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Hoops Report: Here we come, SEC, ready … or not

Hey, how long have we been wearing those shorts (as modeled here by Tay Waller)? Those are tight.
[Stuff]’s about to get real, as they say, for the Auburn men’s basketball team–they’ll finally tip-off their SEC slate Saturday at home against South Carolina. If Jeff Lebo’s going to hold on to his job long enough to christen the new building, the SEC’s where his hay’s going to have to be made, and that begins this weekend.

Of course, the overriding importance of the conference slate might be the reason [stuff] actually started getting real for Auburn weeks ago, when they got drilled at home by Sam Houston St. and forfeited any realistic NCAA at-large hopes. It’s performances like that one–I can’t believe I have to pluralize it–that have made the team’s current four-game winning streak such a welcome relief. Sure, those four wins have come against three of the worst teams in D-I and, after last night’s 96-72 victory over West Georgia, a .500 D-II team. But at least the bleeding’s stopped.

Well, unless you consider paragraphs like these bleeding, and I won’t blame you if you do:

West Georgia hung around, pulling as close as nine midway through the second half on a 3-pointer by Jeremy Smith that made it 66-57 …

“Everytime we got close, they would hit a 3,” West Georgia coach Mike Cooney said.

Dude. West Georgia! Hung around! They “got close” multiple times! Not a good sign.

In Auburn’s defense, you don’t get any more scrimmage-y than a D-II tuneup in your final nonconference tuneup, so I don’t blame them for going through the motions at least a little bit. (Letting Alabama St. hang around the very next game after the Sam Houston debacle was worse.) But still, is there any reason to think Auburn’s not going to get chewed up and spit out once they hit SEC play? Let’s break it down:

What They Do Well: Would you believe “the inside game”?

That’s a little bit of a misnomer, since Brendon Knox is the only traditional post player who’s done anything offensively … but between his sterling 74 percent FG percentage and the open lane Auburn’s barrage of threes opens up–resulting in Lucas Hargrove converting 64 percent of his shots inside the arc and Tay Waller 74 percent of his (rare) twos–the Tigers rank 13th in the country in two-point FG percentage. That’s very, very good.

Defensively, the 2008-2009 emphasis on steals and turnovers has continued with plenty of success–the sticky-fingered Tigers rank 36th with steals on 12.6 percent of opponent’s possessions (Frankie Sullivan is your primary culprit, averaging just under 2 a game) and 44th overall in opponent’s turnovers forced.

What They Don’t Do Well: I’ll be honest: when I started this post, I thought I’d be able to find more reasons for optimism.

Because on the season as a whole, those above two items really are the only things Auburn’s done consistently well. The offense is a slight notch above the defense right now (102nd in points-per-possession to 121st in PPP allowed, according to BBState), and that’s quite the testament to how incredible that 2-point shooting has been. Because from an offensive standpoint, Auburn does pretty much nothing else at an SEC level: turnovers, rebounding, getting to the line, making shots at the line (of course), assisted baskets … the Tigers are subpar by conference standards in every one of these categories.

But when it comes to three-point shooting, Auburn’s even worse than subpar–31.8 percent, the 10th-best mark in the SEC. What’s especially damaging about that–and you know this already–is that Auburn takes a disproportionate number of its shots from out there (41.5 percent, in fact, the 29th-highest number in the country). I know Lebo’s image for the team is an up-tempo outside-gunning team, but the percentages are just too out of whack to keep playing this way: Auburn’s got to do a better job of getting the ball inside. The best illustration of Auburn’s struggle in shot selection is that DeWayne Reed takes more attempts than anyone else on the team (26.1 percent of Auburn’s total) … even though he’s been a terrible shooter this year, ranking a distant fifth amongst Auburn’s starters in eFG.

And hey, it’s even worse defensively. You’d think that a defense-minded team with a bevy of quick and athletic guards would be able to guard the perimeter, but instead Auburn’s one of the worst three-point defending teams in the country; opponents shoot 37.2 percent behind the arc, placing Auburn 275th in D-I and 11th in the SEC. On top of that, opponents take a huge percentage (35.8, in the top 75 out of 345 teams) of their shots from outside–so just as the offense makes their three-point problems worse by shooting a ton of them, so the defense makes their three-point problems by allowing a ton of them. Top that off with the predictable struggle to defend inside the arc (Auburn’s 224th in blocks) and mediocre rebounding, and you’re looking at major problems whenever Auburn can’t manage to force a turnover. All told, it’s kind of amazing Auburn’s as high as 9th in the SEC in opponent’s PPP, 10th in Pomeroy’s efficiency numbers.

Rankings: Here’s the really fun part: Auburn’s managed all of that against the 240th-ranked schedule–worst in the SEC! No wonder their RPI checks in at a miserable 198th.

Their computer rankings are a little bit kinder–Pomeroy’s got them 138th, ahead of LSU and Arkansas, and Sagarin 122nd–but there’s nothing here that suggests a big NCAA-type run is a possibility.

So … what’s the prognosis? OK, some good news:

— The bottom half of the SEC is hardly a gauntlet. The top six (UK, Miss. St., Vandy, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Florida) are all fairly solid and potentially NCAA-bound, but none of the other six rank in Pomeroy’s top-80. With two games each vs. ‘Bama and especially the sad sacks at LSU and Arkansas (hooray, SEC West!), a couple of big upsets here or there could land Auburn a .500 or even winning SEC record. It’s true.

— Plus, those big upsets aren’t out of the question. Auburn does have a solid performance on the road at Florida St. to hang its hat on, as well as the Virginia win. They’ve shown the capability over the past two seasons now to raise their game against better competition.

— DeWayne Reed has to play better. Has to. He’s just not as bad as he’s been during the nonconference slate. Or at least, we have to hope so.

So that’s the sunny side. The flip side is … bleccch. Auburn’s already struggled and struggled badly against relatively terrible competition … why would we expect them to break out against much, much better teams? Auburn played 9 games against top-200 Pomeroy teams and went 3-6; what does tell you when every SEC team ranks in that top 200?

I think Lebo pulls things together enough that the Tigers don’t suffer total embarrassment in league play; six or seven wins are out there. But even that might not be enough to salvage an NIT berth without a win or two at the SEC tourney. I’m hoping like hell I’m wrong–I like a lot of these players and believe you could win with guys like Sullivan, Knox, and Hargrove–but I don’t see the postseason in Auburn’s future.

Photo by Van Emst.

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