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Scouting Final Four teams: How to beat Auburn

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NBC Sports spoke with a dozen coaches in the last two days to put together a scouting report for each of the teams in the Final Four. 

The coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for honesty. 

We started with Virginia. Up next, we have Auburn.

‘THEY WANT TO HOOP’

There may not be a team in the country that looks like they are playing a sloppier brand of basketball than Auburn, but that’s their wheelhouse. They practice that. They want to ugly-it-up because they know they can survive playing that way. 

“Auburn wants to run, defense into offense. We picked our spots with them, and we felt like we could go in transition, but off makes or if it got ragged, slow it down. F— with them. The more it’s like a pickup game for Auburn, the better it is. They thrive in that. Their kids, they just want to hoop.”

“There are three keys to beating Auburn: 1. No live-ball turnovers. 2. Defensive rebound, send four to the glass. 3. Guard the three point guard. The dilemma for us, we’re a good offensive rebounding team. We didn’t send two back all year long, that’s what we do. We take the risk crashing the glass, it was good for us.”

“For the first time all year, we sent two back. That’s because of the respect we had for them spraying that thing shooting it so well. [Jared] Harper and [Bryce] Brown, it’s buddy ball. [Harper] looks for [Brown] every time, and [Brown] is so dangerous catching and shooting in transition.”

“The transition game is lethal. They have multiple guys that can lead the break. Harper, Brown, [Samir] Daughty, [J’Von] McCormick all can lead the break. Anytime you don’t have to rely on one guy to lead the break that’s difficult to defend. They all can pull up in transition, and they are a really good one-pass-into-a-three team in transition.”

“Whoever is guarding Brown, he always needs to get back. Finding him is a big deal, whoever is guarding him, find him as quick as he can. You need to shadow him in transition, because it’s hard to put a shadow on the ball-handler with them because you don’t know who it’s going to be.”

“The key is that you must do is try and meet them early. When they get to halfcourt, be there. Get them to stop their momentum. If you’re just sitting back at the three point line, they’re going to put it on you, driving and forcing one guy to help and start moving it around.”

“They’re so dangerous because they create rotations when there is no rotation to be had. Between McCormick and Harper, they just feel the slightest sense of a defender helping. They know where to make passes, and they’re pinpoint passes, and they get the defense spinning. Once the defense is spinning, boom, boom, they get a three, then it’s a turnover and suddenly they’re on a run and you’re dead.”

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THE ULTIMATE GREEN LIGHT

Part of the reason that Pearl is able to get his guys to play as hard as they do is that they don’t get chewed out for taking bad shots or missing shots.

“Their players play with a great amount of confidence to be able to shoot it. Bruce [Pearl] doesn’t believe in bad shots. Every time they shoot he wants them to feel like they’re going in. He really encourages his guys to shoot, shoot, shoot. Even bad shots, there’s no hesitation, just fire. That puts a great amount of stress on the defense.”

“Anytime there are four or five guys that can shoot, it’s hard to defend. Even Horace Spencer. He’s a non-shooter and he’s shooting threes. At any point, they have five guys that will play with a heavy green-light to shoot the three-ball, and that’s just hard to defend.”

“They’re just so explosive, and they feed off of that energy.”

THE PRESS IS UNIQUE

Auburn actually leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage, and since they press, in your head you’re probably picturing Shaka Smart’s ‘Havoc’ or Bob Huggins’ ‘Press Virginia’, but that’s not what Auburn does.

“They’re known for turning you over, but when you break down the film, I’ve never seen anything like it. The press is a token press. Low risk, high reward. It drains the shot clock, it controls tempo, it gives a different look, but they’re just trying to capitalize on silly mistakes. Don’t be dumb, be organized and you’re fine.”

“But they are so quick, so athletic and have a unique ability to deny quite a few passes in the halfcourt. They can really deny and push you out. Then when the ball is dribbled, they have such quick hands. They scrape the ball when people drive, they really get into those driving lanes and you know they’re going to rake at it.”

“This is when they’re the best in transition. Off turnovers. They’re good off misses, they run off makes, they control tempo because they know when to push, they have multiple handlers, anyone can take the ball out. But when they turn you over? That’s when they make you pay.”

“They do a great job of switching, of playing with active hands and of post defense. They’re not huge, but they do a really good job of keeping posts out of the paint. There was a clip late in the Kentucky game, [Horace] Spencer was fronting P.J. [Washington] and they called a foul on Auburn, but P.J. was posting two-feet inside the three-point line. That’s how far out they push you.”

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

LOSING OKEKE IS ENORMOUS

Chuma Okeke tore his ACL late in Auburn’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina.

