Film Room: Auburn's three-guard lineup could be its X-factor in the postseason
The Tigers pulled off a win at Mississippi State and sealed a victory over South Carolina with a brand-new look. Here's why it's so dangerous.
PG/SG Zep Jasper (Jacob Taylor/Auburn Athletics)
It was an act of desperation more than it was a well-drilled wrinkle that was waiting for the right time.
After Auburn missed two different chances on the same possession to retake the lead — one that was once all the way up to 19 points — against Mississippi State last Wednesday night, the Tigers caught a break when Bulldogs star point guard Iverson Molinar walked the ball up the floor and was hit with a 10-second violation.
As the officials reviewed the clock situation after Molinar’s stunning turnover, Bruce Pearl decided to put K.D. Johnson back into the game. But, instead of replacing Zep Jasper at the shooting guard spot, Johnson came in for small forward Devan Cambridge.
Auburn’s new lineup was Wendell Green Jr., Jasper, Johnson, Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. For the situation the Tigers found themselves in, down by two points away from home with less than two minutes left, the choices made sense.
“I wanted Wendell out there because I wanted the ball in his hands,” Pearl said. “I wanted Zep out there because of his defense, and he wouldn't turn it over. I wanted K.D. out there to make plays. I wanted Jabari out there because he's the best player in college basketball. And I wanted Walker out there.”
There was only one real problem.
“Those guys have never played together,” Pearl said.
The first possession together for the Full House — three of a kind (guards), plus a pair (forwards) — wasn’t successful. Auburn drew a foul after a couple of high ball screens from Kessler, then ran a BLOB play to get Smith open for a 3-pointer. The shot missed, and Mississippi State had the ball with the lead.
Although Auburn was giving up considerable size to Mississippi State, it was steadfast in the same defensive principles that got it this far — man-to-man, and switch virtually everything.
Mississippi State tried to give Auburn a taste of its own medicine by setting a high ball screen for Molinar, similar to what the Tigers tried with Green and Walker.
Kessler was responsible for Jasper on the switch, and he did well to contest a jumper from Molinar from behind the free throw line. Smith rose high to fight for the rebound, and Johnson flew over to knock the ball away from Mississippi State on the landing. The ensuing tie-up gave the ball to Auburn.
Molinar couldn’t win his individual matchup with Kessler on a midrange jumper. On the other end of the floor, Auburn decided to go right after Molinar with the same type of shot. Only this time, the one shooting it would have the clear size advantage — and an NBA-ready midrange game.
Smith set a high screen on Mississippi State’s Garrison Brooks, prompting Molinar to switch onto him. Once the switch was made, Smith called for the ball at the top of the key with Molinar on his back.
One dribble, one pump fake, tie game. It’s a sport of matchups.
Back down the floor, Molinar got another high ball screen that brought Kessler to the top of the key. Kessler switched onto him and did his best to stay with the talented point guard on the drive, but the penetration brought Smith over to help.
Molinar’s kick-out went to Brooks. Normally, this is exactly the type of look a team would want to get. But Mississippi State is one of the nation’s worst teams from beyond the arc, and it was in the midst of an 0-for night on 3-pointers. Smith recovered quickly to get a good contest on Brooks, whose triple airballed right into the hands of Kessler.
Auburn had a chance to win it in regulation, but things didn’t go well. Mississippi State decided to double Smith on his high screen for Green, who waited too late to drive and kick out to Jasper. The ball eventually found its way back to Smith, and he somehow managed to draw iron on a ridiculously tough deep 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Tigers were undoubtedly frustrated to be going to overtime after leading by nearly 20 — and by their last-second miss. But they had something going with this new lineup.