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Observations: Auburn 78, Mississippi State 71
Bruce Pearl got his 600th win, Allen Flanigan sent a message, JT Thor looked like a unicorn and DYLAN CARDWELL HIT A TURNAROUND 3.
(Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics)
Bruce Pearl didn’t even realize he was sitting on 599 career wins until assistant coach Wes Flanigan came into his office and told him earlier in the week.
On Saturday afternoon, Pearl was dancing and wearing a t-shirt that commemorated his 600th career win — a much-needed punctuation mark on what was arguably the toughest season of his lengthy head-coaching career.
“The biggest thing is I'm old,” Pearl said with a smile. “Been doing this a long time. I'm just grateful to my coaches, staff, managers, the athletic directors that have hired me and retained me, the fans everywhere that have given me an opportunity, trusted me to lead their programs. I'm truly grateful. Humbled, blessed — God has blessed me beyond what I deserve.
“But I keep score, I do. And 600 is a big number. Seven hundred would be even better.”
Pearl’s push toward 700 wins will have to start next season, as the Tigers wrapped up their 2020-21 campaign with a 78-71 home victory over Mississippi State. Here are five Observations, the Rotation Chart, Nerd Stats and a final Quote of the Day for the season.
The cream rose to the top
Earlier in the season, Bruce Pearl said he was waiting for “the cream to rise to the top” when it came to his deep rotation. Who would separate themselves from the pack?
And while the Tigers didn’t get to that point at full strength because of injuries to Sharife Cooper and Justin Powell, they made the rise Pearl wanted to see. Last week against Tennessee, Auburn won with just two bench points. Against Mississippi State, the bench contributed with 11 points — but Auburn’s leaders won this game.
Allen Flanigan had 22 points and zero turnovers, overcoming some early foul trouble to score 17 in a second half in which he never was on the bench for a single second. Jaylin Williams had 18 points and delivered his usual brand of Grown Man Basketball™. JT Thor had a phenomenal first half and led the team with nine rebounds while adding 10 points. Jamal Johnson hit four 3-pointers, dished seven assists to just two turnovers and played 38 minutes at point guard. Devan Cambridge went 1-for-7 from the field but played 36 minutes and looked strong on defense.
“You've got to give guys opportunities,” Pearl said. “They decide who shoots. They decide who plays. They decide what roles they play. And my job as a coach is to treat them fairly, not treat them the same. But let them play their way into their roles. Get them to go to their strengths and stay away from their weaknesses. The reason why our best players played the most minutes down the stretch and played stronger roles is because for that period of time, they demonstrated they're our best players.”
This is not to take anything away from the contributions off the bench — Dylan Cardwell had two huge second-half buckets, including a highlight we’ll get to later, and Chris Moore delivered strong minutes with his physical play. But when Auburn needed to lean on its leaders the most this season, they answered the call.
Flanigan had several possessions where he simply wouldn’t be denied on the way to the basket. Johnson got another metaphorical game ball from Pearl for his steady hand at the point. Thor and Williams both had stretches where they gave Mississippi State’s larger frontcourt all they could handle.
Pearl and his staff trusted the starting five to finish the job Saturday, and they came away with a season-ending victory that will put a different type of tone on the postseason to come. It was a showcase of the culture Pearl has maintained all season.
“I think one of the most important things is having a good locker room and having an environment where those kids are a family,” Pearl said. “They care about each other. They trust each other. They care about each other. So, the cream rose to the top.”
PG/SG Jamal Johnson (Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics)
Get used to seeing Jamal Johnson at PG
Johnson can’t remember if he’s ever played 38 minutes in a basketball game. He admits he was tired, but he wanted to push through it to get Pearl’s 600th win and finish the season on a high note.
Auburn couldn’t afford to have Johnson off the floor much Saturday. The Tigers turned the ball over just nine times against Mississippi State, marking only the second time all season they had fewer than 10 giveaways in a game (Texas Southern). While Alabama cranked up the pressure and made Auburn’s ball control a real problem earlier in the week, that didn’t happen for a second straight game.
