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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.”

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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.”

New-look Virginia back to work after winning NCAA title

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Tony Bennett’s first offseason as a national champion coach has come with benefits on the recruiting trail. His first season at Virginia after winning the title, however, will bring challenges.

Five players who helped Virginia beat Texas Tech to capture the first basketball title in school history are gone, and that’s four more than expected. Center Jack Salt graduated, and guards De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy declared for the NBA draft. Seldom-used Marco Anthony transferred.

Recruiting was already well underway before the Cavaliers won it all, but Bennett said Wednesday the result “certainly can’t hurt and I think it has helped. It validates a lot of good stuff that’s happened in the past.”

Virginia hopes the spoils of those improvements are evident quickly in incoming freshmen guard Casey Morsell, big men Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick and junior college shooting guard Tomas Woldetensae.

Virginia opened its summer practice period on Tuesday, and Bennett said he’s not sure just yet who will be ready to contribute.

“Everyone will have ample opportunity, the newcomers, so to speak,” he said. “To say who, you just don’t know. … There are some opportunities out there. So it’s the returners and we can go down the list of the guys we brought in, but I think they’re excited about the opportunity.

“There’s always a learning curve any time you go from whether it’s high school to college or junior college to college or coming from a redshirt to being eligible. … Going up a level and playing in the ACC, for any of these guys, there’s the challenge of the physicality and the level of talent and the speed.”

Woldetensae, a left-handed shooter, averaged 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range last season at Indian Hills Community College.

“We thought we needed to add some experience and a quality player on the perimeter and when he was mentioned and we did our homework and watched film and all those kinds of things,” he said. “His personality came out as a young man of character and we always start there. He seemed wanting to challenge himself at a very high level.”

The Cavaliers were delighted that Mamadi Diakite decided to come back for his senior year after testing the professional waters. And they added senior transfer Sam Hauser, who averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season at Marquette. Hauser will be eligible to practice with the team, but won’t be able to play until 2020-21.

Bennett’s offseason included numerous speaking engagements, recruiting, talking to NBA scouts about his players and some time to decompress.

He also checked an item off his bucket list when, with his father, longtime college coach Dick Bennett, he played Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. That, he said, “was amazing.”

Now, it’s back to work.

“I’m grateful for the busy-ness of it,” he said of the offseason. “It means something good happened.”

Four-star forward commits to West Virginia

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West Virginia landed a top-75 recruit Thursday night.

Isaiah Cottrell, a 6-foot-9 forward from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, committed to West Virginia’s 2020 recruiting class.

Cottrell picked the Mountaineers overs offers from the likes of Kansas, Washington and Arizona, among others. His father, Brian Lewin, played for West Virginia in the 1990s. The four-star prospect continues a promising recruiting trend for Bob Huggins, who landed a top-40 commit in center Oscar Tshiebwe in the 2019 class.

The Mountaineers missed the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in four years as they slid to 15-21 overall and last in the Big 12 with a 4-14 mark.

John Calipari’s new deal at Kentucky worth $86 million over 10 years

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John Calipari and Kentucky agreed in April to what was described as a “lifetime contract.” Thursday, the exact terms of that deal were disclosed.

The Wildcats coach’s new contract worth $86 million over 10 years.

“I’ve said from day one that this would be the gold standard and it has been for student-athletes and coaches,” Calipari said in a statement released by the school. “As I enter my 11th year, I’m reminded it took me 20 years to get an opportunity to like this. There is no other place I want to be. As I look forward, my mindset is what’s next and how can we be first at it for the young people that we coach.”

Calipari, 60, will likely continue to be a source of speculation for other jobs presuming he keeps things rolling in Lexington as he has for the last 10 years, but what Kentucky is paying him will almost certainly be more than any other program – and potentially NBA franchises – are going to be willing to. Calipari’s success, NBA history and ability to always be central to the broader college basketball conversation means he’ll always be in demand, but it’s hard to picture a situation that could intrigue Calipari enough to leave one of – if not the – best jobs in basketball.

“(Calipari) has added a special chapter to the greatest tradition in college basketball and it’s a chapter we want him to continue writing until the end of his coaching career,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “We are pleased to announce a new contract that will enable him to do exactly that.”

Calipari 305-71 with one national championship, four Final Fours and 26 first-round draft picks in 10 years with the Wildcats. He and Kentucky will likely open the 2019-20 season as one of the frontrunners for the national championship.

Michigan State reports violation for Tom Izzo hosting visit for former high school

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Michigan State self-reported an NCAA rules violation for Tom Izzo hosting Iron Mountain High School for a tour while the team was in town to compete for its first ever state title that weekend.

Izzo unknowingly committed the violation — which only occurred because Iron Mountain was competing in the Breslin Center that weekend — and the Spartans immediately gave notice once they became aware of it. Proud of his alma mater for advancing to Michigan’s final weekend, Izzo was merely taking interest in players and a team connected to his youth. The Iron Mountain program toured the Breslin Center with Izzo and toured Michigan State’s locked room while also watching the Spartans practice before their state semifinal game.

Since it was a special privilege for Iron Mountain, playing in an event there, the Spartans were technically at fault for a violation. The fact that Izzo and Michigan State have to report a violation for this sort of thing is kind of ridiculous since Izzo has a natural connection to the team in question. Although Michigan State likely isn’t going to get hit with any NCAA issues from this, it’s the kind of thing that critics come to question about the NCAA’s rulebook.

Former lacrosse star Pat Spencer commits to Northwestern for basketball

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Northwestern landed a unique graduate transfer on Thursday as Loyola lacrosse star Pat Spencer will spend his final year of college eligibility hooping for the Wildcats, according to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman.

A former high school basketball standout at Boys’ Latin (MD), Spencer was one of the best lacrosse players in the country for the Greyhounds the past four years in college. He was selected in two drafts during the Spring. Spencer was taken first overall in the inaugural PLL College Draft while getting taken seventh overall in the MLL’s Collegiate Draft. Loyola remains in the NCAA tournament as Spencer is playing out his senior season of college.

Spencer is passing up multiple professional lacrosse opportunities to play Big Ten basketball for Northwestern. For a stud athlete in a sport to pass up money to pursue another athletic dream is one of the college basketball’s best things to follow next season.

As if Spencer’s background wasn’t unique enough, he’ll be at a Northwestern team starving for an identity since making the NCAA tournament a few seasons ago. By playing in the Big Ten, Spencer will be thrown against Final Four contenders and potential draft picks, which makes this transition particularly intriguing. It’s a cool story to follow this season as college hoops doesn’t often get athletes from other sports playing in such prominent conferences.

Greg Paulus famously went from Duke point guard to Syracuse quarterback as a graduate transfer, but he was leaving the sport to pursue an opportunity to play football. Spencer choosing basketball over a sure pro shot in lacrosse is an interesting opportunity for him this season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can still contribute anything on the hardwood.

(Ht: Jeff Goodman, Stadium)