AUBURN, Ala. (WIAT) — Former Auburn staffers are reflecting on what it means to see the Tigers reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.
In a digital extra, you can watch their emotional thoughts in the videos above and below.
AUBURN, Ala. (WIAT) — Everywhere you go in Auburn, the topic of conversation turns to Auburn basketball. The Tigers will make their first appearance in the Final Four this weekend, and fans all over town are looking forward to it.
Auburn will face Virginia without star forward Chuma Okeke, who injured his knee in a Sweet 16 victory against North Carolina, but has helped inspire the Tigers to the first Final Four in school history.
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Virginia’s climb to its Final Four breakthrough began with a sound defensive scheme, a steadfast foundation allowing the Cavaliers to grind down even the best and most balanced of offenses for years.
At Texas Tech, it’s as much about pairing an aggressive edge with the X’s and O’s and scouting work that has led to defensive efficiency not seen in years.
Their presence in Minneapolis for Saturday’s national semifinals is the biggest reason why this is such a defensive-minded Final Four. The approaches differ for the Cavaliers and Red Raiders, but the results can look awfully similar – with opponents seeing their best options taken away while finishing with low scoring totals, bad shooting percentages and high levels of frustration.
There’s one other common thread, too.
“If you don’t want to play defense,” Texas Tech’s Kyler Edwards said, “you’re not going to play.”
The Cavaliers, the lone No. 1 seed to make it to the tournament’s final weekend, have been a fixture in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings since their breakout 2014 season under Tony Bennett. They enter Saturday’s semifinal against Auburn ranked fifth nationally, surrendering 88.7 points per 100 possessions, a metric that factors out Virginia’s slower offensive pace and offers a better measure of performance than scoring averages depressed by slower tempos and low-possession games.
Texas Tech has made a rapid rise in three seasons under Chris Beard, entering its semifinal against Michigan State leading in defensive efficiency (84.0) with the lowest score in KenPom’s records dating to the 2002 season.
So how do they do it?
For Virginia, it’s all about the pack-line defense – a man-to-man scheme that packs four defenders inside an imaginary arc to clog the paint against driving lanes while having one player applying pressure on the ball.
When working right, there’s crowd of defenders to greet any driver. Those driving lanes open if the players are in the wrong spot, and lacking that ball pressure allows a ball handler to – as Alabama transfer Braxton Key put it – “window shop” for an easy pass.
It’s a simple approach, just not so easy to beat.
“They’re very vanilla,” said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a former coach at Manhattan, St. John’s and New Mexico. “There’s not a lot of deviation. There’s not a lot of adjusting for opponents’ strengths. It’s more, ‘This is what we do and you’re going to have to beat us by making outside shots,’ because most nights we’re not letting you to get into the paint.”
Still, it takes adjustments for players in learning that unwavering approach.
“Just growing up, every basketball place, everywhere I’ve played, it’s just force it to the baseline,” Key said. “We force everything to the middle and allow no baseline.”
Virginia’s defense depends upon executing its own principles while remaining largely static, regardless of the opponent. The Red Raiders, on the other hand, offer a little more versatility and apply a lot more aggressive pressure.
Former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, now an ESPN analyst, pointed to one element in particular: the ability of the Red Raiders to get into passing lanes, making it difficult to reverse the ball out of trouble from one side of the court to the other.
“So basically, they’re putting you in a box,” Greenberg said. “What they’re trying to do is pressure the ball, make you drive it to bad spots on the floor, not allow you to reverse the basketball and again speed you up. … Say if Virginia switches, they’ll switch and stay in their gaps. Texas Tech will switch and deny.”
That leads to turnovers, which the Red Raiders have been eager to convert into baskets. They have 67 points off turnovers in their first four NCAA Tournament games.
Beard, chosen The Associated Press coach of the year Thursday, said he looks for how well his players are communicating defensively to see if they’re ready. That much was clear Friday during the Red Raiders’ public practice session, when players ran a drill that had them running back quickly as though defending in transition.
“Get out, get out, get out!” reserve big man Malik Ondigo yelled toward a teammate as he pointed toward the wing. “Pick up!”
The opponent was imaginary, but the urgency was real.
“It’s our plan,” Beard said in an interview with the AP. “Everybody kind of has a plan to win, an identity. … Really it’s our culture. It’s what we believe in. Not that other teams don’t, but it’s just who we are. It’s not a secret.”
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Auburn, Virginia, Michigan State and Texas Tech have arrived in Minneapolis for the Final Four.
Teams will practice on Thursday and hold open-to-the-public workouts on Friday. The national semifinals are on Saturday, when Auburn faces Virginia and Michigan State takes on Texas Tech. The championship game is on Monday.
The last time Minneapolis hosted the Final Four was in 2001, when Duke beat Arizona for the title at the Metrodome. That stadium was torn down in 2014 to make room for U.S. Bank Stadium, the $1.1 billion building that opened in 2016.
