Bruce Pearl and his Auburn men’s basketball team tipped off their encore season to March’s SEC tournament championship and Final Four berth by downing Georgia Southern 83-74 at Auburn Arena Tuesday night. And now that we’ve reminded ourselves that Auburn men’s basketball won an SEC tournament championship and Final Four berth last season, let’s talk about that game.
— A 9-point win over a well-coached, veteran team that might scrap its way to an NCAA Tournament 14-seed — especially when you’re committing a bevy of (hopefully) uncharacteristic turnovers and they’re hitting a series of tough shots at the rim — is a-OK. In its first game of the post-Harper/Brown/Okeke era, Auburn remained in control throughout the second half against pretty decent opposition. Not bad at all.
— The biggest takeaway: how hilariously different the roster’s collective skillset-slash-approach has (had to) become in one offseason.
Last year: Our NBA-caliber-of-skill guards and point-forward are going to dribble, pass and shoot rings around you when they’re not picking your pocket
This year: Our team of hulk-men are going to beat the crap out of you
That’s exaggeration for effect, of course, but if I had to choose one adjective for Auburn’s starting lineup, it might be “intimidating.” J’Von McCormick isn’t tall, but he’s made of rock. Samir Doughty isn’t made of rock, but for a college 2-guard he’s stupid long. Isaac Okoro is an antiquities granite sculpture come to life. Austin Wiley is, still, Austin Wiley. Danjel Purifoy might be the least physically imposing member of the starting 5, and he’s as tall as Georgia Southern’s starting center.
Add Anfernee McLemore and another 6’4″ 2-guard in Jamal Johnson off the bench, and you could/should have the best defense of Pearl’s tenure, particularly in the halfcourt.
— They’ll need to be once the degree-of-difficulty increases, because as you’d expect there’s going to be some pains growing into an offense built of hulk-men. At a glance Wiley had a strong game — 13 points, 5-of-7 from the field, 9 rebounds in only 20 minutes — but bear in mind he also committed 5 turnovers in those 20 minutes and got two of his FGAs from putbacks of others’ shots. Put another way: Wiley handling the ball in the flow of the offense resulted in a turnover as often as it resulted in a shot attempt — and that’s not even factoring in the couple of turnovers off poor entry passes.
Wiley will have better days (and to be clear, was still a positive presence overall). But he’s a senior, and isn’t going to suddenly develop hands of glue or Okeke’s passing game out of the post. Likewise McCormick isn’t going to suddenly turn into a traditional pass-first point guard, nor Purifoy a slasher whose driving can outweigh the value of his shooting.
For now, the Auburn offense is going to be extremely reliant on both Purifoy’s shooting and Doughty’s playmaking. Without the spacing from the former or the creativity from the latter, Wiley and McCormick won’t have enough space at the rim to deploy their (well-above-average) finishing touch — the quality that makes them each the valuable offensive players they are.
This is the most encouraging sign from Tuesday: for Auburn to succeed on the offensive end, Purifoy and Doughty have to be the best versions of themselves. Confident, accurate, and engaged, that’s exactly what they were vs. Georgia Southern.
— So: it’s no slight to say this team’s offensive ceiling isn’t going to scrape its predecessor’s. But you can see the outline of why isn’t maybe isn’t as much lower as you might think. If Doughty and Purifoy continue to play at this level, or slightly higher as they adjust to their new workloads? (Purifoy, in particular, no doubt still has some potential to tap after his last 2 “seasons.”) If McCormick and Wiley calm down and take better care of the ball? And most critically, if Okoro develops both enough of an outside shot to keep defenses honest and a drive-and-dish game to ease Doughty’s shot-creation burden?
Well, if you get all that, you’ve got a fine stew going.
— Also also: if Devan Cambridge, Jamal Johnson and McLemore can hit some threes off the bench, so much the better. Good start for Cambridge and Johnson in that regard.
— Worth noting, too, there’s no signs of rust for the Auburn video team, unsurprisingly