Hit it, The Grass Roots:
This Thursday has mostly been an exercise in telling myself not to dwell on the box score from Auburn’s cathartic win over Frank Martin’s Gamecocks. After 10 minutes of continued offensive anxiety — punctuated by Samir Doughty missing an open layup that told us “KINDA GOT THE YIPS RIGHT NOW, Y’ALL” more forcefully than if he’d spray-painted it across the Arena floor — things finally returned to Bruce Pearl Normal over the last 30 minutes. Auburn hit a bunch of threes. The crowd hit B-A-N-A-N-A-S levels a half-dozen times. The opponent watched their deficit grow from 5, to 10, to 15, to 20 in less time than it takes you to microwave dinner. The Tigers won, comfortably.
But in the Devan Cambridge Rock-A-Fire Explosion, Auburn had a decidedly unnormal driving factor behind that return. As a rule, freshmen wings who enter a February basketball game having not scored more than 5 points since November 18 and shooting 25 percent from 3 don’t suddenly hit 6-of-9 from outside en route to 26 game-deciding points. Some of Cambridge’s performance in this same game — the couple of shots that missed rim entirely, the two ugly missed free throws that sank his season percentage from the line to a ghastly 23 percent — emphasized how unlikely and sudden his star turn was.
But who cares: Cambridge’s barrage was the most thrilling moment of Auburn’s season thus far. May others plan their future / I’m busy loving you, Devan. And besides, the Tigers did show signs of growth and repair that should pay off over the rest of the SEC season: Okoro blossoming into the team’s best offensive playmaker, McCormick rediscovering his touch near the rim, a beyond-welcome teamwide surge from the line. (18-of-21! Wonders! They never cease!)
So let’s focus on that. Sure, we could talk about how Auburn’s starters-plus-McLemore shot 2-of-14 from 3, at home, despite a bevy of good looks; how Danjel Purifoy is now shooting 24 percent from 3 in SEC play; how the steals that could help Auburn score in transition and stay out their halfcourt malaise are mysteriously rare; how despite Doughty seeming to snap out of his funk with a couple of patented twisting layups in the second half, in SEC play he’s still posted a woeful 33 percent eFG — down 22 points from a year ago — and an offensive rating of 82.4 that would rank last among Auburn contributors if applied to the whole season. Devan Cambridge catching an invincibility star can win you a game. Purifoy, Doughty and the three-point shooting will all likely have to improve to win you as many games as you’d like.
But there I go, looking at that box score when we’ve better things to do. We’re Auburn basketball fans: We were never meant to worry about whether our team can hang in the SEC title race over simply exulting it’s a consideration at all. Hey, The Grass Roots, how many SEC wins is that out of six games? 1! 2! 3! 4! Sha la la la la la…
— About those steals: Auburn’s 2 vs. the Gamecocks left them dead last in the SEC in conference-play steal percentage, per Kenpom. Doughty and McCormick are well below last season’s steal rates, and for all his tremendous defensive gifts, Okoro strangely doesn’t generate many. You can create turnovers and put together a solid defensive performance without them, of course. But as noted above, live-ball turnovers are one method of goosing a stagnant offense, and were one of the many methods Auburn failed to employ in Tuscaloosa and Gainesville.
(Worth noting, while we’re here, that Okoro was bizarrely not credited with a steal vs. Carolina despite the second play in this clip. In which he, you know, steals the ball.)
— Okoro has the team’s highest eFG outside of McLemore (who’s taken 63 fewer shots) and its second-best assist rate in SEC play. At this stage — where he’s become the team’s most reliable post-up option and most productive driver — I would call him Auburn’s best offensive player.
Also, he’s the best wing defender in college basketball. What an unbelievable player.
— After hitting 2-of-3 vs. the Gamecocks, Jamal Johnson’s now shooting 46 percent from 3 on the season … and has only taken the fourth-most threes on the roster. Maybe he’s not bringing a whole lot else to the table, but when the rest of the team is struggling from deep the way they are, getting him more run and more shots seems like a good idea. This goes double when Wiley’s on the floor and the paint gets cramped for McCormick’s/Doughty’s/Okoro’s slashes to the rim.
Screencap from this @AuburnMBB clip