- - Monday, April 1, 2019

The Virginia “Pack Line” defense gets a lot of attention, and for good reason, as the Cavaliers allow just 55.4 points per game.

But the Cavaliers offense is also very effective and has drawn the attention of Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whose team faces Virginia on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament semifinals.

“I think they’ve got some great balance,” Pearl said in a conference call Monday. “They have a number of guys who can and will shoot the 3 ball. They do a really good job of getting to the free throw line. They value possessions; they only turn the ball over nine times per game.”

The Cavaliers (33-3) will face Auburn (30-9) at 6:09 p.m. in Minneapolis. It will be third Final Four appearance for Virginia and the first since 1984. The South Regional final overtime win Saturday over Purdue came 10 years to the day that coach Tony Bennett was hired in Charlottesville.

“Tony has been one I cheer for,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team won the East Regional final on Sunday over Duke in the District. “I am very excited Tony made it.”

And Bennett’s team made it with efficiency.

Virginia is averaging 123 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom. The Cavaliers are shooting 47.4 percent from the field and averaging 71.3 points and 14.3 assists per game.

Kyle Guy (15.2 points per game), De’Andre Hunter (14.9) and Ty Jerome (13.3) lead Virginia in scoring.

“I think we had some years in the past where we have been up there in offensive efficiency,” Bennett said. “You have to be assertive and have an aggressiveness and you have to take good shots.”

The opposing coaches share a slight connection. Pearl was the coach at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Horizon League when Bennett was an assistant at University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 2000s.

“You understand … just how scrappy they are,” Bennett said. “Just a really good team, as everyone is at this stage.”

Auburn will be without Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL on Friday against North Carolina.

“The way they played without him (Sunday) was very impressive,” Bennett said.

This is the first trip as a coach to the Final Four for Bennett, a former NBA guard.

The Cavaliers were upset by University of Maryland-Baltimore County in the first round last season — the first time a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 16 seed.

“That experience has helped them grind this tremendous run they have had,” Pearl said.

All four schools have had some favorable bounces over the first two weekends of the tournament — and all four will take whatever good luck charms they can find this weekend as well.

While Magic Johnson is a proud alum and visible fan of Michigan State, former Virginia star Ralph Sampson has been a big supporter of the Cavaliers. Sampson led Virginia to its first Final Four in 1981 and had a long NBA career.

“He has been so good to me,” Bennett said of Sampson. “Obviously he is a legend and what he has done for Virginia basketball. He has definitely been at practices (this season).”

The second game Saturday pit Michigan State (32-6) against Texas Tech (30-6). The Spartans had not won a game by less than four points this season until the 68-67 thriller over Duke on Sunday.

The Red Raiders’ roster includes redshirt senior forward Tariq Owens, who grew up in Odenton, Maryland, and played at Pallotti High in Laurel and at Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore.

He is averaging 8.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a starter and had a key block down the stretch in the win Saturday over Gonzaga. Owens began his college career at Tennessee and played at St. John’s before becoming a graduate transfer at Texas Tech.

“We basically just try to stay old. This year we have four seniors,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. “Experience has always been part of our equation.”

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