By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MINNEAPOLIS – Some 70,000 fans will pack U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday evening for the start of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four. Once their locker room was opened for interviews Thursday afternoon, Virginia’s players might have thought at least that many media members were in town for the event, too, such was the crush of bodies in that confined area.
The Cavaliers didn’t seem to mind, though. This was all part of the Final Four experience, they realized, along with the photo and video shoots that had filled their Thursday morning at the Minnesota Vikings’ stadium.
“I think the first thing you gotta do is just take a second and enjoy it,” junior guard Ty Jerome said. “We worked so hard to be here. Enjoy all the media — some of it was fun — and enjoy being here with your brothers and your teammates.”
At 6:09 p.m. Eastern, in the first NCAA semifinal Saturday, UVA (33-3) meets Auburn (30-9) at U.S. Bank Stadium. Michigan State (32-6) and Texas Tech (30-6) follow in the second semifinal. CBS will televise both games. For the Wahoos, this is their first trip to the Final Four since 1984.
“Watching college basketball [as a boy] and filling out your bracket, you dream of this setting,” freshman guard Kihei Clark said.
The Cavaliers arrived in the Twin Cities on Wednesday, as did the other semifinalists, so the players will have plenty of time to get acclimated to their surroundings before the biggest game of their lives tips off Saturday night.
“I think if you show up the day before, then it becomes tough to enjoy the other stuff, because you gotta really lock in immediately,” Jerome said. “So we’re got two days to enjoy it first.”
Junior guard Kyle Guy said he’s “like a kid in a candy store this week. This is the stuff we dream of, but at the end of the day I’m just trying to soak it all up, have fun with it but also be as laser-focused as possible.”
For UVA assistant coach Brad Soderberg, this is his second Final Four. His first was with Wisconsin in 2000, when he was one of Dick Bennett’s assistants. Soderberg’s boss at Virginia is Tony Bennett, Dick’s son, who was a volunteer manager for the Badgers in 2000.
Soderberg knows well how the hoopla of a Final Four can distract a team.
“The most important thing that we have to understand is it’s about Saturday’s game, [not] the police escorts and the media things and the video stuff and the ESPN,” Soderberg said. “It’s about the game. And the team that can best understand that at 5 o’clock [Central] is going to have a leg up on the other.”
In Jerome, Guy, Jack Salt and De’Andre Hunter, the Wahoos have veteran players who should be able to block out all the distractions. Still, Soderberg said, it will be impossible to know for sure until the game starts Saturday night.
“It’s an experience that, as prepared as you might think they are, they’ve never had anything like this,” Soderberg said. “It’s just crazy.”
Bennett’s message to his players?
“He tells us to enjoy it but also remain humble and not to let it get to your head,” junior forward Braxton Key said. “Honestly, it’s a blessing to be here. We were on the other end of it last year.”
Starting at noon Central, the ‘Hoos will practice for 50 minutes at U.S. Bank Stadium in a session that’s open to the public. The stands were empty Thursday morning when the ‘Hoos took the court for a practice that was as intense as if they were back at John Paul Jones Arena.
“Everyone was super locked-in,” Jerome said, “because we know what we’re here for.”
Key said: “For a second I forgot I was here, honestly. I forgot I was in Minnesota or how big this arena is. You realize it’s just basketball at the end of the day.”
The ‘Hoos have played – and won – this season in a stadium that’s also used for football: Syracuse’s Carrier Dome. But that March 4 game drew 29,052 fans – a huge crowd, but nothing compared to what the ‘Hoos can expect Saturday night in a much bigger venue.
The court in Syracuse is placed at one end of the Carrier Dome. “This is the full stadium,” Salt said, “so it’s definitely good to get a practice in today and get used to the depth perception.”
Clark said: “It’s really big, and then I think the depth behind the basket is pretty far. We just had to adjust, but I thought we did a good job of adjusting.”
As is often the case when UVA plays, its game with Auburn will feature contrasting styles. Virginia has allowed an average of only 55.4 points per game and prefers to play at a methodical pace.
