#4 Auburn Tigers vs. #13 College of Charleston Cougars
Friday, March 16, 7:27 p.m., truTV
Auburn Tigers (25-7, 13-5) – SEC at-large
Player to Watch: Jared Harper (13.7 PPG, 5.7 APG, 2.4 RPG)
Mustapha Heron and Bryce Brown might be explosive guards, but this Auburn backcourt isn’t complete without their sophomore point guard. Harper is the catalyst to this dangerous Auburn offense, and leads their three-headed attack. His 5.7 APG leads this Tigers team, and without a true inside presence, Auburn needs Harper to begin carry a bit more of a scoring load. Since the loss of forward Anfernee McLemore, Harper has done that in spurts. He has scored 18+ points in three of the last five games, but was held to just 7 points in Auburn’s loss to Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. Even without their starting center, Auburn’s offense can still carry them, but Jared Harper must play well, not just by setting up others, but by scoring on his own as well.
X-Factor: Auburn must force turnovers
College of Charleston is fourth in the country in fewest turnovers per game with just 9.6 turnovers per contest. Meanwhile, Auburn prides themselves on creating turnovers, ranking in the top 30 in Division I in turnovers forced per game. If Auburn can create turnovers, especially live-ball turnovers, that allows those guards and athletic forwards to get out in transition, where Auburn is so good. The Tigers arguably have a disadvantage down low, so they will have to rely on their guards who have carried them all year. Auburn can do just that by forcing turnovers early and often to take the pressure off Harper, Brown, and Heron having to create against a solid Charleston half-court defense.
College of Charleston Cougars (26-7, 14-4) – CAA automatic bid
Player to Watch: Jarrell Brantley (17.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG)
The Cougars backcourt also have a dynamic duo in Grant Riller and Joe Chealey, but Brantley, the junior forward, is the x-factor in just about every Charleston game. The Cougars are one of just a handful of programs that have three players averaging at least 17 points per game, and really spread you out. Brantley is wiry, athletic, long, and plays with an extremely high motor. Given Auburn’s lack of size and depth in the frontcourt, Brantley can give the Tigers all sorts of problems. He has proven himself to be a complete scorer this season but was just 1-8 from 3 in the CAA Tournament. Brantley can have a field day if he plays hard and lives in the paint, like he did in the CAA Championship game, finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds. However, if Brantley decides to play on the perimeter and try to take his defender on the bounce or settle for jumpshots, Auburn can contain him. Brantley must give Charleston an interior presence for them to have a chance to pull off the upset.
X-Factor: College of Charleston must control the pace of the game
You hear this a lot in Virginia games, and that’s not to say Charleston plays at that slow of a pace, but they are 324th in Division I in tempo, according to KenPom. Imagine the Cougars offense as an old station wagon. It’ll do just fine going 55 to 60 mph, a comfortable speed for the car. However, if the station wagon starts going 70 to 75 mph, issues could arise. Well, Auburn is going to try to speed up Charleston and play this game in 80’s. The Cougars may have three premier scorers, but they cannot keep up with Auburn if this game is played at a fast pace. That starts with Charleston not turning the ball over, but also using most of the shot clock on every possession and getting a good shot every time down the floor.
Matchup to Watch: Auburn’s guards vs. Charleston’s guards
This matchup more than likely won’t be all that important toward the outcome of the game as both teams’ guards should play well. But, these players are so much fun to watch. For Auburn, Jared Harper is the key, but Bryce Brown and Mustapha Heron are gifted scorers who can beat you in a variety of ways. Those three guards work together so well, and when they’re clicking, the Tigers are one of the most exciting teams in the country. As for Charleston, Joe Chealey is a leader. The senior guard will do anything to win, and is a guy that’s so easy to pull for. In the CAA Championship, Chealey’s right knee collided with a Northeastern player’s right knee on a drive to the basket with about five minutes left in the game. Charleston called a timeout and Chealey couldn’t even bend his knee walking over to the Cougars huddle. He came back out after the timeout and made play after play to lead the Cougars to their first CAA title. Grant Riller, his backcourt partner, is the complete opposite. Riller plays with a swagger and a chip on his shoulder, but is about as pure of a scorer as you will see in the NCAA Tournament. This matchup should be so much fun to watch.
Key Stat: Auburn’s 3-point shooting vs. Charleston’s 3-point defense
Auburn makes nearly 10 threes per game, and shoot almost 27 threes per game, both rank in the top 40 in college basketball. Meanwhile, College of Charleston are 182nd in Division I in defending the 3-point line; their opponents shoot 35% from beyond the arc. In the CAA Championship Game, Northeastern was 15-27 from the 3-point line, and that put Charleston down as many as 17 points in the second half. The Cougars came back and won, but will have to defend the 3 much better against Auburn because the Tigers are too good from long range.
Prediction: Charleston 71 – 69 Auburn
These teams are trending in completely opposite directions with Charleston winning 14 of their last 15 games while Auburn have lost 4 of their last 6. The loss of Anfernee McLemore for the season hurts, but what is more concerning is that Auburn have no contributing seniors, which could attribute to their inability to stop this skid. Also, it is much easier to slow a game down than speed the game up, and Joe Chealey’s leadership at the point guard position will help Charleston control the pace of the game. The Cougars haven’t been dancing since 1999, but they won’t be satisfied just to be here and look primed for an upset of the Auburn Tigers.