For the first time in 15 years, Auburn fans actually have a rooting interest in March Madness besides winning one of their dozen bracket challenges. The Tigers ended their NCAA Tournament drought in style by capturing their 3rd SEC regular season title and earning their 2nd highest tourney seed ever. Auburn needs only 2 wins to advance to the Sweet 16 and put an exclamation mark on what has been a thrilling season.
But those 2 wins won’t be easy. If the Tigers hope to play another week, they will first have get past a gutsy Charleston squad who ended an even longer NCAA tournament drought of their own this past week. A win Friday night would result in a showdown with two very talented defensive squads in #5 Clemson and #12 New Mexico State. But we can worry about them later, first let’s see what awaits the Tigers in the first (well technically 2nd) round Friday night in San Diego.
- Record: 26-7 (14-4)
- RPI: 57
- SOS: 199
- KenPom: 120
- BPI: 117
The Cougars shared the Colonial Athletic Association title with Northeastern but defeated the Huskies in overtime in the CAA tournament championship game for the 3rd time on the year to earn their dancing shoes. They did so despite falling behind by 17 points early in the 2nd half and trailing by two possessions with under 40 seconds to go. It was an impressive performance and testament to this team’s toughness. They aren’t gonna roll over and play dead this weekend no matter the score.
Earl Grant’s squad is playing their bast basketball of late, entering Friday night’s contest having won thirteen of their last fourteen matchups. Their only loss coming in a wild 114-104 OT game at William & Mary (an incredibly explosive offensive team) to end the regular season. They got their revenge just a week later knocking off the Tribe in the semifinals of the CAA tournament.
The Cougars do an outstanding job of protecting the basketball, turning the ball over just 9-10 times a game. That ranks FOURTH nationally. Not bad at all. A big reason they take good care of the basketball is they don’t really push the pace, preferring to get into their half court offense. They rank 306 out of 351 teams in possessions per game. Auburn, meanwhile, ranks #36 so Friday night will definitely be an interesting clash of styles.
Outside of free throw shooting (right around 80%), Charleston is about in the middle of the pack in most other statistics including points per game (142nd), points allowed per game (83rd), effective field goal % (93rd), rebounding (228th), blocks per game (119th) and steals (98th). Interestingly, KenPom had Charleston as a 15th seed so in his eyes they are bit overseeded. Bottom line is this is a team that won’t beat themselves. They won’t necessarily wow you but they will take care of the ball, knock down open shots, hit their free throws and bring great effort on the defensive end. Not a bad way to win a bunch of games.
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Charleston sticks to mostly a 6 man rotation though sophomore forward Jaylen McManus sees some time as well. Like Auburn, the Cougars lean heavily on a trio of players for most of their scoring. Senior point guard Joe Chealey, junior forward Jarrell Brantley and sophomore shooting guard Grant Riller combine to score 54 of Charleston’s 75 points a game. While Cameron Johnson and Marquise Pointer are good for a three pointer or two a game if left open, if the Cougars are going to score it’s most likely going to come from the Chealey/Brantley/Riller trio.
Another important note is for one of the few times this season, the Tigers might actually have an advantage in the paint. Starting center Nick Harris will be the biggest dude on the floor Friday at 6’10” 260 lbs but that’s really it. Brantley is the next biggest at 6’7” Also, Harris doesn’t necessarily play as big as listed. He and Horace Spencer both average the same number of blocks a game. While Harris snags more rebounds a game, they are basically equal when it comes to rebound rate with Spencer at 15.6 and Harris at 15.5. All that to say, that despite being 2 inches shorter and 35 lbs lighter, Spencer puts up about the same amount of production per game. For once, the Tigers won’t be battling a significant size advantage in the frontcourt.
Three Headed Monster
Like Auburn, if Charleston is going to make a Sweet 16 run it’s going to come on the backs of their explosive trio that brought them this far already. Senior Joe Chealey and junior Jarrell Brantley are wily veterans who have been apart of the impressive turnaround Earl Grant has brought to Charleston, SC from the beginning. In Grant’s first year, Charleston went 9-24, followed by a quick jump to 17-10 the following season. The past two years have been outstanding with the Cougars finishing 2nd in the CAA last season with a record of 25-10 and now winning the CAA and earning a tourney bid with a 26-7 campaign. You know these two would love to cap off this impressive turnaround by taking their school to heights never before seen.
Sophomore Grant Riller is the 3rd member of the three headed beast and it’s not a coincidence that his arrival on campus coincides with two 20+ win seasons. He leads the team in points per game, three point shooting and steals. This dude can play.
Let’s take a closer look at the three guys Auburn must slow down Friday if they want to advance to the next round.
Chealey is the heartbeat of this team. He’s not a flashy player but he understands their offensive scheme and does a great job facilitating the offense. When the Cougars need to calm things down or want to close things out, it’s typically Chealey with the ball in his hands.
Not sure I would call Chealey quick but he's definitely strong & can finish in the paint. Like Harper for AU, he's the guy that opens things up for everybody else. Also takes care of the basketball pic.twitter.com/vLonYzdZTa— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 13, 2018
The 6’4” 190 lbs senior point man is a physical presence up top. He’s not afraid to use his body to draw contact and get to the FT line where he’s averaging a cool 86%. In fact, he went 16/16 in the CAA finals with almost half of those coming to ice the game. This guy isn’t afraid of the big moment, in fact he thrives in it.