Michigan State was in the Final Four in 2001, too, one of 10 times the Spartans have made it. Virginia is making its third appearance. Auburn and Texas Tech are first-timers.
AUBURN, Ala. (WIAT) — Trey Johnston has made a lot of memories in his family’s shop in Auburn over the years. But the Final Four is something he’s never experienced.
Johnston and his brother own J&M Bookstore, a fixture in downtown Auburn since their father opened it in 1953. Just down the street from Toomer’s Corner, the store has become an iconic establishment for Auburn students and for fans visiting on football Saturdays. This week, they’re selling Final Four shirts for the first time.
“This is just incredible right now,” Johnston said. “We’re all building for A-Day in a couple weeks. All of a sudden, we’re chasing Final Four T-shirts and possible national championships.”
It’s a nice boost of business during a typically slow time of year when fans typically fix their focus on football spring practice. But basketball is the big topic now, and it’s brought enough extra business to require reinforcements.
“I recently retired from J&M Bookstore,” Johnston said. “But being a part owner, my brother has drafted me back to be working this weekend – this week, for that matter – because we’ve had to catch up a little bit on sales and what’s happening.”
The rush started Sunday evening following Auburn’s overtime victory over hoops power Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Fans stormed Toomer’s Corner and, in keeping with tradition, rolled the area’s trees with toilet paper. Johnson decided to open the store, but by the time he arrived on campus the closest parking was at Auburn Junior High School, 1.8 miles away. He walked to the store and opened its doors to a crowd of passionate fans.
“They came in wheelchairs, they came in walkers, they came in strollers,” he said. Young, old, all types. Even ran into a couple of my Bama buddies. They’ve fallen in love with the Auburn Tigers now – at least Auburn Tiger basketball.”
It’s the latest Auburn memory for a lifelong Tiger fan – the son of a bookstore owner and a former Miss Auburn. He’s seen the campus change, the town grow, and, finally, the development of the basketball team.
“Growing up in Auburn when Auburn was really a small village was really unique,” Johnston said. “And to see it where it is now with all the growth, development and people wanting to live here and raise their children here, and the success of the basketball, the new arena and things like that – it’s mind-boggling, really.”
Auburn plays Virginia in the Final Four Saturday at 5:09 p.m.
AUBURN, Ala (WIAT) — Auburn fans sent off the men’s basketball team with a reverse tiger walk on Wednesday as the team headed to the Final Four in Minneapolis.
Hundreds of fans showed up including students, alumni, and kids.
“It’s one of those situations where no one thought we would be here so it’s awesome,” Logan Thrasher, a sophomore at Auburn, said. “First Final Four so its cool making history.”
Auburn fans said they are honored to be going to the Final Four, and say they even welcome Alabama fans to jump on board.
“If they’re willing to cheer for Auburn since this is the first time any school from Alabama has gone to Final Four, it’s ok if they cheer for Auburn. Just don’t get nasty about it,” Faye Whidbee laughed.
Allen Greene, the athletic director, said this moment is much bigger than anything they could have imagined.
“Right now it’s about the state of Alabama and Auburn is thrilled to be carrying the flag for the state,” Greene said.
The team is also reminded of what this game not only means to their fans, but the community like in Lee County.
“I think it’s about culture. It has to do with Coach Pearl getting his guys all to believe in one another and believe in themselves and obviously a big part of what we do as Auburn family is help support our own community,” Greene said.
Those moments like visiting schools in their community have made a lasting impression
”It mean a lot that someone that big would come and talk to just a bunch of 6th graders when they have so much going on during the season,” Margie Grace Wilder, a 6th grader at Drake Middle School in Auburn, said.
That positive attitude is what Auburn fans are rooting for, no matter the outcome.
“No matter what happens it’s so emotional and wonderful to be here and send them off and cheer for them now,” Vicki Moore, an Auburn fan, said.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala (WIAT) — The Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport didn’t see much traffic Wednesday, but airline staff say that’s typically the case.
Still, a few Auburn Tiger fans were catching flights out to the Final Four game. And as you can imagine, they couldn’t be more excited about rooting on their team!
Airline staff say, those catching flights out this Wednesday, may be getting to Minneapolis a little cheaper than those leaving Thursday or Friday.
Watch the video above for more details.
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) – Jared Harper might just epitomize this Auburn basketball team: overlooked, undersized and playing about as well as anybody.
The Tigers’ 5-foot-11 point guard has been a driving force in their surprising run to their first Final Four. He has supplied clutch plays , especially against Kentucky, blink-and-you-miss-it drives and 3-pointers.
Now, Harper and Auburn face top-seeded Virginia on Saturday in Minneapolis. The diminutive junior is coming off the biggest performance of his career, a 26-point, five-assist, four-rebound, three-steal stat sheet stuffer against the Wildcats.
“I can only speak for Jared, and just tell you that size does matter, but it’s never been a factor for him,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “He uses speed and quickness to be able to define his game. I’ve seen him in many major moments and the moments haven’t been too big for him.”
Or for Auburn, so far.