Johnson’s play at point guard late in the season, once Cooper went down with an injury, made a tremendous difference.
“He can play the position, too,” Pearl said. “I’m going to play him some point guard this offseason and next year.”
Look for that to be Johnson’s new role in the 2021-22 season, no matter who ends up the regular starter at the point guard position. He had the lowest turnover rate on Auburn’s roster this season and has adjusted to life at point quite well.
“In high school I had the ball in my hands a lot, but when I went to Memphis and Auburn, I really didn’t have the ball in my hands a lot,” Johnson. “So it was kind of new for me and kind of refreshing the first couple of games playing. I just wanted to stay poised and get everybody a lot of shots, keep the ball moving and execute the offense as much as possible.”
Johnson should continue to grow as a potential point guard over the next few months. If he can remain a reliable contributor there, that gives Auburn a lot more flexibility with how its roster can take shape next season.
Auburn’s defense grew up down the stretch
After giving up 104 points in a lifeless loss to LSU in Baton Rouge a few weeks ago, Auburn allowed just 74, 72, 70 and 71 points in its final four games of the regular season. The Tigers hadn’t had a stretch of strong scoring defense like that since the start of SEC play.
While Mississippi State’s offense is one of the lower-scoring ones in the conference — and it has struggled from deep and at the free-throw line, as evidenced by its performance in both categories Saturday — it’s still quite talented.
“Mississippi State has four guys that are really good,” Pearl said. “The frontline of (Abdul) Ado and (Deivon) Smith and (Iverson) Molinar and (DJ) Stewart in the backcourt, they all were real factors. But, you know, our guys continued to compete.”
In the end, Auburn’s best five was better than Mississippi State’s “really good” four. Mississippi State shot just 1-for-6 from deep after halftime and shot just 50 percent on dunks and layups for the game, which had been a particular problem area this season for the Tigers’ defense.
A lot of Auburn’s defensive struggles this season can be attributed to youth, so it’s not surprising that it played its best ball on that end of the floor at the end of the season. The physical talent of the Tigers should make them a potentially destructive force on defense. Next season, they should have the experience — and confidence — to match.
“It means a lot just having the confidence and just being happy going into the offseason,” Flanigan said. “You don’t want to ever go into the offseason feeling down and bad just because of the last couple of games, how they unfolded. But just us getting that win, that was a big one.”
C Dylan Cardwell (Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics)
DYLAN CARDWELL HIT A TURNAROUND 3-POINTER
This deserves its own Observation section.
Mississippi State retook the lead early in the second half and was threatening to stretch it to several possessions. Auburn was close to giving the ball away on a shot-clock violation down four points, but Cardwell had the presence of mind to take a quick shot off a deflection.
His 3-point attempt, which was the only one of the season for the freshman center, was as pure as it could be.
“When it first left his hand, I was kinda shaky about it, because Dylan don’t shoot 3s,” Flanigan said. “But the big fella knocked it down.”
Not only was it the Shot of the Season for Auburn — it arguably produced the Quote of the Season from Johnson.
“I mean, we needed it,” Johnson said. “I think we were down by four points right there, and we were struggling to score a little bit, and we needed that. That was a gift from God. We needed that shot.”
Next season begins now
Thanks to the self-imposed postseason ban, Auburn’s offseason begins now. The players are about to get a quick week off while the staff prepares a five-week lifting program.
Then, it’s right back to work for the Tigers, who could have an insanely talented roster the next time they take the floor for a competitive game.
“Well, I'm optimistic,” Pearl said. “But we've got to stay together. We've got to develop. We've got to grow. We'll see. Very excited about the kids we've got coming in. Very excited about the guys we've got returning.”
