The Stretch 4: "OK, if that's the No. 2 team in the country... we can win."
What can Auburn take from its loss at Tennessee into a revenge game at A&M? And where do the Tigers stand with four weeks left?
(Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn was clearly upset after its loss at Tennessee on Saturday. Bruce Pearl chased down multiple referees after a foul wasn’t called on Wendell Green Jr.’s final shot attempt. Green tweeted his displeasure after the game, along with Johni Broome.
But the frustration started to fade shortly after that. Pearl talked about how proud he was of his team’s effort and energy in the postgame press conference. And Jaylin Williams said he felt a shift among his fellow teammates, too.
“That was a tough loss, but I feel like once we were in the locker room after the game, we were upset — but we were kinda like, ‘OK, if that’s the No. 2 team in the country…we can win,’” Williams said Monday afternoon. “Like, we can win more games than like these reporters and everyone believes. We’ve just got to guard and rebound, and offense will come eventually.”
That’s the mindset that Auburn is carrying into a Tuesday night showdown at Texas A&M. The Tigers will be underdogs for the second game in a row, but losing to a historically elite defense by only three points away from home should give them a lift against an unranked Aggies squad.
It’s another Quad 1 opportunity for Auburn, which lost to Texas A&M by 16 points two weeks ago. And it’s just another step in a difficult stretch of games, as a top-five Alabama team will head to the Plains this weekend for a nationally televised showdown.
“Well, if you love the grind, which I do, then you love the position that you're in right now,” Pearl said.
Last week, Auburn flipped a double-digit loss to Georgia into a blowout win in the rematch. Texas A&M, which Pearl says is playing the best basketball of anybody in the SEC not named Alabama right now, is a much tougher opponent — and the rematch is away from home.
For some reason, Texas A&M has had Auburn’s number since it joined the SEC. Auburn is 4-10 against Texas A&M during that span and has lost four of the last five meetings.
“I don’t know what it is, to be honest,” said Williams, a fourth-year senior. “But every time I’ve played them, it’s been a struggle. … They’re well-coached as a team. They’re always prepared, and we’ve just got to come with it.”
For more on this crucial road matchup from the Auburn perspective — including the latest on center Dylan Cardwell — here is this week’s edition of The Stretch 4.
C Johni Broome (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Can Auburn pull off another big turnaround on defense?
Auburn’s loss to Texas A&M at home was a crystal-clear example of one of the Tigers’ biggest woes this season: Giving up a lot of points to a high-scoring guard.
Tyrece Radford had 30 points, hitting three 3-pointers, going 5-10 from inside the line and shooting 11-12 from the charity stripe. Auburn simply didn’t have anyone who could stay in front of him, and he also created room for teammate Wade Taylor IV to score 15 of his own.
“Texas A&M put 79 on us, you know, and that's the highest total we've given up in league play,” Pearl said Monday. “So it starts with our ability to be able to guard them. Our defense has been good, acquires a tremendous amount of effort, energy and focus on things that we do in the scout.”
Last week, Auburn’s guards played arguably their best defensive ball of the season. They shut down Georgia’s Terry Roberts and Kario Oquendo, which was the key to Auburn’s 33-point swing in the series. On Saturday, Tennessee’s Zakai Zeigler went 0-10 from the field, and Santiago Vescovi only scored seven points.
Pulling off a similar performance against Texas A&M would be quite the accomplishment. The Aggies are bigger, stronger and more physical in the backcourt than most SEC teams, but the Tigers should be playing with much more confidence on defense this time around.
“I think our guards were kind of tired of hearing about how they've been getting lit up, and the way we guard, it's not one guy,” Pearl said. “It's not just, 'Well, this is the matchup.' I thought our 1s and 2s did a phenomenal job against Zeigler and Vescovi, and I think our guards did a really good job against Georgia's guards after being lit up the first time.
“If that can be the case again, we give ourselves a chance.”
But it’s not just the guards that will have their hands full in College Station. Williams noted that Texas A&M forward Henry Coleman has been playing better on offense since the first meeting, and he scored a combined 33 points last week in a road loss to Arkansas and a home blowout win over Georgia.
The Aggies have the SEC’s No. 2 offense in terms of efficiency in conference games, making up for their lack of a consistent 3-point shot with elite offensive rebounding and a physical style of play.
Every matchup is different, but Auburn just held a team with a similar makeup to 46 points on its home floor. Getting a third straight strong defensive performance could go a long way in grabbing an important road victory.
“It’s just jumping towards the ball and being in the gaps and being on ball screens, just really communicating together,” Williams said. “Feel like we had a great defensive game against Tennessee. If we just do the same thing at Texas A&M and make shots, we should come out with a win.”