March Madness Auburn vs. Miami: How Miami neutralized Auburn’s top-notch frontcourt to head to the Sweet 16

March Madness Auburn vs. Miami – Courtesy: Kevin C. Cox via Getty Images

With a little over six minutes left for his team to save its season on Sunday night, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl made an eye-popping decision.

He substituted for Walker Kessler with the second-seeded Tigers trailing by 10, sitting out the all-SEC 7-footer to go with a smaller lineup.

While 10th-seeded Miami had to wait a little more time to celebrate a 79-61 victory and an improbable welcome into the Sweet 16, Pearl’s desperate move was equal to him raising a white flag. In a second-round March Madness NCAA men’s tournament matchup between two extremely different teams, the Miami Hurricanes’ superior guards had already surpassed Auburn’s size advantage.

University of Miami Coach Jim Larrañaga celebrated in the locker room after the Hurricanes advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2016. Soon after, he opened his postgame news conference by throwing playful jabs at Auburn alum Charles Barkley for a pregame promise he had made. 

Larrañaga earned that right, as he was the one who devised a plan to turn Auburn’s greatest strength into a weakness.

With four dynamic guards and a huge player who sinks over 40% of his 3-point shots, Miami played a five-out system on offense that pushed Kessler against a wall. Without Auburn’s shot-blocking specialist available to alter shots at the rim, Miami’s guards came up with a Tigers defense that had been among college basketball’s best throughout the season. 

One would think that the 7-foot Kessler and 6-foot-10 Smith could have offset Auburn’s defensive issues, but instead, the opposite happened. The smaller but faster Hurricanes used a scrambling defense, doubling Smith and Kessler when they received the ball in risky spots on the court. The team rotated too quickly for Auburn to take advantage.

The more nervous Auburn became in the second half, the more Miami took advantage. A one-point halftime lead became 10 at the under-12 timeout, and the Tigers never got closer than within eight after that.

Miami’s victory continues a dream NCAA tournament for the much-maligned ACC. While Virginia Tech faced a loss in round one and Notre Dame’s valiant effort fell short against Texas Tech on Sunday, the Hurricanes will join North Carolina and Duke in the Sweet 16.

Fortunately, the Hurricanes may have the most favorable matchup of those three in the next round. Eleventh-seeded Iowa State is awaiting Miami at the Midwest regional, which as used its stifling defense to sned Wisconsin and LSU home early.

Judging by the game on Sunday, Miami’s backcourt may prove an even harder challenge. Guards win in March and the Hurricanes have a range of good ones.

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