The Stretch 4: 'We're playing well, but we're going to have to play better'
Auburn *must* take care of business Wednesday vs. Ole Miss. Then it's about finding ways to get over the hump heading into March.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
The math has been kind to Auburn during this stretch of six losses in its last eight.
That would not be the case if Auburn made that seven out of nine.
Auburn hosts Ole Miss on Wednesday night for the second leg of its usual home-and-home series. Since the Tigers beat the Rebels by a score of 82-73 on Jan. 10, Ole Miss has won just two games — at South Carolina and at Georgia. The 10-17 Rebels are currently No. 130 in the NET rankings, making this a Quadrant 3 game for the Tigers.
And a strength of Auburn’s NCAA Tournament bubble case is that it’s a perfect 10-0 in Quadrant 3 and Quadrant 4 games, avoiding the really bad losses that others have taken this season.
“We're facing, again, another must-win situation,” Bruce Pearl said Tuesday afternoon. “Last time against Missouri, it was (must-win) because there was a really good prize on the win — because Missouri had won four in a row, they had just beaten Tennessee, they were seeded slightly ahead of us in the NCAA Tournament, and the win could do us some real good.
“The contest against Ole Miss, that's not the case. A loss can do us almost irreparable damage because of just the math.”
Even though Auburn is 8-9 in Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 games, seven of those losses have been on the road — and seven of them have come by single-digits.
Those close calls still don’t help the win-loss record, but they’ve been a boost in the opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses to create the final bracket. Auburn is currently No. 20 in KenPom and No. 20 in Sagarin, which goes a long way toward a top-30 spot in the NET.
Still, with Auburn potentially needing a win in the final three contests of the regular season — plus this must-have game against Ole Miss, of course — what the Tigers have been doing recently isn’t quite enough.
“I think we're playing well, but we're going to have to play better,” Pearl said. “We still have three games against three of the top four teams in the league. We'll have played Tennessee and (Texas) A&M twice, and Alabama twice. The schedule is really, really challenging.
“But I do think we're playing well. I do. Not well enough.”
For more on several areas where Auburn can get from well to well enough in crunch time of the regular season, here is this week’s edition of The Stretch 4.
(Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Pearl ‘would’ve done things differently’ at the end of the Vandy game
Even though it was three days later, Auburn’s last-second loss to Vanderbilt from Saturday night was still fresh on Pearl’s mind when he opened his pregame press conference Tuesday afternoon.
In his opening statement, Pearl said he should have made two different decisions in the final minute of the loss and that he took responsibility for them in a recent team meeting.
The first centered on Vanderbilt’s game-winning possession. After K.D. Johnson hit a tough 3-pointer to tie the game with 10 seconds left, Pearl and the staff anticipated that the Commodores would try to get point guard Ezra Manjon to drive to the basket for the win.
Pearl subbed Zep Jasper for Wendell Green Jr. and Dylan Cardwell for Johni Broome, then called for the defense to switch everything on ball screens. Jaylin Williams was unable to slow down Manjon on the switch after Jasper got screened, and Cardwell was unable to affect his shot enough at the rim.
“Kind of build a wall and switch everything, but that really wasn't good enough,” Pearl said. “And what I probably should've done was come to some zone pressure, like a little 2-2-1, see if I could get the ball out of (Manjon’s) hands — or make sure he saw more bodies, so he wasn't able to get a full head of steam.”
The second decision Pearl wanted to have back in hindsight happened a few possessions earlier. With under a minute left and trailing by 1, Broome was blocked by Vanderbilt center Liam Robbins on a shot attempt at the rim. The ball went out of bounds, and the Tigers maintained possession.
After Green drew a non-shooting foul on the ensuing play, Auburn got the ball in a side out-of-bounds situation. That call led to Williams getting an open 3-point look at the top of the key, but he missed it. Vanderbilt would hit two free throws on the other end of the floor before Johnson’s game-tying triple.
Looking back, Pearl said he had better OB (out-of-bounds) play calls to use in that close-game situation.
“I like the look that we got from Jaylin late,” Pearl said. “It was clean. But I had a side OB (and) an under OB that probably could've gotten a better look. So, I told the team, because when you lose, the best thing you can do is just look inward and go, 'OK. What could I have done better?’
“I could've defended the last possession better and I had a side OB and an under OB late in the last minute and I could've called some better looks. Called a couple things that we run a lot. They defended (Williams) well. So, I take responsibility for that from the team.”
C Johni Broome (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)