Backcourt battle set to take center stage for Virginia vs. Auburn
MINNEAPOLIS — Jared Harper knew the message he wanted to send after winning the Midwest Regional. Taking the microphone on the stage at center of the Sprint Center court, he delivered it loud and clear for the nation — and for the Virginia Cavaliers — to hear.
“Best backcourt in the nation,” Harper declared proudly Sunday afternoon.
In the moment, it would have been hard to argue with him. Harper, the Tigers’ point guard, and Bryce Brown, their shooting guard, had just combined for 50 points in a win over Kentucky. They outclassed the Wildcats’ guards all game long, both playing 39 minutes. After the Tigers lost Chuma Okeke in the Sweet 16, they needed their backcourt to be at its best, and it was exactly that.
The previous night, Kihei Clark, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy had also made their claim for nation’s best backcourt, though they, unlike Harper, certainly didn’t vocalize it in the aftermath of a thrilling, exhausting 80-75 overtime win over Purdue. Jerome and Guy had recorded 49 points and 15 rebounds combined, and Clark made the season-saving pass that found Mamadi Diakite for the season-saving shot that’s already gone down in Cavaliers lore.
Good veteran guard play is commonly a significant factor in determining who has success in March. Both the Cavaliers, with juniors Jerome and Guy, and the Tigers, with seniors Harper and Brown, fulfill that category better than just about anyone. It’s no coincidence both teams are two games from a national championship.
“A lot of people say that guards win in March,” Jerome said. “Everyone at this point has really good guards. Everyone is battle-tested at this stage.”
Hence, the best way to slow either of these teams down is to limit the guards. It’s much easier said than done.
For the Tigers, it starts with Harper. The speedy SEC second-teamer is what makes his team go. He is unafraid of big moments and comes in as the Tigers’ second-leading scorer. Outside a foul-ridden Sweet 16 against North Carolina, Harper has averaged over 20 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, and he poured in 26 against Kentucky to punch the Tigers’ ticket to Minneapolis.
Harper is a terrific three-point shooter (41 percent), and over half of his shots come from deep, per Hoop-Math.com. That doesn’t mean he can’t force the issue off the dribble, too, though. Against Kentucky, he got to the free throw line 11 times, and seven of his eight made field goals were two-pointers.
That’s where Clark, Virginia’s lightning-quick freshman point guard, comes in. Auburn backup guard J’Von McCormick compared him with undersized LSU star Tremont Waters, and Harper had high praise as well.
“He’s a great defensive player who likes to pressure the ball,” Harper said. “It’s not going to take just one person or just me to try to get by. It’s going to be a team effort.”
Helping Harper is Brown, the SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player. Brown’s shot splits are even more extreme than Harper’s. Nearly three-quarters of his field goal attempts are from three, and, at 6-foot-3, Brown has no issue shooting over most opposing guards. He has made 13 of his last 24 triples since struggling in the Round of 64. Brown said Friday that his team “may have to make more threes than usual” against the Cavaliers’ pack line defense, and he could be a big part of that.
On the other side, Jerome and Guy will look to continue their impressive play.
Jerome, like Harper, is the fearless leader running the show. He’s hit big shot after big shot in his three years in Charlottesville, and this year, he ascended to becoming one of the nation’s most effective passers, too: He became the only player in Virginia program history to average at least six assists per game in ACC play. Jerome is a steady presence but an emotional one, too. When he senses Virginia is building momentum, he’ll wave his arms to energize the crowd, and he’s always talking — whether to the opponent, to his teammates or just in general — on the court.
Guy, though, is the major reason Virginia is in Minneapolis in the first place. After struggling mightily through the first three rounds, Guy canned five triples in the second half, helping the Cavaliers survive Carsen Edwards’ otherworldly performance. Guy finished with 25 points in the Elite Eight after just 22 in the previous three games combined.
But two good players don’t make a great backcourt, just like five good players don’t make a great team. Depth matters, and both of these teams’ backcourts possess it.
For the Tigers, that depth comes in the form of McCormick, a quick 6-footer who doesn’t shoot much but makes his shots count, shooting over 50 percent from the field. He’s has two double-digit outings in the NCAA Tournament after having just one in the regular season.
For the Cavaliers, that depth comes in the form of Clark and, at times, De’Andre Hunter, who, though not a primary ball-handler, is listed as a guard and can score inside and out at 6-foot-7.
Virginia’s test against Auburn will be a tough one. The Tigers force the most turnovers and record the most steals, on a percentage basis, in the nation. The Cavaliers turn the ball over just nine times per game, best in the nation, and their backcourt is a big reason for that.
Though the Cavaliers’ overall numbers in the turnover department are excellent, there have been times when the backcourt has struggled. Against a hard-pressing NC State team in the regular season, the Cavaliers had a season-high 16 turnovers, and Jerome suffered a back injury that caused him to miss the following game. Virginia escaped with a 66-65 overtime win over a then Top-25 team, but given the way the Wolfpack took the Cavaliers out of their offensive rhythm, it proved to be a learning opportunity for Bennett’s group, too.
“Auburn is definitely similar to them in a way,” Jerome said. “They’ll pressure you. … It’ll be a dogfight.”
The Tigers noticed those struggles, too.
“It’s gonna be easier for us smaller guys to press under [Jerome], because he doesn’t like ball pressure, so it’s gonna be good for us,” McCormick said.
The returns from that game were encouraging for the Cavaliers, though. The next time the two teams met, in the first round of the ACC Tournament, Virginia won 76-56.
But at this stage there are no second opportunities. The Cavaliers’ two junior guards know that.
“I think it’s a testament that we’re going to have to take care of the ball,” Guy said. “Unfortunately, we won’t have two chances at Auburn, so we’re just going to have to be disciplined in what we know how to do.”
Story by Zach Pereles