Auburn Basketball Not Quite Ready For Prime Time

Posted by David Changas on January 7th, 2015

When Bruce Pearl took over a moribund Tennessee program in 2005, he inherited a team that had underachieved and had not been to the NCAA Tournament in four years. He went on to prove that team had some talent, as he took it to an SEC East championship and a #2 seed in the Big Dance. When Auburn decided to take the plunge with Pearl to give him another shot at coaching in the SEC, he jumped at the opportunity. This time, though, with no stars like C.J. Watson or Chris Lofton on the roster, things have not come as easily as they did in Knoxville, and Pearl has some work to do before he can even think about playing meaningful games in March. Still, there is little doubt that the revitalized head coach has things moving in the right direction, and that he will eventually return this downtrodden program to prominence.

Bruce Pearl will return Auburn to prominence (athlonsports.com)

Bruce Pearl will eventually return Auburn to prominence, but not this year (athlonsports.com)

Despite the confidence that the media showed in Pearl’s coaching abilities when it picked the Tigers to finish eighth in the SEC standings, Auburn’s roster consists of a mishmash of castoffs, players few high-major programs wanted, and athletes who appear to be better-suited for the gridiron than the basketball court. Senior guard KT Harrell, a preseason all-SEC selection, is the team’s best player (17.9 PPG), but he has little help around him. Pearl was able to convince Niagara transfer Antoine Mason to join him, and while Mason can score, he is an inefficient offensive player and struggles defensively with quick guards on the perimeter. As a team, the Tigers currently rank 241st in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, and that showed in Tuesday’s 64-52 loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. They shot 31.6 percent for the game, and despite a spirited second half effort, the Tigers never got close than five points in the last 20 minutes. Auburn also was significantly outrebounded (-20) by the Commodores, and other than having the league’s leading rebounder in Cinmeon Bowers (11.3 RPG), the Tigers struggle in that area due to their extremely limited size.

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Auburn’s Offense Struggling, But It Will Improve

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 5th, 2014

There were a few things that you knew you could expect from Bruce Pearl’s first year at Auburn. One was a good recruiting class, and another was an entertaining wardrobe. On both of those counts he has delivered. Based on his history of success, you also thought that he could deliver a pretty good offense. Even without much interior depth, the Tigers seemed to have enough perimeter pieces to score at a decent clip, and Pearl also has a track record of coaching up efficient offenses. Here are how his teams ranked in offensive efficiency at Milwaukee and Tennessee:

Pearl Offense Table

Currently, Auburn sits at 173rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the Tigers’ relative inability to score has already cost them dearly this season. Auburn’s ugly loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday night is a case in point. The Tigers defended well with a mixture of man-to-man, 2/3 zone and 3/2 zone defense, holding the Red Raiders to just 0.79 points per possession. This might have been even more stifling if not for a number of late-in-the-shot-clock fouls, but Texas Tech imploded there (17-of-31). The point is that Auburn defended well enough to win, but could only muster 44 points on 36.2 percent shooting and lost on a late runner by Devaugntah Williams. The Tigers were similarly punchless last week in Las Vegas against Tulsa, where they scored only 35 points in a loss. In all three of their defeats this season, they’ve failed to score better than 0.77 points per possession.

