WHAT THEY BRING
A statistical victory lap
Fun fact: I wrote about Auburn in mid-February, believing a downturn was sure to come. At that time, Auburn was a gaudy 22-2, but with a 10-0 record in games decided by six or fewer points. The TL;DR version of that is that projecting how 18-22 year olds are going to perform in close games is a fool’s errand, but I noted this at the time: “I don’t think Auburn possesses some sort of magical clutch gene.” And guess what: they don’t! Since that article was written (it wasn’t posted until after the Missouri defeat; bad timing by me), Auburn is 2-4, and in their two close losses, they’ve finished each game by missing multiple shots with the opportunity to either tie or take the lead. Very interesting how that works out! Am I clapping and telling everyone that I was right the entire time? No, I would never do that. I have absolutely not drafted a Tweet for every Auburn loss since I wrote the article in the first place. Absolutely not.
Oddly enough, the Auburn offense has been the slightly superior unit during this stretch of poor play. It hasn’t been good, mind you – the Tigers are shooting 27.4% from three over their last ten games – but it has been better than the defense. Auburn still crashes the boards like few others, still gets to the rim on a loop, and still takes a ton of threes. Those things haven’t changed, and I figure that as long as Bruce is there and is still recruiting similar players, it will never change. The only statistical update from last preview: I noted that, at the time, every Auburn loss had come in a game where they’d shot 25% or worse from three. That’s broken a tiny bit, but it might as well be the same; they shot 19-for-64 against Kentucky and Texas A&M.
As is typical with most Auburn/Bruce teams, there’s no stand-alone dominant scorer. There are leading scorers, obviously – Samir Doughty leads the pack at 16.2 PPG – but, as usual, there’s depth. Six players put up 6.9 points or more per game, with four in double figures. We’ll discuss each in descending order of points per game.
Samir Doughty is the big dog
Doughty, as mentioned, is the team’s leading scorer. He mostly gets his run at the 2-guard position, where he attempts a near-equal number of twos and threes and draws a wildly high number of fouls per game for a shooting guard.
About those threes first: they haven’t gone in much at all, though of course they did against Tennessee (3-of-5) and also Texas A&M (5-of-9).
Doughty is shooting 31.4% from downtown, which makes last year’s 43.6% hit rate (after a 28.4% hit rate his one year at VCU) seem like a serious outlier.
Luckily for Auburn, there are few players in the SEC we’re even able to mention in the same sentence who are as good or better than Doughty at fighting their way to the rim. Doughty gets several possessions per game as the ball-handler in Auburn’s ball-screen sets, and he almost always uses the screen, rarely going away from the pick.
Isaac Okoro, future top 10? pick
The #2 scorer on the team, surprisingly, is future Top 5 pick Isaac Okoro. Per Bart Torvik’s PORPAGATU metric, which is an attempt at a WAR-like metric for basketball, Okoro’s freshman season ranks 16th among high-major freshmen. Luckily for Okoro, his NBA Draft competition is so weak this year that this actually makes him impressive.
Okoro is much more efficient at the rim than anywhere else; he’s shot 23-93 (24.7%) on all shots that aren’t layups, dunks, or tips this season.
He’s been near-unstoppable when driving to the basket, though, and has flashed some good abilities in the post.
(Quick note: he almost never goes to his right out of a post-up; Synergy claims he’s done it once all season.) Okoro is playing this time, of course, which has been a big deal this season…but Auburn is 1-2 since he returned, so who knows.
J’Von McCormick is a pull-up king
J’Von McCormick is the senior point guard, and while he does get to the rim often like the other starters, he’s far and away the most prone to taking long twos.
McCormick’s 93 non-rim twos are more than double that of the second-highest long two taker on the team, Austin Wiley (46). A plurality of McCormick’s own offense centers around his ability to pull up off of a ball screen and hit his shots, which he’s one of the best in the SEC at. Like basically everyone else on the roster, he’s very inconsistent from three (29.6% this year, 33.2% for career), but he more than makes up for that with quality passes to open shooters.
Austin Wiley: dominant paint presence when he wants to be
Last of the 10+ PPG scorers is senior center Austin Wiley. Wiley is basically the only member of the Auburn rotation that won’t at least consider attempting a three. The vast majority of Wiley’s damage comes at the rim and the free throw line, as he’s drawing more fouls than any player not named Mason Jones in the SEC. Wiley gets a ton of work in the post, where he turns to his left 70% of the time regardless of block placement. He’s not terribly efficient here, especially if you can force him to a hook shot.
Instead, he’s way more damaging on basket/screen cuts, and in P&R sets where he can roll to the basket or slip the pick.
Also, Wiley ranks out as one of the very best rebounders in the nation, both on offense and defense. Tennessee’s got to box out at all costs, lest they be the victims of an ill-timed putback as they were last time out.
The other guys
Only two other players on the team top 4.3 PPG: Danjel Purifoy and Anfernee McLemore. Purifoy is Auburn’s small-ball 5/normal-ball 4 that takes nearly double the number of threes as he does twos. He’s not great at hitting them this year (30.3%), but you’ve still got to cover him.
McLemore is a bit more even of a twos/threes split and hits about the same amount of his deep balls (28.6%), but has proven to be a very dangerous piece as the screener in P&R sets, successful both at popping out for open looks and when slipping the pick.
There are other bench guys that will see action, but their offensive range extends from bad (Allen Flanigan, 14.7% from three) to fine (Devan Cambridge, loves transition play) to actually fairly efficient (Jamal Johnson, 38.6% from three).
Last 10 games of defense have been dreadful
To be honest, this was actually the side of the ball I did not expect to completely collapse…and yet. Eight of the last ten Auburn opponents have gotten to at least 1+ PPP, and Tennessee can include themselves in this group right at 1 point per possession.
Auburn has done almost nothing exceptionally over the last several games – they’ve given up a lot of open threes that have gone down:
They’ve fouled a lot:
They let opponents get rebounds that shouldn’t happen:
And they also haven’t forced many turnovers…but, if you need a positive, they have maintained a Top 50 Block Rate nationally. There’s always something.
Really, all you need to do is look at how easy it got for otherwise moribund offenses like Missouri and Texas A&M. The Tigers went for 1.253 PPP on the strength of pounding their way to the free throw line on a loop and getting several open looks from downtown; the Aggies, meanwhile, got blocked a bunch but didn’t care and kept going to the rim anyway.
It’s a perfect strategy to follow for a Tennessee team that’s been at their best when doing so.
I would attack these guys at the rim as much as possible
Let’s talk 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, 24% non-rim twos, 36% 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.
The perimeter defense is in a struggle session
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 55/45 (near 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. It’s a beatable group, obviously, but Tennessee’s faced easier groups on the perimeter. Tennessee got several open looks last time, though, and there’s plenty of reason to think they could do similar again. Texas A&M, the same team that ranks 335th in 3PT% this season, made 8-of-21 threes on Auburn because Auburn didn’t respect them:
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.
NEXT PAGE: Considering this series is named after a Lil Wayne song, it seems correct to remind you all that Auburn has Money to Blow