BY WIL CREWS
Normally, if a group of tigers walk into an arena in Nashville, Tennessee, pure pandemonium would ensue.
The 20-11 Auburn Tigers men’s basketball team hopes to elicit just this — pandemonium, madness — as it enters postseason play at the SEC Tournament this week.
Following its home win over top-25 ranked Tennessee last weekend, it’s near consensus that Auburn, which finished seventh in the SEC this regular season, has done enough to secure a berth into the NCAA Tournament. But, just getting to the tournament is far from the goal that the Tigers set for themselves entering the 2022-23 season. This program aims to hang banners.
And the level of play shown against Tennessee last weekend proved the Tigers are a dangerous team.
Though the thought of a deep postseason run from the Tigers may seem like a pipedream for many fans of the orange-and-blue, Bruce Pearl’s team has preached togetherness and belief all season. And while Pearl is by no means delusional about the weaknesses that hamper this Tigers team, Auburn’s top-end talent and experience provides a base for success as the team enters tournament play.
Core contributors like Johni Broome, Wendell Green Jr., K.D. Johnson, Jaylin Williams, Allen Flanigan, Zep Jasper and Dylan Cardwell all have experience playing in the “Big Dance.” For the most part, they all have experience playing with high expectations, too. This year, however, the expectations are as low as they have been since Auburn’s Final Four push in 2019. But the Tigers have been playing better as of late, and there may yet be some undiscovered hope for success.
You ever heard the saying “Defense wins championships”? Well, it is no secret that defense is the strength of this Auburn team. Specifically, the Tigers have a solid defensive base that should keep them close in any game, as they have held opponents to 45.2% effective shooting (the 11th best mark in the nation), and 28.8% three-point shooting (sixth best in the nation). Furthermore, Broome and company have posted the eighth best rim-protecting numbers in the nation this season, averaging 5.2 blocks per game.
The problem is, however, that Auburn has faltered down the stretch in nearly every “close” game it has had this season. The recurring motif of the 2022-23 Auburn season is being out-shot and out-executed in the final minutes of contests. They finally reversed that trend, however, in the win against the Volunteers Saturday.
As far as weaknesses go, this Auburn team has more than it would like to admit. Firstly, the Tigers’ rebounding stats have been appalling. Auburn ranks No. 147 in the country in defensive rebounds per game (23.3), and No. 343 in terms of allowing offensive rebounds to its opponent. Auburn lacks length at its guard positions, it’s true; but Wendell Green Jr. is actually exceptional at rebounding for his size. The onus falls to Broome, Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell to clean up the boards.
The most obvious struggle of Auburn’s 2023 season has been its three-point shooting. But, slowly but surely, the Tigers have been reversing that trend as of late. It’s been a brick-by-brick process that could have easily gone unnoticed, but the Tigers have raised their three-point shooting percentage from 28.8% to 38.8% over the last month of games. Extrapolate that out to the entire season, and Auburn’s three-point shooting percentage would rank No. 13 nationally. Which offense arrives in Nashville Thursday night will go a long way towards indicating whether Auburn is truly hitting their stride — getting hot — at the best time to do so.
The Tigers begin their postseason journey in the SEC Tournament against Arkansas on Thursday night. The No. 7 Tigers defeated the No. 10 Razorbacks, 72-59, in their only matchup this season. The rest of Auburn’s path to a postseason SEC Tournament Championship foretells games against No. 2 Texas A&M (Auburn lost both matchups against the Aggies this season), and probably Kentucky and Alabama — barring upsets.
From there, the Tigers are project to be anywhere between a No. 8 and No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Auburn is at the crux of its season, there is no denying that. Will the Tigers languish, and succumb to the madness? Or will they fulfill the slightest premonition that they can be the ones to cause it?