Despite Adversity, Auburn is Emerging as a Legitimate SEC Contender

Posted by David Changas on January 5th, 2018

Auburn waltzed through its non-conference schedule to a very nice 12-1 record, the Tigers’ best start in more than a dozen years. But behind that gaudy mark was a collection of creampuffs and cupcakes that meant they really had not proven anything entering SEC play at Tennessee on Tuesday night. Against the nation’s 206th-best non-conference schedule, the Tigers played only three games against KenPom top-100 opponents – Temple (the sole loss), Middle Tennessee, and Murray State – and that group isn’t exactly a who’s who of college basketball powerhouses. So even though there was some optimism on the Plains as Auburn began the quest for its first NCAA Tournament bid in 15 years, it was understandably guarded. But after beating the Volunteers by 10 points in front of a near-capacity crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena earlier this week — a game in which they grabbed an amazing 47.8 percent of their own misses — things are looking brighter for Auburn basketball than they have in a very long time.

Auburn’s 11-game winning streak has Bruce Pearl’s team sitting pretty in the SEC. (Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports)

In something of an ironic twist, Auburn’s performance in Knoxville was reminiscent of the type of efforts head coach Bruce Pearl’s Tennessee’s teams customarily gave during his six seasons at the school. The Tigers ultimately overcame deficits of 15 points in the first half and five points in the second half before outscoring the Volunteers by 15 down the stretch. Auburn got the win despite shooting only 40.5 percent from the floor and a 29.0 percent from three-point range by owning the glass on both ends, hitting free throws and forcing turnovers.

While there was some initial optimism about Pearl’s fourth season at Auburn, much of that excitement had been tempered by an FBI investigation that resulted in the indictment of assistant coach Chuck Person as well as the commensurate suspensions of highly-touted recruits (and expected contributors) Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley. Thanks to significant balance and depth that utilizes nine players averaging at least 15 minutes per game and four averaging double-figure scoring, the Tigers seem to have weathered the preseason storm that almost cost Pearl his job. Even though the specter of the FBI still hangs over the program, the Tigers’ personnel fits very well with Pearl’s style and the distraction has not impacted their on-court performance to date. The offense is averaging over 87 points per game and feasts on the offensive glass (38.2%, fifth nationally), but it has been significant improvement on the defensive end that is making the difference — the Tigers currently rank 58th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, per KenPom, after finishing no higher than 147th in that metric during Pearl’s first three seasons.

One conference win is just that and there is certainly a long way to go for a team that still very much needs to be beef up its resume. But for a program that hasn’t seen the Big Dance since it lost to Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony a decade and a half ago, nothing can be taken for granted. Considering the black cloud that followed Pearl around at SEC Media Day in October, however, a 13-1 start and corresponding 11-game winning streak is notable. If things continue on their current trajectory, the question will soon become not whether the Tigers are an NCAA Tournament team, but how much damage they can do once they get there.

David Changas (157 Posts)

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