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Hoops report: Niagara, Missouri St., Troy

Paging Tay Waller. Tay Waller to the courtesy phone alongside the three-point line, please.
Paging Tay Waller. Tay Waller to the courtesy phone alongside the three-point line, please.

Auburn 69, Niagara 65

Box scores: AUfficial site, BBState.

For a lot of casual hoops fans–and that’s a lot of us ’round these parts, right?–this probably looks like a poor performance. A four-point home win against a team named after a waterfall? Especially when their starting point guard (senior Tyrone Lewis) leaves the game after nine minutes with an injury?

But that doesn’t take into account

1. how good Niagara is–the Purple Eagles are virtual locks for a 20-win season, spot in the RPI top 100, and a puncher’s shot at the MAAC’s NCAA bid at the least. A win, any win, is a huge boost for any hypothetical postseason plans Auburn might make

2. that major impact of having three-point bomber Tay Waller out of the lineup. TWER’s Ben Bartley was at the game in person and has this report on Auburn’s offense:

A typical Auburn possession: DeWayne Reed brings the ball up the court. He passes to Frankie Sullivan who is camped out on the left wing beyond the 3-point line. Sullivan looks to throw into the post. Knox/ Lett is awkwardly attempting to back down the opponent’s post player, looking very much like a dog in heat. Twenty seconds on the shot clock. Sullivan passes it back to Reed who dribbles to the right. Reed passes to Hargrove/ Ross/ Armstrong/ Malone who is most likely standing alone 30 feet from the basket. Twelve on the shot clock. A member of the [6-4 to 6-7 small forward] clone army fakes a drive and passes back to Reed. Seven. Reed fakes to the left, drives to the right, whistle, crazy shot, crash, free throws.

With Waller out of the lineup and no stepping up in his place from the perimeter–Auburn finished the game a grisly 4-of-18 (18 percent) from 3–there’s no reason for Niagara (or any opponent) to do anything but sit back and wait for Auburn to either drive into a packed lane or brick a jumper.

Fortunately for Auburn, that “drive into a packed lane” strategy actually worked pretty well. Give the Tigers credit: rather than endlessly, fruitlessly bombing away, Dewayne Reed and Frankie Sullivan (among others) attacked the basket and got themselves to the line. And with turnovers and rebounding dead even, that’s where the game was won–with Reed 7-of-8 (!) and Sullivan 6-of-6 (!!), Auburn finished 25-of-30 to Niagara’s 9-of-10, a 16-point swing.

Auburn also played solid defense–I’ve watched Niagara probably 4 or 5 times the last two seasons and the Purps can be streaky and erratic on the offensive end, but they can also get white-hot from time-to-time. Lewis’s absence helped, no doubt, but still: holding Niagara to .87 points-per-possession and dangerous, experienced seniors like Rob Garrison and Bilal Benn to a combined 10-of-27 performance isn’t shabby at all.

So overall, even if the lack of offensive floor-spacing and creativity (just 7 assists all game?) was troubling, Auburn’s defensive effort and poise down the stretch–the Tigers scored the game’s final 11 points to overturn a 7-point deficit with 2:24 remaining–meant this was a solid enough showing. This game, however …

Missouri St. 73, Auburn 62

Box scores: AUfficial site, BBState

… is less encouraging. The problems from the three-point line and in earning easy looks for teammates were just as bad here as they were against Niagara: 5-of-24 from outside and an 8-to-25 assist-to-turnover ratio aren’t going to cut it. Frankie Sullivan had a particularly rough go of it: 1-of-5 from deep (he’s now 1-of-9 on the year), 0 assists, 4 turnovers, 5 fouls in 30 minutes. Yeesh.

Add in a serious regression at the line–Auburn shot 13-of-22 from the stripe–and it’s easy to see how Auburn mustered only .75 points per possession. For those of you new to tempo-free stats: that’s bad. Real bad. And while the overall shooting’s not great, even with the three-point struggles it could be worse: Auburn hit 17-of-30 inside the arc. The principal problem in this game are those turnovers–25, even at the very fast pace Auburn prefers to play at, is way too many.

There are some positives here. The defense was still active–11 steals, 19 turnovers forced, .92 PPP. (Defensive rebounding needs to be better, though–10 offensive boards given up to Missouri St. does not bode well for battles vs. larger opponents.) Lucas Hargrove is going to have to carry the frontcourt scoring load nearly single-handedly, it looks like, and 24 points on just 15 shots is a terrific sign. And while Missouri St. won just 11 games last year, this was a huge game for them–not only was it their season-opener, SEC teams don’t visit places like Springfield, MO all that often. (OK, so the Bears also beat Arkansas at home last year; that only proves my point that it’s not easy winning there.) There’s no question which team would have wanted this game more or had more to gain from it.

So it’s far, far from panic time. But Waller is needed ASAP to stretch defenses, Auburn’s going to have to be much more careful with the ball, and free throws are simply going to have to be hit until the lane gets less crowded, because there’s going to be too many bodies in there for lay-ups.

Another brief point

I’ll say this for Jeff Lebo: it took him a while, but he does appear to have finally found his team in identity. To-date, this Auburn team is playing exactly like last year’s Auburn team: an athletic, quick-handed defense predicated on turnovers and steals, an offense geared around lots of three-pointers–even when they’re not falling–to open up space for an undersized frontcourt, a fast pace to prevent opponents from settling into a halfcourt game and abusing Auburn in the low post.

Whether it works as well as last year is still very much T.B.D. (Replacing Vot Barber’s rebounding and inside scoring looks to be a major challenge.) But at least Lebo seems to have cemented his vision for the program, a way he wants his basketball team to work. That alone is an improvement on his first couple of years at the helm.

Women’s: Auburn 70, Troy 65

Box score: AUfficial site

It’s a beginning for the injury-ravaged Lady Tigers you could fairly describe as “inauspicious.” Troy’s nothing to write home about–16-14 in ’08-’09–and they pulled within three points at 62-59 with just over 3 minutes to play.

Maybe it’s not such a surprise, though, when you consider how much the cast has changed. after the injuries, Alli Smalley is the only remaining major contributor from last year’s SEC titlists, and it’s pretty obvious how heavy a burden she’s going to bear–she put up 21 shots (hitting eight) and scored 23 points, 30 percent of Auburn’s total production. Freshman guards Morgan Toles and Nicolle Thomas are going to have to adjust to college hoops in a big, bug hurry–they went a combined 4-of-20 with seven turnovers against Troy. Smalley’s going to need more help from the frontcourt, too–6-1 junior Jordan Greenleaf (a one-time All-Freshman who missed last season with an injury) was great on the boards but 1-of-6 from the floor, while Chantel Hilliard scored 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting but grabbed just five rebounds in her 25 minutes.

We’ll see what happens tonight when Auburn heads to Philadelphia to take on a good Temple team.

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