Charleston has some shooters & Chealey is very good at sucking in defenses & finding them on the outside pic.twitter.com/PgvNh9L3Hc— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 14, 2018
Not only can Chealey put points on the board (averages 18.5 a game) he’s also a fantastic facilitator. His ability to get in the paint often draws in the defense and opens up any of the Charelston shooters for easy 3s. It’s going to be important that the Tigers don’t over help on defense and leave their man wide open behind the 3 pt line. Riller, Brantley, Cameron Johnson and Marquise Pointer are all averaging over 33% from deep. Chealey’s size might give Harper and Mitchell some problems but I think it can be neutralized by their quickness. It will be a fun matchup to watch.
Brantley is Mr. Do Everything from the power forward position. He can spot up and hit the 3 or take his man off the dribble. At 6’7” 245 lbs, he can be a matchup problem for many teams.
Brantley will disappear from the game in stretches but he's got the ability to create his own offense when needed. Very good skillset for a 6'7" 245 lb stretch 4 pic.twitter.com/7qBneJkupl— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 14, 2018
The good news is I think Auburn does matchup well against Brantley. Sure Murray gives up 4 inches and 20 lbs but that’s actually an improvement over some of Auburn’s past opponents. Again, I think this will be a spot where quickness helps Auburn overcome a bit of a height disadvantage. Also, the Tigers can go to stud true freshman Chuma Okeke who actually has Brantley by an inch and can take him off the dribble as well.
Really like Jarrell Brantley's game. Made a few nice late dishes in the interior that lead to dunks. Him vs Desean Murray is gonna be a battle pic.twitter.com/ZsfQlmkRhq— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 13, 2018
The key will be to keep Brantley off the offensive boards and to defend him without fouling. The junior is averaging 84% from the charity stripe and his physical style of play could lead to fouls on Auburn’s front court. Overall, I think Auburn matches up well at this spot.
Grant Riller was born to score the basketball. Whether that’s bombing 3s, beating his man off the dribble or hitting a floater in the paint, Riller can do whatever it takes to put the ball in the basket. The explosive sophomore is averaging 18.7 ppg and is heating up at the right time for this Cougars squad. The last time he didn’t put up double digits in the points column was back at the end of January where he scored only 6 points in a win over James Madison. Riller’s dropped 20 or more points this season 14 times including four 30+ pt games. If there is a guy from this trio that could take a game over for a stretch of time, it’s Riller.
Grant Riller is a rhythm shooter you can't lose track of defensively. A little space & he can hit. 40% from 3 on the year pic.twitter.com/MPGBiqPDRj— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 12, 2018
The first thing that jumps out when watching Riller is his shooting ability. If you let him catch the ball in rhythm with any breathing room at all, chances are good he’s going to punish you. He’s got a very quick release which means he doesn’t need a ton of space to get a shot off and he shoots with a boatload of confidence that is well earned.
Also please don’t go under a ball screen when defending Riller.
Do not go under a high ball screen when Riller has the ball. All this dude needs is a little daylight & he can bury it pic.twitter.com/ODajeikQgH— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 13, 2018
Like seriously, don’t....
Do not go under a ball screen when guarding Riller pic.twitter.com/eBWiCSnFLf— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 12, 2018
But he’s not just a pure shooter. What makes Riller so dangerous is if you start cheating up to take away the 3, he has the ability to take you off the dribble and finish at the rim. He’s probably a step quicker than Chealey though not as physical. He doesn’t really need to be given his ability to split defenses and find his way to the basket almost untouched.
This Riller kid can play. If Charleston makes a run it's gonna be because this kid takes over pic.twitter.com/KMJXGkuops— AUNerd (@AUSportsNerd) March 13, 2018
My guess is this will be the guy that Bryce Brown is called upon to matchup with defensively most of the night. That should be another fun matchup as both of these guys have the ability to heat up from beyond the 3 point line and shoot their team to victory. It will be important for Brown to not let Chealey’s drives suck him too far into the paint and give Riller open looks from deep. Could be a wild battle if both get hot from three Friday night.
Matchup to Watch
- Jared Harper vs Joe Chealey
Let’s not overthink this one. While Desean Murray vs Jarrell Brantley is going to be a lot of fun to watch and which of Grant Riller/Bryce Brown can get going from deep will loom large, it’s going to be the point guards that decide this thing. Joe Chealey vs Jared Harper pits two players with different styles but equal importance to their teams. Chealey slows things down, likes to slash to the rim and use his strength to get open looks or get to the free throw line. Harper, on the other hand, thrives at a faster pace, has insane range and loves to drive deep into a defense to open up shots from the outside. Both are outstanding free throw shooters, take good care of the basketball, can hit shots deep and open things up for the rest of the offense. Personally, I think Harper’s quickness and the lack of a true rim protector for the Cougars helps the Tigers get the best of this battle.
This game will feature a major clash in styles of play. Charleston will want to force this contest into a half court affair where they can get into their offense and run clock. Auburn, on the other hand, wants this to be a track meet where they get up and down the floor. One of the major ways the Tigers push the pace is through forcing turnovers. One of the major ways the Cougars keep things slow is by not turning the ball over. So something’s gotta give right?
Well, I think that’s where rebounding will play an enormous role in who sets the pace early. If the Tigers can dominate the boards, which I think they can, they should be able to force the Cougars out of their comfort zone and get them to play faster than they want to Friday. If not, then Auburn better hope they are hitting shots early out of their halfcourt offense.
While I really like this Charleston squad, I think in the end the Tigers will be too much. My guess is it takes some time for both teams to get their legs underneath them on this big stage but eventually they both settle in and things stay close at half. But Auburn’s pace and relentless defense eventually wins out and the Tigers pull away late to advance and get to dance at least one more day.
Charleston 72 Auburn 84