BY WIL CREWS
Auburn basketball just doesn’t look right.
The Tigers, in the infancy of Southeastern Conference play, are doing fine on paper. Entering their game against Georgia Wednesday, the Tigers have a 11-2 record and are the fourth-highest ranked SEC school in the country at No. 20. However, dedicated fans or casual onlookers don’t have to squint very hard to see the cracks beginning to swell.
Head coach Bruce Pearl’s teams have always been predicated on defense, and the 2022-23 version of the Tigers is no different. Auburn ranks No. 1 nationally in blocks per game, No. 5 in three-point percentage defense and in the top 50 in field goal percentage defense, scoring defense and steals per game. Posting those numbers, the Tigers are theoretically good enough to keep any matchup they play this season close.
So, what is the problem? Well, for starters, Auburn was always going to struggle to replace the production of Jabari Smith Jr. and Walker Kessler — the No. 3 and No. 22 overall picks in the 2022 NBA draft last summer, respectively.
Coming into this season, it appeared Pearl and his staff had “rebuilt” a roster capable of competing for an SEC championship and Final Four appearance. Pre-season All-SEC nods to guards Wendell Green Jr. and K.D. Johnson supported and bolstered that notion. Furthermore, the addition of Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year Johnni Broome (by way of transfer from Morehead State), and the signing of a No. 14 freshmen class nationally had risen expectations on The Plains yet again.
But, despite the strong, early-season record, Auburn is approaching a tipping point between expectations and results. It is a victim of its own success… and the ever-growing prowess of rival Alabama (who is ranked No. 7 nationally).
Laboring, discombobulated and sluggish are all words that have described the Tigers — mainly their offense — on too many occasions this season.
Green Jr. and Johnson, as electric and stupefying as ever, haven’t quite lived up to their pre-season acknowledgements. Unlike Green Jr. last season, Johnson perhaps has struggled with his sixth-man, off-the-bench role; both are small in stature and clearly struggle against teams with longer, athletic guards. Green Jr. is a facilitate-first player who is being forced to operate as a lead scorer… which he can do, but struggles to when defenses key in on him.
Broome has been as advertised, a quotient of consistency on the defensive and offensive end, but has unsurprisingly failed to match the level of impact made by Kessler last year.
Amidst the rest of the ensemble cast, senior Jaylin Williams and juniors Dylan Cardwell and Chris Moore are contributing considerably more than what has been requested of them in seasons past. Bar Cardwell, maybe, the trio are career college players (i.e: not professional quality). Moreover, the other experienced stalwarts in Auburn’s team — Allen Flanigan and Zep Jasper — are flight risks due to their penchant for disappearing for the entirety of games.
Additionally, the three freshmen from the top-15 2022 class — Yohan Traore, Chance Westry and Tre Donaldson — have struggled to assimilate to the college game, averaging a combined 8.6 points over an average of 34.4 minutes of floor time per game. It’s too early to say, but as of now, the 2022 class is not flourishing like fans had hoped.
Lastly — and it has to be said because it refers back to the fundamental problems facing Auburn — is the general lack of ingenuity in the offensive system overall. The Tigers’ cutting off-ball and motion-screen offense has been predictable and unreliable. To me, introducing some new blood to the Auburn coaching staff is imperative if the Tigers want to refresh their championship expectations sooner rather than later.
Put simply, the Tigers lack the quality offensively — in both the personnel and system — to compete with the best teams in the country. Don’t get me wrong, the Tigers can compete on any given night. But the absence of a star like Smith has blatantly diluted Auburn’s upside. And while Pearl’s Tigers this season are theoretically 11-men deep, they are missing a star.
Teams usually try to iron out their kinks prior to conference play beginning, and Auburn is continuing to find its offensive identity past that point. As for now, the Tigers don’t look right; And there just might not be enough talent on this team to provide a solution to their problems.