Big story line for Virginia
Putting UMBC in rearview mirror: How long will the 2017-18 Virginia basketball team have to live with being the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament? That might never happen again, but the Cavaliers quickly turned the page after overcoming an early double-digit deficit to Gardner-Webb in their first-round game this season. After that, their eventual reward was a run to the Final Four.
Big story line for Auburn
Playing for Okeke: The Tigers demolished Kansas and UNC by a combined 31 points in consecutive NCAA tournament games. But they were clearly underdogs against Kentucky without sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who watched from a wheelchair after tearing his ACL against the Tar Heels. Okeke was averaging 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in his past four games but motivated his teammates from off the floor in the Elite Eight.
Tony Bennett vs. Bruce Pearl: Bennett and Pearl (above) have a history that goes back to their roots in Wisconsin. Bennett played at Wisconsin-Green Bay from 1988-92 and coached under his father, Dick, at Wisconsin from 1999-2003. Pearl got his Division I head coaching start at Milwaukee, going to two NCAA tournaments in four seasons from 2001-05, including a Sweet 16 in his final season there before six years at Tennessee. He’s now in his fifth season at Auburn.
Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite: His shot in the waning seconds to send the Elite Eight game vs. Purdue into overtime will go down as one of the biggest moments in team history. Ty Jerome had to miss a free throw with 5.9 seconds left. Diakite (above right) tapped the ball past midcourt to Kihei Clark, who passed it back to him near the basket for the buzzer-beater. Diakite is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 13 points and nine rebounds in the past four games.
Virginia’s perimeter defense vs. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown
The Cavaliers rank third in the nation in three-point shooting defense (28.7) and fourth in opponent shooting percentage (38.4). Harper and Brown combined for 50 points and six steals in the Elite Eight overtime victory against Kentucky.
Virginia will win if …
The Cavaliers can limit possessions and keep their opponent under 70 points with the pack-line defense.
Auburn will win if …
Brown and Harper can get steals to score easy baskets in transition and not need to rely on three-point shooting.
Prediction: Virginia 68, Auburn 64