-member Florida State.  In losing to Florida State and Duke (the first time), Virginia failed to shoot the 3-ball particularly well at 20.8% and 17.6% respectively. However in the second loss to Duke, this issue was not so much an issue. Rather it was the lack of aggression and trips to the foul line that did in the Cavaliers. (Also, Duke shot 13-21 from 3 (61.9%) in that game and hardly anyone can pull that off against Virginia).

It is more likely that Virginia will take itself out of the game than getting outright beaten by their opponents. This team is extremely experienced, balanced and thrive off of limiting opposing teams to virtually one shot per possession.

Prediction:

Auburn has been on fire for over a month now and has been creeping up on teams left and right. They had a ton of preseason expectation, which was flattened during their trip to Hawaii. Several teams have been able to hold the Tigers below their 3-pt shooting percentage this year, but few have succeeded in toppling them. However, Virginia is a different monster.  The Cavaliers faced a very similar team to Auburn in North Carolina earlier this year and won 69-61. The Heels take a lot of 3s, but were limited thanks to Virginia’s 3-point defense (28.7% – 4th best nationally). In my opinion, Carolina is still the better team and would likely win a rematch against the two squads. Virginia doesn’t beat themselves, except on a very rare occasion, and has already proved their metal against a more powerful and full strength Auburn clone (UNC). I’ll side with the Wahoos.

4* Virginia -5.5

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