“Harper and Brown, that’s as good of a backcourt as you’re going to find in the country, but Okeke is their best player. He is extremely talented and a dominant player. Inside, outside, he was dominating games down the stretch of the season. He could run isos at the elbow. He could play on the wing. He could play in the post.”

“Teams inevitably have to think about switching vs. Auburn because of how they shoot, and Okeke could take advantage of that with post sets. Bruce runs flex motion, and they have plays to get Okeke the ball in the post, and they don’t get that with [Danjel] Purifoy or [Malik] Dunbar. [Austin] Wiley softens the blow a bit inside, but he’s a different player, and you aren’t switching with him or Spencer. [Anfernee] McLemore, he ain’t the same.”

“If I’m playing right now, I’m making Purifoy and Dunbar and McLemore beat me. I’m throwing everything at Harper and Brown and making it as tough as possible with those guys. They’re so cool. Harper is never, ever going to get rattled. He doesn’t have a weakness. He can shoot it, drive both directions, handsy defender. And Brown is such a momentum guy, he’s dancing with the ball and if he makes a couple, you’re dead. They can still beat anyone if they get it going.”

“But now you can focus more on Brown and Harper. Maybe you can take one of them away, face-guarding or whatever. Not as easy to do that when Okeke is out there. The other guys – Dunbar, Doughty, Purifoy – we were begging them to shoot a bunch of threes instead of the guards.”

THE BEST MATCHUP IS? AND THE WORST MATCHUP IS?

“Virginia is the worst. I have so much respect for how Tony plays. I know Texas Tech’s numbers are off the chart defensively, but UVA is so systematic. They’re not going to get wild, they stay true to who they are, to themselves more than anyone will.”

“The thing about Auburn is they make you matchup with them. And they’re so explosive they can beat anyone.”

Wesson, No. 6 Ohio State unload on Penn State 106-74

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Kaleb Wesson scored 28 points and had 10 rebounds for his ninth career double-double, helping No. 6 Ohio State rout Penn State 106-74 on Saturday.

Ohio State scored 100 points against a Big Ten rival for the first time since 1991.

Four players hit double figures for the Buckeyes (9-0, 1-0 Big Ten), who shot 57.4 percent from the field. Andre Wesson scored 15, and sophomores Duane Washington Jr. and Luther Muhammad each had 14.

Izaiah Brockington scored 19 points and Seth Lundy added 10 for the Nittany Lions (7-2, 0-1), who lost for the second time in four games and gave up 100 points for the first time since 2017. Penn State managed just 25 rebounds, far below its average of 44.

Senior Lamar Stevens, Penn State’s leading scorer averaging 17.9 points, managed just 11 against the Buckeyes and fouled out after getting a technical with 13:26 left in the second half.

Ohio State started the first half 1 for 6 from beyond the arc, but started draining 3-pointers in the second half, hitting 14 of 26 for 53.8 percent for the game. The Buckeyes were led by Washington, who hit four straight and Kaleb Wesson who shot 4 for 6 from long range, including three straight in the second half. Ohio State now has back-to-back games with 10 or more 3-pointers.

BIG PICTURE

Penn State: After showing early promise, Lions ran into Ohio State’s potent offense.

Ohio State: Solidified its standing as a Top 10 team, dominating every facet of the game and dispatching Penn State with ease.

UP NEXT

Penn State: At Maryland Tuesday.

Ohio State: At Minnesota Dec. 15.

Balanced effort leads No. 24 Butler past Florida 76-62

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INDIANAPOLIS — Sean McDermott and Aaron Thompson each scored 16 points to lead No. 24 Butler to a 76-62 win over Florida on Saturday.

Thompson made 6 of 7 shots and delivered seven assists. McDermott contributed a team-high seven rebounds.

Jordan Tucker added 13 points off the bench for the Bulldogs (9-0). Kamar Baldwin, who was averaging a team-high 17.5 points for Butler, scored 12 points.

Baldwin picked up two fouls in the first 3-plus minutes of the game and was limited to 11 minutes in the first half. The senior guard finished with three fouls.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. led Florida (6-3) with 17 points. Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke each scored 11.

The Bulldogs shot 52% percent while holding the Gators to 44%. Butler made 9 of 20 3-pointers while Florida was 6 of 21. Each team had 10 turnovers.

The Gators, who trailed by nine at halftime, narrowed the deficit to six points twice before the Bulldogs pulled away. Butler’s largest lead was 19 points at 61-42 with 7:33 remaining.

Butler finished the first half with a 19-5 run to take a 35-26 lead at halftime. Trailing 21-16, the Bulldogs had an 11-0 run.

Butler owns the nation’s longest streak of consecutive non-conference home victories at 56.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: After a solid start on the road, the Gators’ four-game winning streak end with a thud. Entering the game with a 30% average from 3-point range, Florida shot 23%.

