It’s been the same damn thing all damn season, except for the part that’s different.
If they’d only shot a little better against Duke. If they’d only shot at all against NC State. If only Harper’s shot had gone down against Kentucky. If only they hadn’t been so bleeping sloppy with the ball against Mississippi State.
What makes Saturday’s loss to LSU the most frustrating of the season for your humble Auburn blogger isn’t just that Auburn has now played six Q1 games and lost five of them by an average of 5.6 points. It’s that the Bruce Pearl’s Tigers came into the game playing their most consistent basketball of the season (check out the game-score plot at Bart Torvik’s site), shot as well as you could expect them to shoot, hounded LSU into a comfortably inferior shooting performance … and 48 hours later we’re still saying “if only.”
If only they hadn’t been so bleeping sloppy with the ball. And if only they hadn’t been utterly annihilated on the glass.
It’s the same thing, over and over again: Auburn is two or three plays (and/or breaks) away from claiming their biggest win of the season, and it doesn’t happen. It’s not the same thing, over and over again: Auburn solves one problem well enough to go beyond needing those two or three plays (and/or breaks) to claim their biggest win of the season, only to create a new problem that hamstrings them just enough that when they don’t get those two or three plays (and/or breaks), it doesn’t happen.
It’s not just Groundhog Day because it’s February and every day we wake up feeling the same way about this Auburn basketball season we’ve been feeling since Maui; it’s Groundhog Day because like Bill Murray’s wooing of Andie MacDowell, you can see Pearl and Co. making progress, solving problems, moving forward … only to somehow wind up right back where they started.
Has Auburn been unlucky? Is Auburn better than its record? Yes, and yes. But would it finally be February 3rd if the Tigers had come out of halftime up 3 and not allowed LSU to rebound 66 percent of their second-half missed shots?!?! Also yes.
It’s beyond infuriating that what could have/should have been another historic Auburn season for Harper, Brown and the rest has been so badly damaged by sheer bloody-minded fate. But at some point these Tigers also have to put on a pair of cool shades and grab their fate in their own two hands, preferably on the defensive glass.
Various points to make:
— The good news: there’s no level of regular-season college basketball angst that can’t be wiped away by a thrilling run in the NCAA Tournament. The bad news: the current level of regular-season angst means that run is going to be awfully tough to come by, if a bid’s extended at all.
The Tigers are currently a 7-seed in the Bracket Matrix and in no immediate danger of dropping out of the projected field. But depending on how Mississippi State fares — the Bulldogs are currently No. 29 in the NET, right on the top-30 cusp of making Auburn’s home game against them a Q2 matchup — they might have only three more Q1 games in the regular season, and two of them will be at Kentucky and home to Tennessee. If MSU and Washington struggle down the stretch and the Tigers can’t get it done against the Wildcats, Volunteers or — gaaaaaaah — Alabama, their Q1 record could finish in the 0-9, 1-10 neighborhood.
Even a mark that ugly wouldn’t keep Auburn out of the field on its own, but it would mean every sub-Q1 defeat would be crippling. The Tigers have been good enough this season there’s no reason to expect them to slip up at Vandy or Georgia or not take care of business against the Mississippi schools at home … but there’s also precious little margin for error if they do. To boot: even assuming the Tigers make the bracket, the relative lack of chances to burnish their resume means it might take the Kentucky or Tennessee upset to move above the 7- or 8-seed line. A second-round matchup with a 1- or 2-seed looms.
In a game-by-game vacuum, the Ole Miss loss is the only truly bad one Auburn’s had all season. In an all-games-as-part-of-the-whole non-vacuum, Auburn’s just missed too many opportunities to feel comfortable.
— The Tigers’ defensive rebounding has officially reached a crisis point:
It’s not just Murray’s departure, though: last season McLemore, Spencer, and Okeke sported defensive rebound percentages of 19.7, 22.3, and 19.4, respectively. This season? 17.8, 19.3, and 15.0. Heron stood at 15.3 percent; Doughty’s at 10.7. With Wiley’s 26.5 percent mark on the shelf, there’s no role in the frontcourt where Auburn’s rebounding nearly as well as last season.
It’s fair to assume some of that is schematic, and that as long as they continue to move themselves out of position to hunt the turnovers and blocks that fuel their offense Auburn won’t be a good defensive rebounding team under any circumstances. But they don’t have to be good to win games; they just have to not give up 22 [expletive deleted] offensive rebounds on 44 [expletive deleted] shots.
Okeke was relatively blameless Saturday, but McLemore and Doughty combined to grab 3 defensive rebounds in 54 combined minutes, with Malik Dunbar rewarding Bruce for his SEC-season-high 22 minutes by grabbing a grand total of one — 1 — himself. Jared Harper, all 5-foot-“11” of him, nabbed 6.
Scheme, schmeme; this isn’t good enough.
— Of course, the ball-handling was a major problem, too. It’s one thing for Harper to cough up 5 turnovers on the road against one of the nation’s stickiest-fingered D’s when he’s handling the ball every single possession; it’s another for Spencer and Wiley to cough up twice as many combined turnovers (4) as shots taken (2) in less than 20 total minutes.
Not that it was just the bigs, either. One of the most encouraging developments of the Alabama and Florida games was the improved playmaking from across the roster; across those two games, non-Harper players combined to post a 21-to-20 assist-to-turnover ratio. At LSU, that figure was — ewwwwwwwww — 3-to-14.
— For all of that, Auburn still went on the road to a top-25 team, was down 3 in the final 10 seconds, and would have had three free throws to tie if the officials had functioning corneas. At almost any point over this program’s past 20 years, Saturday’s performance would have been cause for celebration.
So as teeth-gnashing as this season has been at times, it’s worth remembering 1. we’re still living a better basketballing life than Auburn fans have lived in a long, long time 2. even if each of those showings have been at home, this team has shown us its ceiling too many times to think it can’t still accomplish something special. The computers don’t think Auburn’s a top-15 team for no reason. We still get to watch Jared Harper and Bryce Brown play in Auburn’s backcourt, and Bruce Pearl coach Auburn’s team, and team after team after team get run out of Auburn’s gym. Times are good.
It’s just frustrating how close Auburn’s been to making these times a hell of a lot better.