Observations: Auburn 72, Arkansas 59
Bruce Pearl's Tigers bounced back in a rather massive way — a double-digit win over one of the most talented teams in America.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Wendell Green Jr. flew up the lane on a pindown screen by Jaylin Williams and took the dribble handoff from Johni Broome. He only needed one bounce to get to his spot at the top of the key.
Green rose and fired. Arkansas point guard Devonte Davis, chasing Green on that well-worked half-court offensive set, clipped him on his release.
Whistle. Swish. An explosion of crowd noise.
Green turned to the Auburn student section and, using a little more colorful language than we’ll write here, let them all know that he was back.
Green’s 4-point play was a tone-setter Saturday night. He would hit a stepback 3-pointer two possessions later. The junior point guard who went 2-12 from the field and had more turnovers than assists in an ugly 12-point loss at Georgia 72 hours earlier wasn’t going to stay down.
And neither were the rest of his teammates. No. 13 Arkansas trailed by two points right after the under-16 timeout, and then Allen Flanigan made a tough finish in traffic and hit a 3-pointer off a Green steal. That would be the start of a massive night for the senior wing, an Arkansas native who still remembers how the flagship program of his home state didn’t offer him a scholarship.
Arkansas wouldn’t get within four points the rest of the way. Auburn never trailed and led by double-digits for more than half of the game. To put it another way: The Tigers did to the Razorbacks — one of the most talented rosters in the country, even without elite freshman Nick Smith — what the rebuilding Bulldogs did to them Wednesday.
“We needed that,” head coach Bruce Pearl said after Auburn’s 72-59 win over Arkansas. “I think everybody in here would agree we needed that. Could you have expected it? I don't know. But they really showed me something tonight.”
It’s a win that could shift an entire season for Auburn. In their first game against a ranked opponent, the Tigers played their best basketball. They nailed down a Quadrant 1 win and knocked off what appears to be the top SEC team they’ll play for almost a month.
Auburn dominated the turnover battle, only giving it away eight times to Arkansas’ 14 and outscoring the visitors 25-6 off of takeaways. It got 27 points from its bench and managed to match Arkansas’ work in the paint. And it also hit a crucial five more 3-pointers than Arkansas while also being much more efficient from the free-throw line.
“We know what we're capable of,” Green said. “We've just got to show it every night.”
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s massive 13-point win over Arkansas, the Rotation Charts, the Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
C Johni Broome (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
The rare switch to zone made all the difference
After the loss to Georgia earlier this week, Auburn needed to do something differently. But Pearl didn’t change up his starting lineup. He didn’t do anything drastic or new on the offensive end, either.
Instead, the Tigers spent the previous two days at practice implementing a defensive game plan that was designed to give these Razorbacks fits. But it would be built around something that they hadn’t done much all season — the zone.
For all of its firepower, Arkansas has struggled shooting the 3-pointer just as much as Auburn has this season. The Razorbacks don’t attempt them very often, getting a lot of their offense by attacking their basket with a load of former blue-chips who are very comfortable at winning 1-on-1 matchups.
Auburn refused to let Arkansas win that way. By rolling with a traditional 2-3 zone, the Tigers were able to pack the lane with extra bodies and dare the Razorbacks to shoot from deep.
“Arkansas is better from 2 than 3, and that little flat, 2-3 zone bothered them,” Pearl said. “They really struggled with it. They're going to see that all year long. Our guys did a good job with it.”
Arkansas’ effective field goal percentage for the game was 35.7%, its lowest mark all season and its worst in SEC play since a close loss at Alabama last February. The Razorbacks went 2-16 (12.5%) from deep, and they shot less than 50% at the rim. If it wasn’t for a high rate of foul calls — the Hogs shot 32 free throws but only hit 19 of them — Auburn’s defense could have made Arkansas’ night even more miserable.
“Everybody went out there and did their job,” Green said. “I'm proud of all my teammates. We just went out there, we played our roles and everybody did their job. Everybody has a responsibility in the zone, and we took care of it, and they didn't score that much.”
Anchoring the 2-3 zone was Broome, who had six blocks and came up with nine defensive rebounds. (He finished with 10 points and 10 boards, making him the first Auburn player since Austin Wiley in February 2020 to have three straight double-doubles.) And Broome affected a lot more shots than he blocked, putting together a game of interior defense that would have made Walker Kessler proud.
“The thing about Johni and Dylan (Cardwell) — even though Arkansas has got really good bigs and they’re really athletic, those guys can still physically stay in there with them,” Pearl said. “… Johni stood tall, and he’s confident. And that gives us confidence. We feed off of Wendell Green and Johni Broome’s confidence. So he played big.”
Auburn didn’t stay in zone the entire night, but it played more of that 2-3 than it has had in any single game of Pearl’s time on the Plains.
“That's probably the first time I've ever been here and played zone pretty much the whole game,” Flanigan said.
And when Auburn went to its traditional man defense, Pearl noted that it was even more effective because they had the gap-playing zone principles fresh on their minds.
The Tigers have struggled with allowing offensive rebounds this season, and zone defenses are easier to attack in that area — defenders don’t have an individual matchup to box out, as opposed to man. But packing things into the zone makes it easier to contest follow-ups, and Arkansas only had eight second-chance points on 17 offensive rebounds.
That’s a trade-off Auburn is quite willing to make, especially when the opposition was ice cold from deep. Paired with an offense that took care of the ball, the defense did well in transition and got back to build an effective wall time and time again.
Arkansas didn’t have an answer for something that Auburn doesn’t do very often, and that strategic move went a long way in the big win.
Wendell Green Jr. bounced right back into his bag
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