Butler: The Bulldogs won their third meeting with an SEC opponent in the last four games, previously beating Missouri 63-52 in the Hall of Fame Classic on Nov. 24 and host Mississippi 67-58 Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Florida: Home game against another Big East opponent Providence on Dec. 17.

Butler: Travels to No. 18 Baylor on Tuesday.

No. 18 Baylor beats No. 12 Arizona 63-58 as fans get free tickets

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WACO, Texas — MaCio Teague scored 19 points, Freddie Gillespie had 17 points and 13 rebounds and No. 18 Baylor defeated No. 12 Arizona 63-58 on Saturday for the Wildcats’ first loss.

Admission was free at Baylor’s campus arena because the Bears were playing Oklahoma in the Big 12 football championship game, which started about the same time 100 miles north of Waco at the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

It was supposed to be the first true road game for the Wildcats (9-1), but their fans might have outnumbered the Baylor contingent. They loudly chanted “U of A” before the Baylor introductions but had a hard time getting into the game early, with Arizona giving up a 15-0 run and shooting 33 percent in the first half.

The Wildcats, whose 52-game home winning streak was stopped by Baylor last December, did enough to stay close and had the fans chanting several times in the second half.

Arizona finally got the deficit under six by scoring five points on one possession to get within 57-56 with less than two minutes remaining. Jemarl Baker Jr. hit a 3 as a foul was called and Zeke Nnaji made both free throws.

Teague, who was 9 of 10 on free throws, made a pair at the other end, then blocked a 3-point attempt by Nico Mannion, who led the Wildcats with 15 points. Leading by four, Baylor got another block from Gillespie in the final minute.

Nnaji scored 12 for Arizona, which made just two of 18 3-pointers after coming in sixth in the nation at 43% shooting from long range. The last miss came from Josh Green with a chance to tie in the final seconds.

The Bears (7-1) started hot in the fourth-ever Top 25 matchup in Waco but cooled off while Arizona simply stayed cold. Baylor shot 30% to 27% for the Wildcats, who came in fourth in the nation in scoring at 87.1 points per game.

The Wildcats stayed close by making free throws. Mannion was 8 of 8 and Chase Jeter matched Teague by going 9 of 10. Arizona was 28 of 34 from the line.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Wildcats didn’t play well in their first real test this season, and first true road game against ranked team since beating rival Arizona State 77-70 in February 2018. Arizona won’t have to wait long for the next one. No. 9 Gonzaga visits next Saturday.

Baylor: The Bears took control early without a lot of help from Jared Butler, third in the Big 12 in scoring coming in. The sophomore guard didn’t score until after the 15-0 run that put Baylor up 22-8 and finished with 13 points.

UP NEXT

Arizona: Omaha at home Wednesday.

Baylor: Butler at home Tuesday.

Best Bets: Previewing the weekend’s biggest college basketball games

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There are no Vegas lines for these games just yet. All analysis will be based on KenPom projections, which typically end up close to the opening lines anyway.

No. 7 NORTH CAROLINA at No. 5 VIRGINIA, Sun. 4:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Virginia 61, North Carolina 55
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am going to be fascinated to see where the line for this game opens up, because neither of these teams are playing all that well right now, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Virginia was blown out by unranked Purdue on the road, 69-40, while North Carolina is coming off of a drubbing at the hands of Ohio State in their own building, 74-49.

My initial lean here is going to be the Virginia side, depending on how much they are laying, but I do think that the best bet would likely be the under assuming the line opens at or around 116. The logic is relatively simple, really. Virginia has still been one of college basketball’s most intimidating defenses this season despite what happened against Purdue. While nice, 69 points doesn’t sound like a lot, but the 1.19 points-per-possession the Boilermakers did post was one of just four times in the last two-plus years that a team has done that against Virginia.

Purdue has done it twice.

That’s because the Boilermakers run the precise kind of action you need to run to beat the Pack-Line. There is a ton of motion, guys running off of screens every which way and action happening simultaneously on both sides of the floor. This is not what North Carolina does, and when combined with the fact that – as shown in the video embedded below – the Tar Heels have basically one option offensively right now, leads me to believe that the Wahoos will control tempo, overwhelm UNC defensively and keep this game in the 50s.

Think about it like this. Ohio State-UNC finished at 123 total points. Virginia is the only defense in the country ranked higher on KenPom that Ohio State, and Virginia is a full 100 spots lower offensively.

PICKS: I like Virginia -5 and below, and I like the under for everything 115 and above.

No. 12 ARIZONA at No. 18 BAYLOR, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Baylor 75, Arizona 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

There are a couple of things to take into account here.