As Pearl said after the game, Auburn will most likely have multiple players declare for the NBA Draft. They can get feedback from teams and later decide to return to school, as many have done in recent seasons. So, just because a player announces their intentions to enter the draft, it doesn’t necessarily mean Auburn fans have seen the last of them — whether it’s Cooper or Flanigan or Thor or anyone else.
Johnson made it sound like the Tigers expect to return most everybody for the 2021-22 season. He expects the long offseason to be a huge boost for the program.
“So with everybody coming back, everyone’s going to be able to jell together, get more comfortable with each other, know each other’s tendencies, weaknesses, strengths,” Johnson said. “We’ll be able to bond together more, which we already have throughout the season, but we’ll get another offseason to get a chance to get stronger and prepare for next year. I think it will be a good thing for us to get that whole offseason, long offseason to prepare for next year.”
Auburn went through a ton on and off the court during the 2020-21 season, but it’s officially done and dusted. The focus can now fully go on what the Tigers could be in 2021-22, with the upcoming draft decisions and roster moves adjusting just how massive the hype train will be.
“I’m proud of everybody, the way we battled through a lot of adversity and everything,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what place we finished in the SEC or whatever, but next year, I can see the potential in us, and we can grind. This year, we ended it with a bang, so we’re going to grind in the offseason and work and work so we can improve that ranking and finish in the top of the SEC next year.”
(click the chart for a full-resolution version)
For those of you new to the rotation charts, the above shows how the Tigers substituted throughout the game. Each box represents a minute of game time — the darker the shade of blue, the more time played in that minute.
There are also plus/minus minutes to show how the scoring changed minute-by-minute, as well as two specific lines for offensive and defensive production. The darker the green, the more points Auburn scored. The darker the red, the more the opponent scored. Those boxes are combined for the overall plus/minus line.
Allen Flanigan’s early foul trouble gave him a stop-start in the first half — and that meant a ton of minutes for Devan Cambridge and Jamal Johnson. But look at that consistent stretch of navy for Flanigan in the second half, which the Tigers won by nine points.
The season finale was also the final “Chris Moore just gets things done” performance. He was a +3 off the bench, had a big-time second-chance bucket and helped steady the ship while Auburn’s wings got some much-needed breathers.
Jaylin Williams was a true closer, as Auburn consistently won the final “quarter” of the season. Once he returned to the floor for the final 10 minutes, Auburn outscored Mississippi State by six.
Finally, Lior Berman and Preston Cook gave some good first-half spurts off the bench for yet another game. The walk-on combination showed they could hang at the SEC level, once Cooper and Powell were both out. Being able to steal some minutes with those players was an underrated boost for the Tigers down the stretch.
SF Allen Flanigan (Shanna Lockwood/Auburn Athletics)
Several readers have asked for explanations on some of these advanced statistics. I’ve added screenshots to definitions, both here and here. Think of those as quick glossaries, just substitute PER (player efficiency rating) for “Game Score.”
Allen Flanigan’s final game of a strong sophomore season: 17.1 PER, 62.2% floor, 65% eFG, 69% true shooting, 145.9 offensive rating
JT Thor went full unicorn on a number of occasions against Mississippi State, and he finished with a team-high in plus/minus at +12. He led the Tigers in defensive rating at 109.8, which was aided by his overall rebounding rate of 17.4%.
Jamal Johnson had an assist rate of 32% and a turnover rate of 15%, which is rather impressive for a fill-in point guard. His offensive rating of 133.1 was only topped by Flanigan.
Dylan Cardwell: 83% eFG, 83% true shooting. Cash money.
Quote of the Day (non-gift from God division)
Yeah, JT’s like my son. I raised him… He’s a child.
— PG/SG Jamal Johnson on PF JT Thor
Up next on The Auburn Observer: We close the book on Auburn basketball’s 2020-21 season with a recap podcast, available on all platforms, on Sunday afternoon.
Thanks for reading and following along with our coverage of the Tigers’ tough season — just know that many more basketball stories and podcasts will be coming out over the next several months.