WHAT THEY BRING (defensively)
Not as good as last year’s because it’s nowhere near as aggressive
Up front, this isn’t as good of a unit as the last two from Auburn. It’s got a slightly better defensive efficiency number, but efficiency as a whole is way down across CBB, so what would’ve ranked them 29th last year only gets them to 65th now. Most puzzlingly, Auburn has not forced many turnovers at all this season. After finishing 2nd in opponent TO% last season, the Tigers have fallen all the way to 209th. It’s hard to immediately explain away, especially given that Auburn actually presses more this season. But: as a whole, they’re slightly more conservative (less aggression, less fouls; it isn’t the deepest team) and they lost both Chuma Okeke and Malik Dunbar, elite on-ball defenders for college hoops.
With Auburn’s biggest defensive advantage from the Final Four team erased, they’ve had to get better at shot defense…which has worked somewhat.
Opponents have posted a 47.4% eFG%, which is good enough for 93rd-best in the country, better than last year’s 219th-best placement. They still block a lot of shots (30th Block%), and they block them both at and away from the rim.
Other than that, though, it’s hard to see this defense surviving for very long in March. Last year’s Auburn team surrendered a bunch of offensive rebounds in the Tournament, but they made up for it by riding a cold streak of opponent 3PT%, forcing turnovers, and limiting their own TOs to an extreme. It’s difficult to envision Auburn cooking up the same formula this time around.
Another boom-or-bust interior defense
Auburn doesn’t force a ton of non-rim twos, and they block about 9.3% of the attempts that do go up. They have a pretty similar opponent shot split to Tennessee: 40% at the rim, 23% non-rim twos, 37% threes. Prior to late-clock action, Auburn’s shown a willingness to let opponents get to the rim.
They’ve blocked a lot of rim attempts, but of the 38 teams to block 14% or more of rim attempts this season, Auburn ranks 32nd in opponent FG%.
Mobile guards that can get to the rim off of a screen or out of a spot-up situation have given Auburn tons of headaches, and it helps that Tennessee has a pair of very good post presences in Fulkerson and Pons to further that headache.
Away from the hoop, I think it’s better
On the perimeter, Auburn’s shown a solid aggressiveness in closing out on shooters to make life difficult. Their Guarded/Unguarded split on Synergy is 57/43 (right at the national average), which may seem just fine, but it’s actually better than last year’s number of 53/47.
Opponents have had very good nights against these guards – Vandy shot 10-of-17 from three, Missouri 7-of-13, Florida 8-of-17 – but there have also been very bad ones. Auburn didn’t have impressive offensive nights against any of Mississippi State, Ole Miss, or NC State, but they won because those three teams combined to shoot 30.1% from three on 53 attempts. (Likewise, Auburn was awful on offense against Georgia and Alabama in their losses, yet did hold the two teams to a 13-of-48 combined outing from deep.) It’s a beatable group, obviously, but Tennessee’s faced easier groups on the perimeter.
Other stuff: not much, really. Auburn’s best nights against non-walkover competition have been ones where they’ve been able to stay out of foul trouble and have forced more bad non-rim two-point attempts than the opponent would like.
If Tennessee can take it to the rim early and often and resist the 17-foot pullups, it’s a step in the right direction. Also, if Okoro can’t go, this will hurt Auburn on this side of the ball, too. He’s a very good on- and off-ball defender.
NEXT PAGE: Ride the tiger