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SEC M5: Thanksgiving Eve Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 26th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. It is safe to say the SEC has not had the strongest of starts to this Feast Week, Arkansas’ impressive win at SMU Tuesday night notwithstanding. The league has taken a beating on the first two days of the Thanksgiving week tournaments, and it is safe to say that the SEC, as a whole, somehow is performing below its not-so-lofty preseason expectations. On Monday, LSU lost in the Paradise Jam to a Clemson team that had home losses to Winthrop and Gardner-Webb earlier this month; Missouri got trounced by Arizona in Maui; Auburn put up a whopping 35 points in an 18-point loss to Tulsa in Las Vegas; and Alabama fell to Iowa State in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, though the Crimson Tide at least showed some life, and bounced back with a 76-71 win over Arizona State in the consolation game. Also on Tuesday, Missouri was trounced by Purdue, 82-61.  There is plenty of basketball left this week, so the league has a chance to redeem itself, but based on the early returns, that does not appear likely to happen.
  2. The drama continues to unfold in the Donnie Tyndall saga, as his long-time assistant and apparent right-hand man, Adam Howard, resigned for “personal reasons.” Gary Parrish reported that, not surprisingly, the resignation of the coach who drove Tyndall to his first interview with Tennessee brass in the spring, was related to the NCAA’s investigation of improprieties that occurred at Southern Miss while Tyndall coached there. It was also learned Monday that special assistant R.J. Rush resigned before the season opener against VCU for personal reasons. This situation is far from over, but one must wonder whether, at the end of the day, Tyndall will survive in Knoxville. Long-time Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Mike Strange, who has seen plenty of ups and downs with this program, knows that, whichever way this ultimately goes for Tyndall, the UT administration is in a very tough spot.
  3. Alabama senior guard Levi Randolph was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 21 points and 6.5 rebounds in the Tide’s wins over Western Carolina and Southern Miss. Randolph was obviously motivated after winning the award, as he went out and scored 18 points in Alabama’s 84-74 loss to the Cyclones on Monday. He followed that effort with an even better one in Tuesday’s win, as he went for a game-high 28. Vanderbilt’s Wade Baldwin won Freshman of the Week honors, as the guard from Belle Mead, New Jersey averaged 9.5 points and a robust 7.5 assists in the Commodores’ wins over Lipscomb and Tennessee State. Baldwin, who led the team with 13 points in Tuesday’s 63-53 win over Norfolk State, is part of a talented freshman class that is giving Vanderbilt fans reasons to be optimistic about the future.
  4. Now that the season is in full swing, various power rankings are out, and to the surprise of no one, Kentucky occupies the top spot in all of them. ESPN.com‘s power rankings have the Wildcats as a unanimous selection at number one, and SI.com‘s Luke Winn has them at the top of his as well. Winn points out that Kentucky is pressing on 20.4% of its defensive possessions, which is a number nearly five times higher than average in coach John Calipari‘s previous five seasons at the school. Of course, with the amount of athleticism and depth he has, as well as the size on the back end of the press to erase mistakes, this should not be surprising. Given the way the Wildcats are demolishing everyone in their path thus far – they trounced Texas-Arlington on Tuesday 93-44 – it is unlikely Calipari will change much of what he is doing moving forward.
  5. Georgia blew a chance at a quality pre-conference win when the Bulldogs dropped their season opener to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. This week, coach Mark Fox‘s team gets a shot a redemption, and a huge resume builder, when it takes on Gonzaga in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip Off at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. It will face either Minnesota or St. John’s on Friday. This appears to be Mark Few’s best team in a number of years, and it has demolished all four of its early-season opponents, including SMU. Georgia knows this is a crucial test, and a win could go a long way toward erasing the Georgia Tech loss and building the Dawgs’ NCAA Tournament resume.
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SEC M5: 11.21.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on November 21st, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. The Puerto Rico Tip-off got underway on Thursday, and another opportunity for the SEC to pick up a quality non-conference win went by the wayside as Texas A&M fell to Dayton in the tournament’s opening game. The contest was a back-and-forth affair that the Flyers won on a Devon Scott tip-in with two seconds left. The ugly 55-53 game, in which the Aggies shot 34.6 percent from the field, saw no team take a lead larger than six points. Despite the loss, coach Billy Kennedy got strong performances from his best two returning players, Kourtney Roberson and Alex Caruso. Roberson grabbed 13 first half rebounds on his way to a game-high 15, and scored 12 points to boot. Caruso, a Cousy Award semi-finalist, poured in 17 points to go with five assists. Kennedy, though, had to be disappointed in the lack of production from three newcomers he will need a lot from: Alex Robinson, Jalen Jones, and Peyton Allen. The trio combined for 13 points in 66 minutes of action. If Texas A&M is going to surprise anyone in the SEC, it will need more from that threesome going forward.
  2. After dropping a close game to Miami earlier this week, Florida gets forward Chris Walker back from a three-game suspension for its upcoming game against Louisiana-Monroe. For the Gators to reach their goals this season, Walker will have to be an important piece of the Gators’ roster. He missed the first semester of last season due to academics, and he was only a minor contributor on the team’s run to the Final Four after that. This year, however, much more is expected of him, and coach Billy Donovan is pleased with what he has seen from the sophomore and thinks he is getting more comfortable with the idea of doing the dirty work inside for the Gators.
  3. The college basketball world is still abuzz after Kentucky’s 72-40 dismantling of Kansas on Tuesday night, and the Wildcats return to the court tonight for a home game against Boston University. Much has been made of coach John Calipari‘s platoon system, and it appears to be having a significant effect in the second halves of the Wildcats’ games, as they are simply throttling opponents after the break. Overall, Kentucky currently ranks second in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and first in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. The Wildcats also lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, grabbing over half of their misses. The game against the Terriers is the first of four home games that they should win handily before December brings tougher contests against Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville.
  4. With the pall of the NCAA mess hanging over him, Tennessee coach Donnie Tyndall got his first win as the Volunteers’ head coach Thursday. The 70-58 win over Texas Southern did not come easily, as the game was tied at the half. Josh Richardson, who is being forced to handle the point guard duties because Tyndall has no one else to turn to, led the team in both scoring and rebounding, as the senior netted 19 points and grabbed eight boards. It is impossible to say what will come of the NCAA mess and whether Tyndall’s job truly is in jeopardy or whether this team is being impacted by the situation, but it is hard to imagine there isn’t some effect. Regardless, this is a team that was picked to finish 13th in the SEC even before it was known that Tyndall could be in hot water, and the early returns have shown why.
  5. Bruce Pearl‘s team may have taken one on the chin at Colorado Monday night during the Tip-Off Marathon, but once again, the Auburn coach was able to steer the conversation away from the Tigers’ poor performance. On Wednesday, video of Pearl nailing a trick shot from the upper deck of Auburn Arena emerged, and, as with most of his promotional gimmicks, Pearl entertains. Based on the early play of his team, Pearl has a long year ahead of him on the Plains, but the coach clearly is happy to be back in the game after serving his three-year show cause penalty, and with reinforcements on the way, it is unlikely anything can deter him from having fun.

