By JD McCarthy
for the Opelika Observer
Auburn has made tremendous strides under Bruce Pearl and has turned into one of the top programs in the SEC, something no one saw coming. But Auburn still has room to grow to become one of the top teams in the country.
This was never more evident than when Auburn fell to No. 2 Baylor 84-72 over the weekend. The matchup showed just how close Auburn was but revealed where they need to improve to become a true title contender.
The Tigers kept it close in the first half, trailing by just five at halftime. However, Baylor pulled away in the second half and opened up a 21-point lead in the first 10 minutes after the break. Yes, Auburn was able to narrow the gap, but the statement had been made; Baylor was the better team and there was nothing Auburn could do about it.
There is nothing wrong with this, as Baylor has a contender for National Player of the Year in Jared Butler and possesses both an elite defense and offense, which powered the run Baylor went on.
They made 5 3-pointers and 15-of-24 overall while Auburn went 7-of-21 and made just one 3-pointer in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
“We didn’t start the second half with any effort and energy,” Pearl said. “How much of it was them, how much of it was us? I think I have to hold us a little more accountable.”
While the loss stings, it should be remembered that Pearl acknowledged this may be the best team he has ever coached against.
“There’s a chance they’re the best team I’ve played against,” Pearl said. “Like, period. I’ve been doing this a long time … I wish any one of my best teams could resemble the way these guys play.”
Not only is Baylor talented; they also were more experienced, with the starting lineup having an average age of 22.8 compared to Auburn’s average of 19.8.
Part of the problem with Auburn is the Tigers currently have only one creator in Sharife Cooper and could really use a player who is capable of creating for himself without help from his teammates. Another guard also would have been able to take some of the pressure off Jamal Johnson and Allen Flanigan who both struggled to score.
Justin Powell showed he has the ability to create for others and is one of the best shooters on the team; he also could have helped keep the other guards fresher, something Baylor was able to do with their depth. However, he is still suffering from a concussion, and without him Auburn is thin in the backcourt.
These are all characteristics of a good team, which is exactly what Auburn is, but the Tigers have their sights set on becoming great and they are still on track to accomplish that in the coming seasons.
With the lack of experience on Auburn’s roster, 2021 was likely always going to be a building year for 2022 when the young core would have spent a full season gaining experience and coming together. This was only cemented when Cooper was ineligible to start the season and Auburn self-imposed a postseason ban.
About those weaknesses of Auburn’s that were exposed against Baylor. The Tigers have several plans to solve those.
First, Auburn has two players coming in next year who address these issues in Jabari Smith and Trey Alexander, the highest and 11th highest signees in program history, respectively.
Smith is capable of scoring no matter how good the defense is and has the potential to take Auburn’s offense to the next level. Alexander will provide depth at the guard position and will be able to provide solid defense against other guards as well as pair perfectly alongside the playmaking Cooper as the pure scorer who is capable of pulling up from deep or as one of the lead scorers for a second unit.
The duo of Cooper and Smith will be surrounded by an experienced and deep roster thanks to their time growing this year.
Flanigan and Jaylin Williams are likely to be back and should be expected to take another step forward; Devan Cambridge is capable of getting hot enough to carry an entire team. Powell has already shown he deserves to be on the floor. JT Thor has flashed his tremendous upside and is getting more consistent as the season goes on. There’s no guarantee all of these guys will be back, but Auburn will be scary good if they are.
While the loss to Baylor stings, it is an important reminder that Auburn needs to take several steps forward and should help the team next year, when they have the potential to be one of the top teams in the country.
“Playing Gonzaga and playing Baylor was, like, really good for us,” Williams said after the loss to Baylor. “For us next year, we don’t have any seniors. Next year, if we play some team like that again, we’re gonna be ready for them.”