Building a coaching philosophy depends on a combination of core beliefs and borrowing tactics from predecessors who have succeeded.
For Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, the latter part of that sentiment involved, early in his career, guidance on defensive principles from one of the best sources around.
“One of the very first videotapes I ever bought was Dick Bennett’s man-to-man defense,” Pearl said of the longtime coach known for defense at various college coaching stops, including Wisconsin. “And believe it or not, it was about pressuring the ball … [and] sending everything to the baseline.”
Those principles will be on display in Saturday’s semifinal in a fascinating matchup against Virginia on multiple fronts. Not only is Auburn’s greatest strength this season — creating turnovers — extremely difficult to do against the Cavaliers, but also Virginia happens to be coached by someone else pretty familiar with Dick Bennett’s methods: Tony Bennett, his son.
“I was like, ‘Why do you have to do these instructional videos back then?’ ” Tony Bennett said. “My dad, he’s an open book, as they say. He’s so honest. He just wants to help the game because the game’s been so good to him.”
How the turnover battle plays out very well might determine which team advances to Monday’s championship game.
Auburn has generated turnovers on 24.9 percent of its opponents’ possessions this season — the highest rate in all of Division I men’s basketball, per KenPom.com. Not surprisingly, the Tigers are also No. 1 in steal rate at 13.3 percent. Auburn has won the turnover battle in all four NCAA games so far and has an overall edge of 60-37 in the tourney.
Virginia, though, is about as patient as any team in the country. The Cavaliers play at the slowest pace of all 353 Division I teams and are careful with the ball — turning it over on just 12.7 percent of possessions, seventh-lowest in college basketball.
So how does Auburn reconcile its strength and Virginia’s strength?
“The more you try to turn them over, the better you make their offense,” Pearl said. “So the challenge for me is do we do what got us here, or do we play them the way you need to play them in order to be able to contain that system.”
It’s a challenge players say they’re willing to accept.
“We’ve been playing fast this whole tournament and we’re just going to keep trying to play fast and make them speed up and make turnovers,” said Auburn junior Danjel Purifoy. “That’s how we’re going to win the game.”
If it can’t force turnovers, it might put pressure on Auburn to score points in a half-court setting — but the Tigers are no slouches in that category. They are No. 6 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, and they make 38.3 percent of their three-point attempts — good for No. 15 nationally.
Virginia is strong in both categories, too. Could there be a shootout between these two teams? What in the name of Dick Bennett is going on here?
“The rims are soft,” Pearl said after his team got a chance to get up a bunch of shots Thursday at U.S. Bank Stadium. “I think the shooting percentages will be good.”