 

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SEC Season Preview: Auburn Tigers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 30th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with the Auburn Tigers.

Strengths. The Tigers should not struggle to put the ball in the basket this year, at least not from the outside. Bruce Pearl’s first team at Auburn will feature not only the SEC’s leading returning scorer, KT Harrell (18.3 points per game), but also the country’s leading returning scorer Antoine Mason (25.6 PPG at Niagara). Only Doug McDermott scored more points per game than Mason did in 2013-14. Whether that translates against tougher competition still remains to be seen, but sophomore Tahj Shamsid-Deen and New Mexico State graduate transfer K.C. Ross-Miller offer support in the backcourt too. Each of these players brings something different to the table: Harrell is a high volume three-point shooter (35.9% 3FG); Mason gets the bulk of his points at the rim or from the free throw line (10.8 free throw attempts per game); Shamsid-Deen has upside (9.5 points per game as a freshman); and Ross-Miller can create for others (3.5 assists per game). Despite the differences, these four should fit well together in Pearl’s up-tempo system, and if nothing else, make for some entertaining games on the Plains.

Tahj Shamsid-Deen could be poised for a breakout sophomore season at Auburn (photo courtesy cbssports.com).

Tahj Shamsid-Deen could be poised for a breakout sophomore season at Auburn (photo courtesy cbssports.com).

Weaknesses.  Rebounding could be a problem for the Tigers this season. From a straight numbers perspective, Auburn lost Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Allen Payne to graduation, who finished first and second on the team in rebounds per game. These two players weren’t supporting a great rebounding team either, as the Tigers finished 278th in the country in total rebounds last season. It also doesn’t help that Pearl will likely need to give heavy minutes to Mason, Ross-Miller and Shamsid-Deen, all of whom stand at a height under 6’1.’’ The hope for the Tigers is that raw sophomore Matthew Atewe can stay healthy and build on the solid 13.5 percent total rebounding rate he posted last year. JuCo transfer Cinmeon Bowers and freshmen Jack Purchase and T.J. Lang can also help out on the glass.