Harper scored the final points of regulation on a scooping layup against Kentucky, then added 12 of Auburn’s 17 overtime points en route to a 77-71 upset.
That performance now has a program that ended a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought a year ago only two wins away from a national title – which is pretty much like Harper predicted when the high school teammate of Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton arrived at Auburn as the point guard Pearl badly needed.
“When he first came to Auburn, he said he wanted to have an ESPN ’30 for 30′ story on how he led Auburn to a championship and brought them back,” said Patrick Harper, his father and a high school coach. “I said, ‘Yeah, right. We’re not that good.’
“He had that vision. I still remind him that he said it and he believed it. He set the goals high.”
Harper has been a centerpiece of Auburn’s rebuild, along with sharp-shooting guard Bryce Brown and versatile forward Chuma Okeke, who tore the ACL his left knee in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina. Six-foot-11 center Austin Wiley dealt with injuries this season and mostly comes off the bench for limited minutes.
Harper, meanwhile, has started 103 games over the past three years, and his numbers have climbed across the board every year.
“I wouldn’t have thought that they were a Final Four-type team until I realized how good the point guard was,” said former Auburn coach and current radio color commentator Sonny Smith.
The NCAA Tournament has thrust Harper – and the Tigers – onto the national stage. His huge game against Kentucky helped Auburn overcome the emotional loss of Okeke.
He demurred on taking too much credit after that game, citing the play of teammates like Samir Doughty and Brown.
“That gives me confidence going into overtime to be able the make those plays because I have the same confidence in them to make plays,” Harper said.
Spoken like a true point guard.
He has more than held his own in three straight games against teams with point guards who were five-star recruits, according to the 247Sports composite ranking of the major recruiting sites.
Kentucky has Ashton Hagans, North Carolina has Coby White and Kansas has Devon Dotson. And Auburn is perfectly happy with Harper, who wasn’t quite blue-chip enough to get recruited by any of those blue bloods.
Harper wasn’t a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award given to the nation’s top point guard, and he wasn’t among the eight players who Southeastern Conference coaches picked for the all-conference team. Neither was Brown or Okeke, for that matter.
Pearl doesn’t think Harper’s play is driven by feeling overlooked or underrated.
“I don’t think he does play (ticked) off or with much of an edge,” the coach said. “I think it’s because he’s always played that way. He’s always been overlooked. So, he just goes about his business and it’ll be like that in the NBA for him.
“There are 30 teams in the league, and most of them won’t want an undersized point guard, but there will be a couple that are smart enough that will. He’ll make his way onto one of those rosters, and then they’ll see the value.”
Auburn already understands Harper’s value.
He is averaging 15.4 points per game and is tied for the SEC lead with 5.8 assists per game. He is third in free-throw percentage and fourth in both 3-pointers made per game and assist-turnover ratio.
Harper is the pacesetter for Auburn’s frequently up-tempo style.
He also is pretty good at predictions, including one he made the morning of the Kentucky game.
“He said, ‘Dad, we’re going to win this game and I’m going to have a big game,'” the proud father recalled. “And he delivered.”
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Auburn students and fans are still celebrating the basketball team’s latest victory, but also looking forward to the first Final Four appearance in school history.
More than 24 hours after the win and Toomer’s Corner is still covered in toilet paper. Families drove from all over to catch a glimpse at what was left of the victory party.
“We grew up there watching and I said we are on spring break this week so let’s head down and pick up some shirts. We’ve been cheering for them my whole life and this season has just been fun and electric so we decided to come down and support them in the final four,” said Zach Aimes, who drove with his family from Georgia.
While the Aimes family arrived in time to see crews busy cleaning up, many students won’t forget the celebration that took place Sunday.
“A bunch of us got some lunch downtown and watched the game and after the game was over we came down to Toomer’s corner and people were just sprinting from all directions. Whenever you looked up you couldnt’ even see the sky because everything was just white,” said Lindsey Jinwright, an Auburn senior from Helena.
Students were happy to see the trees covered in toilet paper during the spring.
“I am used to that with football, but to have it happen after a basketball game it was awesome,” said Robert Hall.
Hall was donning an Auburn basketball shirt Monday. There was no shortage of tiger pride for neighbors walking downtown basking in the sunlight and the latest victory.
“Watched it all on TV and live stream and wanted to come to see the results,” said Donna Velasquez.
The Velasquez family drove from Chilton County for a look at the Auburn campus Monday. They will now turn their attention to Saturday’s game – when Velasquez won’t change any of her pre-game rituals.
“Wearing the same shirt I wore, wear my hair the same way. Got all my superstitious stuff, and ready to turn on the TV, ready to watch it,” said Velasquez.
Merchants like J & M Bookstore are waiting for a large shipment of Final Four gear but owner Trey Johnston told CBS 42 they are already busy.
“They day after the victory has been incredible. We have been bombarded with requests for merchandise,” said Johnston.
Most students told CBS 42 that they planned to watch the game from Auburn, but some are finalizing plans to head to Minneapolis.