On Dec. 19, 2018, Bruce Pearl’s Auburn men’s basketball team traveled to NC State and lost to the host Wolfpack, 78-71. Three days later, they would return home to down Murray State, 93-88. Also, a movie ticket cost a dime and everyone was doing a new dance called the Happy Rabbit.
Now here we are, eons later, in the wild future: it’s the year 2019, where movie tickets cost $17, all the kids are doing a dance move called the “Floss” they learned from a video game, and Auburn’s going to play another men’s basketball game*. What a time to be alive. Let’s discuss that game, and where this weirdly bifurcated Tigers season stands heading into SEC play:
*Yes, they destroyed North Florida on Dec. 29. But a) it’s North Florida b) I was at a wedding, and you were still hungover on egg nog and Christmas ham. It doesn’t count.
As matchups with Kenpom top-50 teams go, on paper this one could be worse. Bad news: the Tigers are thoroughly mediocre at preventing opponents’ 3-point shots or keeping them off the offensive glass. Good news: Ole Miss doesn’t take as many threes as they probably should–they’re 32nd in 3-point shooting percentage, but No. 244 in percentage of threes hoisted–and pretty-damn-good-but-not-overwhelming on the offensive glass (No. 52). Their biggest offensive strength is their inside-the-arc shooting, where the Wiley-McLemore-Okeke block party has kept Auburn’s 2-point shooting defense’s head (just) above water.
And where does the Rebel offense struggle, you might ask? Why, it’s 165th in turning the ball over. And where does Auburn rank in turnovers forced, you might already know? Why, first.
Combine that Auburn edge with a Rebel defense that’s ranked 85th in Kenpom and nothing special in any particular department other than 2-point shooting defense–an area Auburn’s three-heavy offense doesn’t care about too much anyway–and the Tigers can’t complain about the way these teams match up.
There’s at least a 50/50ish chance Auburn loses anyway. The casual “defending SEC champion opens league play as the No. 11 team in the country, facing team of scrappy underdogs picked to finish dead last in the conference” narrative isn’t doing Auburn any favors, or Ole Miss any justice. The Rebels are a top-50 team in any ranking system you’d care to name (and are 34th in the one that matters), have shot the absolute fire out of the ball all season, and are fresh off whipping Vanderbilt in Nashville. They’re playing at home, for a new (phenomenal) coach, with buckets of confidence, with a chance to notch their biggest victory in years. Kenpom considers them the underdog by all of two points, and if Auburn’s road/neutral three-point shooting woes were guaranteed to continue, you could flip that number around and then some.
In short: Gosh, do you think this might be a difficult game for Auburn?!??!?
So don’t freak out if Auburn loses a competitive game in Oxford. Although maybe consider scheduling a freak out for a few weeks in advance. A wise man with a beautiful singing voice once said “it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor, either.” This is where Auburn sits after its nonconference slate, and would continue to sit should it fall in respectable fashion (or hell, even by 10-to-15 points, depending on how hot the Rebels get from deep) at Ole Miss. There’s no shame in losing on the road to a team this good, just as there wasn’t any shame in losing on the road to the NET’s No. 10 team in Raleigh, or to freaking Duke in Maui.
But at the same time, a loss in Oxford would leave Auburn having played three Quadrant 1 games (in NCAA Tournament committee team sheet terms) and gone 0-3. At some point, if the Tigers want to repeat as SEC champs or–just as importantly–match or exceed the 4-seed they earned for last season’s NCAAs, they’re going to have to win games as tough as “at Ole Miss.” Eventually, a team that’s as good as we want this Auburn team to be pulls these games out.
Of course, even if they don’t pull tonight’s game out, they’ll probably pull a few out eventually. They’re not favored in 16 of their remaining 18 games according to Kenpom for no reason! Bruce Pearl is still the coach! They have Jared Harper, and Bryce Brown, and Chuma Okeke, and Austin Wiley, and quite possibly the deepest bench Auburn men’s basketball has ever seen! The deepest SEC in years will give them all the opportunities to burnish their NCAA credentials they could want! And we have zero evidence from the nonconference schedule–aside from possibly the three-point difficulties away from Auburn!–they won’t take advantage of many of them!
But until the Tigers actually put some of that Q1-caliber hay in their resume’s barn, it’s only natural to increase the worry about when they will.
The above, illustrated. If you want a glimpse of how finely poised Auburn’s resume is entering league play, have a gander at the Bracket Matrix, where the Tigers–0-2 in Q1, but 11-0 in all other games, including 5-0 in Q2–are a consensus 3-seed but show up as a 7 at SBNation and a 6 in multiple other outlets.
Personally, at this early stage I’d rely on the Tigers’ top-notch power ratings and competitiveness in their Q1 games as justification for a seed in the 4/5 range. But with league play in full-swing, there’s too many high-quality wins available to too many NCAA competitors to think that seed will hold for long if Auburn stays in “win all the manageable games, lose all the tough ones” limbo.
So how should we assess the nonconference performance overall? Call it a B+, since the Tigers did what they needed to do: avoid any damaging losses, look the part** against the two true heavyweights they faced (despite not winning), wax lesser opponents with the requisite aplomb.
But on the margins, they also came reeeeeeeally close to suffering that iffy loss against both Xavier (a surprising No. 85 in NET and falling) and UAB, haven’t seen Washington or Arizona live up to expectations, and likely would have benefited from a couple of their Q4 tomato cans (lookin’ at you, South) being Q3 tomato cans. And of course, they got two shots at a signature win and didn’t come away with either.
As implied in the sections above: could have been a little better, but also could have been much worse.
**Well, they looked the part defensively against NC State.
FYI: you have two sets of brackets to keep an eye on. If you haven’t noticed, after a relative two-year lull–snagging the last bid into the bracket in 2017, and finishing 14-15 in 2018–Coach Flo has the Auburn women rolling again. They’re 13-2, with a pair of top-50 wins away from home (at New Mexico, neutral vs. North Carolina) and their only losses at RPI No. 2 Iowa State (by three points) and home to Tennessee. Flo’s press is doing its thing–at 12.3 per-game, the Tigers average more steals per-game than any other Power 5 team other than Clemson–and as a sophomore Unique Thompson has grown into an all-out beast in the post.
ESPN’s women’s bracketologist currently has the Tigers as a No. 9 seed, and as always the SEC will offer Auburn plenty of chances to move up. Tune in.