For starters, this game is being played in Waco, but there are some real questions about just how much of a home court advantage the Bears are going to have here. The football team is in the Big 12 title game, which will be played at the same time. I have a feeling that is going to take priority for the majority of the Baylor fanbase. Baylor has resorted to giving away free tickets to make sure the stands are filled.

That said, I think that Baylor has the matchup advantage here. The Bears haven’t been playing as much zone this year but it’s still something they can fall back into, which will be tricky for an Arizona team built around three freshmen. I also think the size Baylor has inside is less than ideal for a team that relies on Zeke Nnaji quite a bit. Then throw in the fact that this is Arizona’s first true road game and first game outside of the western time zone, and I like the spot for Baylor.

PICKS: I’m refraining from betting on this. I don’t have a great feel.

No. 9 GONZAGA at No. 22 WASHINGTON, Sun. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Gonzaga 73, Washington 71
  • TICKETS: Click here

A rivalry game, one where I expect Gonzaga to be favored on the road. I think I like Washington here. I don’t fully trust Gonzaga’s guard play at this point in the season, and if anyone remembers the way that the Washington-Baylor game ended the first week of the season, Isaiah Stewart completely dominated Baylor’s frontline down the stretch. I can see that happening again, considering just how much Gonzaga relies on running offense through their posts.

PICKS: I think Washington will win, so getting the Huskies on the money line at +125 would be nice.

FLORIDA at No. 24 BUTLER, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Butler 63, Florida 57
  • TICKETS: Click here

We’ve been betting Butler this season because the Bulldogs have been undervalued by the market all year. But now that they have that number next to their name and coming off of a really impressive win at Ole Miss, I think our chance to be all in on this team may have come to an end.

I also think that six points is a lot in this matchup, which I expect to be really low-scoring. The Gators can defend, are good at running teams off of the three-point line and can’t make threes themselves. They have a number of guards they can throw at Kamar Baldwin and have shown no desire to play fast at all this season. Butler is 348th in average possession length offensively.

PICKS: Let’s see where the total opens, but if it’s in the low-to-mid 120s, I think the under is the play in this game.

No. 20 COLORADO at No. 2 KANSAS, Sat. 7:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Kansas 73, Colorado 65
  • TICKETS: Click here

I am definitely looking forward to this game because I feel like I haven’t had a chance to really watch Colorado yet this season. I saw a little bit of their game against Arizona State in the opener, but that’s it. So keep that in mind as I proceed to tout the Buffaloes. Here’s the logic: The Jayhawks want to run their offense through Udoka Azubuike in the post, and Colorado is top ten nationally in defensive two-point field goal percentage. They have big bodies, they have strong posts and they can make life tough for Azubuike inside.

PICKS: I think this line will open up higher than Colorado (+8). Getting the Buffaloes (+10.5) would make all of my wildest dreams come true.

No. 19 DAYTON vs. SAINT MARY’S, Sun. 4:00 p.m. (Phoenix)

  • KENPOM: Dayton 70, Saint Mary’s 68
  • TICKETS: Click here

I’ll be on Dayton here. What makes Saint Mary’s dangerous is their ability to spread teams out with their shooting and create mismatches all over the court. Dayton does the same thing, only they have Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin creating mismatches, who should, in theory, be able to limit Malik Fitts’ advantage at the four. Playing this game at a neutral site is a bonus as well.

PICKS: I like Dayton up to (-4.5), and I would think about the under as well. Both of these teams are built on shooting, and neutral sites environments can be tough to shoot in. Saint Mary’s wanting to play at a slow pace will help as well.

CINCINNATI at XAVIER, Sat. 5:00 p.m.

  • KENPOM: Xavier 73, Cincinnati 67
  • TICKETS: Click here

My take on Cincinnati is that the Bearcats are overvalued right now. The biggest reason for that is that there seems to still be some tension between new head coach John Brannen and star guard Jarron Cumberland. I also think that Xavier is one of the teams that is being undervalued at this point. I know they struggle shooting the rock, but they are tough, they are athletic and they have a couple of game-changers in Naji Marshall, Tyrique Jones and Paul Scruggs. If Kyky Tandy can provide a bit of shooting and Quentin Goodin is truly out of his funk, the Musketeers are a top 20 team.

The only concern I have: This is a rivalry game. If Jarron Cumberland is ever going to play like a National Player of the Year candidate, this is the game he’ll do it.

PICKS: I will probably be staying away at Xavier (-6).

CBT Podcast: Georgetown’s problems, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a weekend preview

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan from the Fundamentally Sound podcast go through everything that happened in a wild week of basketball, from the four – yes, four! – blowouts of in the marquee games of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge as well as the rise of DePaul and the enigma that is Indiana. Rob also discusses the situation at Georgetown at the top, and the podcast ends with a preview of what should be a lively weekend of college hoops.