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What We Can Expect From Auburn in Bruce Pearl’s First Year

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 16th, 2014

The SEC’s basketball profile will continue to flounder until some of the other 12 programs other than Florida and Kentucky develop into consistent winners. The conference needs the depth of several year-in, year-out NCAA bid contenders to complement those two crown jewels. Suddenly, Auburn, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2008-09 and hasn’t been ranked in over 10 years, looks as ready as anyone to make that leap. The reason? Simple. Bruce Pearl’s return to the conference.

Bruce Pearl is back in the SEC, albeit in a different shade of orange.

Bruce Pearl is back in the SEC, albeit in a different shade of orange.

The former Milwaukee and Tennessee coach has already provided a jolt in fan support and recruiting since being hired last spring. For example, in late August he signed three key recruits in four days to give Auburn one of the current best 2015 recruiting classes in the conference. It’s a virtual certainty that this excitement will eventually lead to on-court improvement, but how soon is it reasonable to expect? If his past performance is any indication, it might be sooner than you think. Below we examine how Pearl fared in each of his first years leading the Panthers and the Vols.

2001-02 Milwaukee Panthers

What happened: Pearl took over when Wisconsin hired a coach named Bo Ryan, who had gone only 30-27 in his two seasons at Milwaukee. At 16-13 overall, the Panthers won only one more game in Pearl’s first season than they had the year before, and there was no postseason. Nevertheless, Milwaukee jumped to third place in the Horizon League (11-5) after finishing fifth (7-7) in Ryan’s last year (in what was then unimaginatively called the “Midwest Collegiate Conference”). Not surprisingly, Pearl revved up the pace of action (72.7 possessions per 40 minutes) over Ryan’s more disciplined approach (65.3), but this didn’t necessarily yield better efficiency since the Panthers scored and allowed roughly the same number of points per possession and didn’t see a big uptick in free throw attempts. The biggest reason for the slight improvement in the conference standings seems to have been better play from a trio of junior guards: Clay Tucker, Ronnie Jones, and Jason Frederick. The diminutive Jones (5’9’’) made the biggest jump, upping his scoring average by seven points per game and dishing out an additional assist per contest.

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Bruce Pearl to Auburn Sends Shock Waves Through SEC

Posted by David Changas on March 18th, 2014

Talk about hitting a grand slam. As first reported by ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, Auburn hired former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl as its new head coach this morning. Pearl, who is still subject to a show-cause penalty until August and will not be able to have contact with recruits over the summer, inherits the reins of the program from Tony Barbee, who was fired last week after four seasons at the school. Needless to say, the hire is a major splash for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2003 and has essentially been an SEC also-ran throughout the tenures of Barbee and his predecessor, Jeff Lebo.

For Bruce Pearl, a Different Shade of Orange Coast is in Store at Auburn

For Bruce Pearl, a Different Shade of Orange Coast is in Store at Auburn

Pearl’s hiring has to be considered a surprise. Many thought Auburn was overreaching when there were indications that Pearl was going to be considered for the vacancy, as the former Milwaukee and Tennessee head coach figured to be a candidate for several higher-profile jobs. But Pearl obviously felt the challenge was the right one for him at this time. He led Milwaukee to two NCAA Tournament bids before landing his first major job at Tennessee in 2005, where he resurrected the Volunteer program by taking it to the Big Dance in each of his six seasons in Knoxville, including its only Elite Eight appearance in 2010. As evidenced by their reaction on Twitter and message boards, many Tennessee fans see the move as a punch in the gut. Dissatisfaction with Cuonzo Martin had led many to believe that it was possible Pearl would return to the school, and a petition for his rehire had garnered over 36,000 signatures among Volunteer fans earlier this year.

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