The Tigers, meanwhile, are averaging 80.2 points and have scored 89, 97 and 77 in their past three games – wins over blue bloods Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky, respectively.
Neither Virginia nor Auburn has built its program with one-and-done recruits.
“I think that’s what the beauty of college basketball is,” Bennett said. “There’s so many different ways to build the program and there’s so many different styles and systems of play, and I love that about the game. It’s pure. You don’t have to say, well, this is a cookie-cutter way to do it.”
In junior Jared Harper and senior Bryce Brown, Auburn has experienced and explosive guards who are prolific 3-point shooters. Brown has attempted 334 shots from beyond the arc this season, Harper 259. As a team, the Tigers have attempted more than 30 treys per game.
The Cavaliers will counter, as they always do, with their trademark Pack Line defense, a man-to-man system in which they try to clog the lane and force contested outside shots.
“We play everybody basically the same,” said Soderberg, who prepared UVA’s scouting report on Auburn. “We contend that if we can get five defenders back every possession, it increases our chances of stopping them.
“We try to keep people out of the lane. You might say that’s dumb strategy, [because the Tigers] shoot so many 3s. Well, what we’ve noticed is, the more they get in the lane, then all of the sudden they can spray it out to the 3.
“We’re just going to do what we do, and hopefully it’ll be enough. It may not be, because they’ve got so many weapons and they’re so well-drilled. Anybody that comes into [the Final Four] having beaten Carolina and Kansas and Kentucky in the last three, they have our attention, particularly Carolina, because we know everything about them.”
The Tigers defeated the Tar Heels 97-80. “They beat them at Carolina’s game, and Carolina runs like nobody else. They get end line to end line like nobody else.”
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said he doesn’t expect another track meet Saturday night.
“As far as tempo is concerned,” Pearl said, “I just don’t think we can make Virginia play faster than they play … We’re most likely, if we’re going to win, [going to have to] beat Virginia at their own pace.”
The Cavaliers are “extremely well-coached,” Pearl said. “They build a wall, and they just don’t let you see over it. Their greatest strength as a defense is our greatest strength as an offense.”
DOUBLE DUTY: Basketball is not the Cavaliers’ sole focus this week. Back in Charlottesville, the spring semester continues, and UVA’s players have to keep up with their schoolwork on the road.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge for them to have to manage,” said T.J. Grams, the team’s director of academics. “We were able to get back [from last weekend’s South Regional] and kind of center ourselves and go to class this week for a couple days, and that helped.
“And then the key is communicating early with our professors, and our professors have been very positive, especially when our guys have engaged with them earlier in this semester. That’s the key: continual communication.”
Virginia’s players met for study hall Wednesday night, “and I’ll work periodically throughout the week when assignments are due,” Grams said. “Then we’ve got registration next week for fall classes. So if we advance [to the NCAA title game], we’ll have to juggle getting up early and signing up for fall classes.”
Grams, whose father, Tom, is a former high school basketball coach, was a junior at Wisconsin when Dick Bennett’s team made its improbable run to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Grams and his dad attended the semifinals together at the RCA Dome, where Michigan State defeated Wisconsin 53-41.
Tom Grams will be at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday night, so “to be able to experience that with him here is really cool,” T.J. said.
ONE FOR THE AGES: If not for Mamadi Diakite’s last-second shot against Purdue in the South Region final, UVA would have lost in the Elite Eight last weekend in Louisville, Ky. Diakite’s 12-foot jumper, which forced overtime, capped a remarkable sequence that started with a missed free throw by Jerome and featured a long pass by Clark.
“I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I’m sure he’s the toast of the town in so many ways,” Bennett said of Diakite, a 6-9 redshirt junior from Guinea. “His shot was amazing. That shot will go down, the pass and the shot, in Virginia basketball history. From the start of the year, I said he’s an X-factor for us, and the way he’s played all tournament has been significant.”
In the NCAA tourney, Diakite is averaging 13 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game, and he’s long been a fan favorite at UVA.
“He’s a guy, if you’re around him, he’s got incredible joy,” Bennett said. “He’s got an infectious personality. He’s great that way. So I couldn’t be happier for him.”