When Bruce Pearl said of his Auburn team on Monday, “We are not afraid of playing fast with North Carolina,” if you strained really hard, you could hear the collective eyebrows of all of Tar Heel Nation rising in sarcastic bemusement. Clearly, Pearl wasn’t up to date on his classic blunders:
1) Never get involved in a land war in Asia;
2) Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line;
3) Never try to run with a Roy Williams team.
A lot of us assumed, not having seen too much of Auburn besides their game against Kansas that got them to the Sweet 16, that this meant Auburn was also a fast team. Not so fast, though (heh): The Tigers rank just 165th in the country in possessions per 40 minutes with about 69.4, a number that drops if you account for their opponents. UNC is 8th with nearly 76 possessions per game, by contrast. Auburn has crept over the 70-possession mark in their last three games, but only barely, and before that, their previous five games (all wins) were all 68 possessions or worse. Overall, 20 out of the Tigers’ 37 games have been over 70 possessions, and their record in those games is 14-6, compared to 14-3 in games under 70 possessions. They could be a team that tries to play a lot of transition ball and slows the game down dramatically in the halfcourt, but they don’t fit that model all too well, either: They rank 77th in the country, according to hoop-math.com, in percentage of shot attempts that are in transition with 24.9%. That paints a picture that’s closer to a team that likes to run than the overall pace did, but it’s still not near UNC-level. So if not a team that gets up and down like UNC, then what are we getting with Auburn, and why did Pearl tell us something that’s demonstrably not true?
In his Three Things to Watch, my buddy Jake posits that maybe people, including Bruce Pearl, think Auburn likes to run because they take a ton of three-pointers, including on transition possessions. I don’t think that’s a bad observation, but I’ll add this: They’re also very, very good in transition. They have a effective field goal percentage of 64.6% on transition possessions, helped by a transition 3-point percentage that’s better than 45%. UNC fans and writers across the internet have noted the importance of Roy needing to tweak his transition defense strategy for this game, not worrying as much about packing the paint first, because more than half of Auburn’s transition attempts are threes and they’re ridiculously effective at them. Their transition defense isn’t bad, either; they hold opponents in transition to an eFG% of 53.3%. So maybe that’s the trick: Auburn doesn’t play fast games, but when they play fast, they’re pretty lethal. Do they have the stamina to maintain that deadliness with a UNC team whose primary goal is to run its opponents out of the gym? That’s the primary question leading up to tonight’s game, in my opinion.
So now that we’ve solved that mystery, what else are we getting with Auburn? The answer is, essentially, a team of extremes. They have really high highs, including shooting a lot of threes (by design), making threes (38% as a team ranks 33rd in the country), making impact plays on defense (top five in the country in steal% and block% on defense; first in opponent turnover percentage), and taking care of the ball (289th in turnover percentage). Shooting guard Bryce Brown will pull up any time, from anywhere, and is one of the best shooters in the country, point guard Jared Harper isn’t far behind in confidence even if he’s not the same kind of deadeye shooter, and Chuma Okeke is an extremely proficient stretch big. They’ve also got pretty low lows: They have the 4th worst midrange game in the NCAA, are just average around the rim, are a mediocre passing team (163rd in the country in assist percentage), get less than half of available rebounds to put them at 229th in the country (they’re not awful on the offensive glass, but are one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the NCAA, allowing opponents to get 33% of offensive rebounds), and, when they’re not making impact plays, aren’t very good at defense: they allow 35% of opponents’ threes to go in, which is a little worse than average but exacerbated by 44% of opponents’ field goal attempts being from behind the arc, and they also allow another 34% of attempts near the basket, and while they block a fair few of those, it’s still a high-efficiency shot. Okeke is a solid rim protector, averaging over a block per game, but the starting guards (Brown and Harper) aren’t very good defenders at all, which would seem to imply a lot of opportunity for offensive rebounds when help D is forced by dribble penetration. They’re mediocre at preventing opponent ball movement, ranking dead average in opponents’ assist percentage, which doesn’t bode well for UNC’s near-tops-in-the-country passing prowess. What I’m saying is that their defense is both not great and analytically unfriendly. There’s a lot to be taken advantage of there. Add Pearl’s potentially even more tone-deaf addendum to the above statement, that “most people know the formula to beat them is make them play in a half-court game but that’s just not our game,” and things look good for UNC on the offensive end.
And we can’t talk about this game without talking about the intangibles at play. Roy Williams, of course, has been here before several times, with a near-perfect record in Sweet 16s. Bruce Pearl has done an admirable job at Auburn, but he hasn’t been to this level in 10 years. Auburn as a program hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 in 16 years. UNC was there just two years ago, and while several of this team’s key players still weren’t part of that team, the senior and junior classes were. That experience matters. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the abandon with which Auburn seems to be approaching this postseason. They just demolished one of the sport’s bluest of bluebloods (who weren’t exactly at their best), might that give them the confidence to take down another? Could they take on some of that classic March Cinderella spirit? And how are these teams going to travel? KCMO is about equidistant from Chapel Hill and Auburn, Alabama, but UNC Basketball would seem to have a wider-spread fanbase. What role might the crowd play? Auburn was just 4-6 on the road, but 9-1 on neutral courts with their one loss a fairly close game against Duke early-ish in the season. A hostile crowd could make a serious difference.
While I don’t think that will be the answer, I get the feeling that Auburn’s defensive style isn’t a particularly good matchup for the UNC team we’ve seen the past month and a half, and while their offense is pretty scary, UNC’s been good at outscoring teams all season barring a brief lull in early March. Especially if Nassir Little plays like all his teammates seem to believe he will, I think UNC stands to overpower this Auburn team. It’s a tougher matchup than their first two games by a solid margin, but that’s the nature of the tournament.
Prediction: UNC 85, Auburn 80