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.”