MINNEAPOLIS - Bruce Pearl and Auburn were the first team on the court at U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday, and the Tigers proved to themselves that 3-pointers count the same even in a football stadium.
“We were here this morning and shot, got a lot of shots, and the sight lines are really good,” Pearl said Thursday afternoon. “I’ve been in some bigger domes as a fan, and it doesn’t seem like — it doesn’t seem as big. So the guys are — the guys got lots of shots, and this should not be a factor. The rims are soft. I think the shooting percentages will be good.”
The tempo is another story.
Auburn leads the nation with 22 points off turnovers per game — causing turnovers on nearly 25 percent of opponent possessions — but Virginia is second nationally in offensive efficiency and rarely reaches double-digit turnovers. The Cavaliers are likely to focus on expiring the shot clock for the perfect shot, and then aim to limit Auburn’s looks with their pack-line defense and perimeter length, headlined by Defensive Player of the Year DeAndre Hunter.
“I just don’t think we can make Virginia play faster than they play. I don’t think we’re going to be able to change the tempo of this game. We’re most likely, if we’re going to win, (to) beat Virginia at their own pace,” Pearl said.
What Pearl won’t change at any pace is utilizing his nine-man rotation. With Chuma Okeke sidelined following surgery to repair a torn left ACL, the Tigers are still deeper than any of the other three teams left in the tournament.
“Tom Davis always taught me that the time to shorten your bench or narrow your bench is not in the postseason,” Pearl said. “That’s where your bench is your advantage. We played nine or 10 guys in double digits, and I think that’s a reason why this team isn’t fatigued this late in the season. We’re still fresh. We’re still furious, and we’re still playing.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett can’t stop watching video replays of the shot from Mamadi Diakite to send the regional final against Purdue into overtime. Diakite’s catch-and-shoot jumper was possible only after a scramble to recover a missed free throw put the ball on the other side of half court, all within the final 5.9 seconds.
“Given the circumstances and what was on the line, it was unreal for the presence of mind of Mamadi and Kihei, Mamadi to tap it, Kihei to chase it down to make that pass. The situation was there was 5.9 seconds when Ty went to the free-throw line, and obviously I didn’t instruct him to miss it, but I said, ‘All right, if he misses it, try to tap it, just tap it out of there. I put someone in at the scorer’s table so if Ty makes that second free-throw, we’re going to try to trap, get a steal, make a play, or follow right away, and then they’ll be at the line. You can have 4 1/2, 5 seconds to still run a play.’ I was trying to stay in the moment.
“Ty looked at the bench, and I didn’t say, ‘Miss it,’ because I thought there was enough time if he made it. I wish I could say that’s how we practiced it. If he misses, that’s what was there. But Kihei, his instincts, and Mamadi to not drop it, I’m still in awe of that. It was such a high-level game, and Purdue played so well. I feel for Matt and those guys, but you had to make that play the way Carsen Edwards was playing and obviously the way that setting was.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo won’t rule out running an extra defender at Texas Tech swingman Jarrett Culver, who stood out in the Spartans’ preparation for the Red Raiders.
“I’ve been really impressed with him. I love guys — I had a kid named Gary Harris a couple of years ago who I thought was one of the best two-way players I’ve ever had. He could do it on the offensive end. He could do it on the defensive end. He could impact the game in both. I think Culver does that. I don’t know if he’s Scottie Pippen-ish like. I know there’s guys of that era I watched even more. I think he’s got versatility, and he’s a scorer that plays defense. Sometimes those are harder to come by, and I think that’s what makes him so special.”
Izzo is expected to see a familiar face on Friday, when Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins — a Michigan State product — swings by and talks to the team.
Izzo hit triple digits and tossed his scorecard when he most recently saw Cousins. It was a by-invitation round at Augusta National arranged by athletic director Mark Hollis. Kirk Herbstreit was also in the foursome.
“We had a little football-basketball, and we had a good time,” Izzo said. “Kirk Cousins is a pretty good golfer, too. Me, I’m just a ham-and-egg guy, kind of slap it around a little bit and hopefully stay out of trouble. You know, when you don’t hit it that far, you’re never in the woods, so I was never in trouble anyway.”
—By Jeff Reynolds, Field Level Media