Before the 2018 season, Auburn basketball was known as being arguably the worst program in the SEC. With only 8 all-time NCAA Tournament appearances, a pair of regular season SEC titles, a single SEC Tournament victory in 1986, and a reserved spot in the Sad Wednesday games of said tournament, most Auburn fans didn’t even bother to watch the sport. They were like the androids in Westworld - if you showed them a basketball, the only response would be, “It doesn’t look like anything to me”.
Now? It’s like they created the sport. Ask any Auburn fan what a double-dribble is, and the following conniption will rival only that of Dabo Swinney when asked about Clemson’s football schedule.
To be fair, Bruce Pearl has completely turned this program around. According to Sports Reference, three of Auburn’s best four teams of all-time have been 2018-2020, with the top spot still belonging to their loaded 1999 squad. Fresh off of an improbable Final Four run, Pearl has this year’s team undefeated through mid-January, one of only two teams in college basketball that can say that in this upset-crazy season.
As much as it pains me to admit, these guys are really good. But, they certainly aren’t unbeatable, and I’d suggest that they aren’t as good as last year’s team once they peaked in March. That hasn’t stopped them from running their mouths’ though. Just ask senior forward Anfernee McLemore, who stated during SEC Basketball Media Day that Coleman Coliseum was his favorite place to play on the road because, “I like the look of disappointment on their faces when we win.”
POINT 6’0 J’Von McCormick (11.7 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.1 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Samir Doughty (15.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.4 SPG)
WING 6’6 Isaac Okoro (13.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
WING 6’7 Danjel Purifoy (9.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.6 APG)
POST 6’11 Austin Wiley (10.7 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG)
So, how do you keep playing at a high level after losing your top three scorers in Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, and Chuma Okeke? Well, return damn near every role player from the year before and rely on their experience and development to carry you. Auburn starts four seniors, an incredibly rare occurrence in today’s college basketball landscape. And it’s not like they lack for talent.
McCormick and Doughty are the engine that drives the Auburn offense. McCormick came on strong at the end of the season last year as the back-up point guard, and he’s done well in an expanded role this year. He’s certainly not the best shooter (40.7%/32.3%/51.1%), but his 31.6% AST% leads the team. Doughty is a true scorer (43.6%/33.3%/74.1%), capable of getting hot at any minute. Alabama’s guards can not let him get going.
In the front-court, the two guys involved with putting Chuck Person in a jail cell, Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, have finally both been able to remain eligible for a full season, and it’s benefited Pearl’s squad. Both were blue-chip recruits when they came to Auburn, and while both have had their struggles, they are important pieces on this team. Wiley is the only true post in the rotation, averaging a near double-double on 58.1% scoring and an impressive 24.1% REB%. He’s also a load in the low post defensively (9.3% BLK%, 82.0 DRtg). Purifoy’s size/skill combo can make him really tough to guard, but he’s always been an inconsistent scorer (41.5%/31.5%/76.7%).
Rounding out the starting group is potential one-and-done freshman Issac Okoro. He’s filled in the Okeke role very nicely for the Tigers this year, capable of scoring (56.5%/24.1%/67.2%), rebounding (9.8% REB%) and defending (95.3 DRtg). He’s an important piece on the wing for Auburn, and his athleticism is off of the charts.
GUARD 6’4 Jamal Johnson (5.1 PPG, 1.7 RPG)
GUARD 6’5 Allen Flanigan (3.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG)
WING 6’6 Devan Cambridge (3.2 PPG, 1.7 RPG)
POST 6’7 Anfernee McLemore (7.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG)
POST 6’8 Babatunde Akingbola (0.3 PPG, 0.5 RPG)
Auburn’s depth is tricky. On one hand, every one of these guys were pretty highly-rated recruits. On the other hand, they’ve been wildly inconsistent, as Pearl has not been able to count on any one of them to produce from one game to the next. The aforementioned McLemore, the only senior not in the starting line-up, is a true stretch four, as he can step out and shoot (53.1%/35.0%/61.5%), but his length and athleticism make him a dynamic shot-blocker (8.1% BLK%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Perimeter Shots. Auburn rode hot shooting, especially from the three-point line, to their first Final Four appearance a year ago. I mean, they really let it fly from beyond the arc. Of course, that’s exactly the formula Nate Oats has installed at Alabama as well this season. So, there could be some serious fireworks tonight. The Tide have actually been much better than Auburn in this regard this season (Alabama: 36.4%; Auburn: 32.1%), but the Tigers have a number of guys who are capable of getting hot from downtown. They haven’t been the most efficient from three, but they are still highly effective at it. The Tide are coming off of their worst three-point shooting game of the season in Lexington this past weekend, so hopefully a return home will result in some friendlier rims.
- Take Care of the Ball. Oats has significantly improved Alabama’s ball-handling over the course of the season, but the Tide is still averaging 15.5 TOPG. Auburn lives to turn teams over and get out in transition, so Alabama will have to be smart with the basketball tonight. It’d be nice to see less of Herb Jones as the primary ball-handler, but if Kira Lewis can’t settle down and cut down on the sloppiness that comes from his frantic speed, we might have to rely on Herb. Which isn’t ideal.
- Prevent Dribble-Penetration. Auburn has been very inconsistent across the board shooting the ball, but they are 7th in the country in 2P% at 57.1%. Their guards are quick, their wings play strong through contact, and Wiley is a beast in the post when he’s on his game. Alabama has to force contested jump-shots tonight. I know that I said the same thing about Kentucky, and they ended up shooting like 800% from mid-range, but this really is the best path to a victory on the defensive end. Surely the Tide will benefit from some regression to the mean, right? Guys?
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the game tonight. You’ve got a top-5, undefeated conference opponent coming to town, fresh off of a trip to the Final Four a year ago. For an Alabama team that’s looking to make a move towards dancing in March, this is a massive opportunity. For Nate Oats, this would represent his first signature victory as head coach of the Crimson Tide.
On top of all of that, it’s Auburn. Let’s be blunt about it: these guys kicked our butts in 2019, which is unacceptable at the Capstone. Their fair-weather fan-base has been crowing it up for entirely too long now. They’ve got players taking shots at SEC Media Days.
Oats was asked about McLemore’s comments yesterday. His response: “We’ll see if it’s still his favorite place to play tomorrow”.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.