Why Auburn basketball's bench might be the best in the entire country
The Tigers' reserves are averaging 38.1 PPG, and their all-bench rotation is one of the best lineups in all of college basketball right now.
(Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
Auburn was trailing when Bruce Pearl sent what was close to a hockey-style line change to the scorers’ table during the first media timeout of the game.
Chad Baker-Mazara had subbed into the game a couple of minutes earlier, replacing Chris Moore at small forward. The rest of the Tigers’ second unit soon joined him, with Tre Donaldson, K.D. Johnson, Chaney Johnson and Dylan Cardwell checking into action.
K.D. Johnson missed a 3-pointer on the first possession out of the timeout, but he made up for it seconds later by finishing off a fastbreak reverse dunk following a steal from Cardwell.
LSU’s next possession ended with another Auburn steal. This time, Baker-Mazara swiped the ball and fed it quickly to Donaldson, who drove the floor before drawing a shooting foul. He knocked down both free throws.
The next possession? Another Baker-Mazara steal that led to another Auburn bucket. Baker-Mazara finished the break with a corner 3-pointer.
Three LSU possessions, three Auburn steals, seven Auburn points. Auburn went from down 1 to up by 6 in a little more than a minute of game time.
Over on the sidelines, LSU head coach Matt McMahon had to burn a 30-second timeout as the Auburn bench unit celebrated with an energetic home crowd.
“Their bench, in the first half — and I'm not saying their bench versus our bench, it was their bench versus our bench some, versus our starters some — I thought their bench in the first half was awesome,” McMahon would later say after Auburn’s 93-78 win over LSU.
Auburn’s bench, as McMahon pointed out, couldn’t have asked for a better first half. The sixth through 10th men in the Tigers’ rotation combined for 26 points and only missed two shots from the field. They also went a perfect 12-12 from the free-throw line.
The lowest plus/minus for one of those five Auburn reserves in the first half was a +11. After trailing by multiple possessions early, the host Tigers went into the halftime locker room with a 17-point lead.
“Huge,” starting point guard Aden Holloway said. “That kind of, like, won us the game today. Like, we would get a slight little lead, the first group. But then, when (Baker-Mazara’s) group came in, they just blew out the lead to a good 18, 20.
“They just make it easier for us from there. So give them a bunch of credit.”
But that first-half blitz from Auburn’s bench was nothing new. In fact, it has become a signature aspect of Auburn’s winning streak — one that has stretched to nine straight victories by double-digits.
Against LSU, from the time Auburn had all five backups on the floor to when the starters rotated back into the game, Auburn went from down by 1 point to up by 4 (+5 points).
Against Texas A&M, in that same rotation, Auburn went from down by 3 to up by 4 (+7). Against Arkansas, it went from down by 6 to up by 2 (+8).
Against Penn, it stretched its lead from 9 to 15 (+6). The Chattanooga game went from 4 points to 14 (+10). The easy wins over UNC Asheville and Alabama State featured Auburn adding onto its leads by a point each. And the USC game saw Auburn go from down by 1 to up by 6 (+7) inside the first rotation of the bench squad.
In fact, the last time Auburn’s point differential did not get better on the first rotation from the bench came in the Atlanta game against Indiana. There, Auburn went from down by 8 to down by 11 (-3). However, by the end of the second rotation by the bench lineup, Auburn went from a tie game to up by 15 (+15).
“Well, we don’t drop off,” head coach Bruce Pearl said recently. “We go to the bench. We’ve been talking about that all year. I’ve said the good news is we don’t drop off. The bad news is we don’t drop off, so maybe our starters aren’t good enough.
“But that second group has been really very important. They’ve settled us down.”
Quite frankly, no other winning team in major college basketball is doing what Pearl is doing with his bench.