MINNEAPOLIS — There’s redemption everywhere you look.
Redemption for Virginia after becoming the first top seed to lose to a No. 16 a year ago. Redemption for Bruce Pearl and Auburn after he was given another shot following his dismissal and show-cause penalty at Tennessee. He was then kept on after assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested last September as part of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball.
Both teams needed overtime to get here, and both have the weapons to cut down the nets Monday night. Here’s how The Post sees this matchup:
Without freshman Kihei Clark, Virginia would not have survived the Elite Eight. His scrambling assist led to the buzzer-beating jumper that forced overtime. But he will have his hands full with Jared Harper, Auburn’s speedy and skilled lead guard who is averaging 17.5 points and 6.5 assists in the tournament, and dominated Kentucky in the Midwest Region final.
Auburn’s Bryce Brown has put up slightly better numbers in the tournament, averaging 18.2 points per game, but Ty Jerome has been the epitome of clutch for Virginia, keying a game-closing 13-7 run in a narrow Sweet 16 win over Oregon and notching 24 points, seven assists and just one turnover in the South Region final overtime victory over Purdue. Both players are capable of getting hot, but Jerome, a New Rochelle native, is the more well-rounded player, a better rebounder and the Cavaliers’ leading distributor at 5.4 assists per game.
Kyle Guy found his stroke against Purdue, sinking five 3-pointers and scoring a team-high 25 points, after struggling from deep in the first three rounds. He’s also a quality rebounder for his size, averaging 4.6 boards. Malik Dunbar, a 6-foot-6 senior, is
Auburn’s glue guy, but he can score when provided opportunities. He was pivotal in the upset of North Carolina in the Sweet 16, scoring 13 points.
De’Andre Hunter is arguably the best NBA prospect in the Final Four, a projected lottery pick, but he hasn’t played like it, struggling at both ends of the floor since a strong opening-round showing. Still, the 6-foot-7 sophomore’s talent is obvious, and will make him a rich man very soon.
Mamadi Diakite gained nationwide fame for his buzzer-beater against Purdue, but his value exceeds more than just one shot. The 6-foot-9 native of Guinea has been one of the best big men in the tournament, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking 2.2 shots per game, and he has scored in double figures three times, easing the pressure on Virginia’s guards. Auburn’s loss of leading rebounder and shot-blocker Chuma Okeke (torn ACL) will loom large here, putting the onus on senior forward Horace Spencer to deal with Diakite.
Of the four teams in Minneapolis, only Auburn relies on its bench, and that’s even with Spencer being moved into the starting lineup after Okeke’s injury. Forwards Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley are capable options, and spark-plug guard J’Von McCormick has scored in double figures twice in the tournament, including a 16-point outburst in an opening-round win over New Mexico State. Forward Jack Salt is a valuable reserve for Virginia, as he contributed five points, eight rebounds and two steals against Purdue.
You have the fire, intensity and passion of Bruce Pearl versus the cool, calm demeanor of Tony Bennett. Both coaches are in their first Final Four, and both clearly know how to get the most out of their teams, each navigating close calls in this tournament to advance.
It would be foolish to count out Auburn after it strung together wins over blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in successive rounds. Harper and Brown have been a menace in the backcourt, and even without Okeke, the Tigers have the needed depth to make up for his loss of production. Virginia has yet to play its best in this tournament, struggling to beat Oregon and Purdue, and it won’t have an answer for Auburn’s end-to-end quickness in a crushing last-second defeat.
Auburn 72, Virginia 70