As the national semifinal matchup between the Auburn Tigers and the Virginia Cavaliers approaches, the 3-pointer appears sure to influence the game’s outcome in more ways than one. In this year’s tournament, the 3-point shot has been perhaps the most crucial factor in determining whether or not a team’s season comes to an end. That is the case for Auburn and Virginia, although for very different reasons.
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This season, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers have been one of the most potent offenses. Led by senior guard Bryce Brown, who has made 41% of his shots from 3-point range, Auburn is the most lethal team in the country in terms of 3-pointers made, converting 445 times this season. The Tigers weren’t shy from behind the arc, averaging more than 30 attempts per game.
Auburn is 28 3-point shots away from breaking the record of 76 in an NCAA tournament set by last year’s Villanova squad. The Tigers are also closing in on the record for most 3-pointers attempted by a team in a NCAA tourney, sitting 63 behind the defending champions. The record of 183 is well within Auburn’s reach, given that the Tigers are putting up close to 31 treys in this year’s March Madness.
Brown stressed the importance of the 3-ball against Virginia. He said shooting will play a key role in advancing to the national championship game while also emphasizing the importance of a fast pace.
“To be honest I feel like we just have to keep playing the way we’ve been playing, pushing the ball in transition,” Brown said. “They’re a much slower paced team than us so we feel like we can get out in transition pretty well. Just continuing to get points in transition. We may have to take more threes than usual, but I just feel like if we play the way we’ve played top teams we’ll be fine.”
Auburn’s 3-point frenzy has paid off so far, defeating iconic programs in Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky after a close first-round victory against New Mexico State. The focus on shooting from deep helped Auburn rip off 12 straight wins heading into this weekend’s Final Four, a stretch where the Tigers cashed in on 378 3-pointers.
PREVIEW: Auburn takes on Virginia
Junior center Austin Wiley said he enjoys Pearl’s style of coaching. “He’s strict on defense,” Wiley said. “But on offense, after you go where he wants you to go, he lets you rock out a little bit. He’s fun to play for.”
While Auburn has embraced the 3-ball, Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad has taken a defensive-minded approach to the strategy. The Cavaliers come in fourth in the country in 3-point defense, giving up just 28.7% on 787 attempts.
Although junior guard Kyle Guy (42.7%) is known for his prowess from behind the arc, Virginia has been known to slow the game down for both the Cavaliers and their opponents. Junior guard Braxton Key described how the team plans to contain Auburn’s offense.
“They’re really fast, they shoot a lot of threes, they get up and down, they thrive off of turnovers,” Key said. “So we’re just going to have to take good care of the ball, rebound the ball well, and we’re going to have to play one of our best games all year in order to beat them.”
In its four NCAA tournament victories, Virginia has been defending the perimeter at an impressive rate. From 3-point range, the Cavaliers held Gardner-Webb to 39.1%, Oklahoma to 36.4%, and Oregon to 27.3%. Their game plan was tested in the Elite Eight against Purdue, when the Boilermakers shot a sizzling 43.8% from downtown. Led by Carsen Edwards (42 points, 10 3-pointers), Purdue nearly toppled Virginia, but Bennett’s team prevailed. Bennett sees the 3-pointer as a “huge part” of the game, especially in a tournament that has the record for most 3-point baskets (1,030), according to the NCAA.
“I think it’s following the trend, even with the NBA,” Bennett said. “Guys now can shoot at such deep range. A lot of times it’s just four guys on the floor, or five guys. The three ball, just from what Golden State has done, and other teams, and then in the college game, it’s creeping down, and you’re seeing it.
“Again, guys can shoot it off the bounce,” Bennett continued. “Guys shoot -- the range amazes me. Obviously what these guys [Auburn] can do, what Carsen Edwards did. You’re watching Auburn’s players. It’s just become a huge part of the game. What Villanova did last year, all those things. So it’s a trend for sure.”
Zach Griffith is a student in the M.A. program in Sports Journalism at IUPUI and part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program.