Observations: Baylor 88, Auburn 82
The Tigers played well for most of their opener but weren't able to finish it off. They'll have plenty to learn from the positives and negatives.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Perhaps the only thing that didn’t feel like an NCAA Tournament game Tuesday night was the venue itself.
The Sanford Pentagon only holds a little more than 3,000 fans. It wasn’t a completely packed house, either, for the season opener between Auburn and No. 20 Baylor.
But, on the parquet floor, early November felt like late March.
The intensity was definitely there between two programs that have resurrected under their current head coaches to become bigger forces in college basketball than they have been in their entire histories.
Every shot felt massive. Every loose ball had a make-or-break feel.
The sport’s spotlight was firmly on Sioux Falls on Tuesday for the only big game of the night. The high-level product on the floor made it seem like it could be something you’d see again in a few months.
Maybe with one other exception, though.
"It's a high-level game... and it was just, you know, too much of a foul fest,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said after an 88-82 loss Tuesday night.
Auburn struggled with defending without fouling last season, finishing No. 327 nationally in opposing free-throw rate. But that wasn’t an issue in the Tigers’ two NCAA Tournament games, where they shot more free throws than both Iowa and Houston.
The Iowa win in the first round featured only 18 fouls from Auburn’s defense. The Houston loss in the second round featured 22, with the Cougars committing 25.
On Tuesday night in Sioux Falls, Auburn was whistled for 32 fouls — including 20 in the second half alone. Baylor went from shooting just eight free throws in the first half to 26 in the second half.
Auburn finished the game hitting more field goals than Baylor (28 to 26) and equaling the Bears in 3-point shooting (9-19), rebounding (38-38, including 14-14 on offense and 24-24 on defense) and turnovers (15-15).
But Baylor had more free-throw attempts in the second half than Auburn had all game. That really makes a difference in a game that was ultimately decided by six. Even if Auburn had hit all of its shots from the charity stripe after halftime, it still would’ve lost by one.
The Tigers had six players with at least four fouls by the end of the game, and All-SEC center Johni Broome fouled out in the final minute. The Bears only had three.
“Our second-half defense, having them in the bonus in five minutes of basketball in the second half, putting them on the foul line 21 times — we’ve got to do a better job of staying in front, a better job of moving our feet,” Pearl said. “I just thought — it’s a big game. It’s a big game. I just didn’t expect Baylor to go to the foul line 34 times.”
Of course, Auburn didn’t lose this game just because of the foul disparity. As Pearl told Auburn’s radio crew after the game, “you have to win games when you have a lead like that.”
The Tigers were up by nine at halftime. Auburn’s offense and defense were both humming to close the first half. Aden Holloway was having a phenomenal collegiate debut, throwing big-shot haymakers against a perennial NCAA Tournament squad.
And even though fellow freshman and former Tigers target Ja’Kobe Walter had six points in the first 30 seconds of the second half for Baylor, Auburn still led by six with 10 minutes to go. The opportunity was there to come out of South Dakota with a statement win.
But, in the “fourth quarter,” Auburn was outscored 28-16 by Baylor. The Tigers went 6-15 from the field and committed five turnovers. The Bears hit one more shot than the Tigers did — a 3-pointer — and only had one turnover to go along with their increased trips to the charity stripe.
Even if you look past the free-throw differential, Auburn didn’t play as well as Baylor did down the stretch.
“It's a missed opportunity,” Pearl said afterwards. “It's a missed opportunity. This hurts the SEC, it hurts our league. Come Selection Sunday, games like this matter.
“We did not do what we came here to do.”
While issues like defending without fouling and late-game execution may seem familiar to Auburn fans from last season, these Tigers still showed some new and potentially positive developments in what was a competitive loss away from home against a team ranked inside the top 10 in KenPom.
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s loss in South Dakota, along with the Rotation Charts, a few Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
C Dylan Cardwell (Steven Leonard/Auburn Tigers)
The second-half defense — including the foul count, of course — was the big difference for the Tigers
Pearl spent a lot of time in the offseason being brutally honest about his defense. He had his concerns there, especially with all the new faces that were going to have to contribute this season.
But Auburn couldn’t have asked for a better start to the game on that end of the floor. The Tigers did quite well against what is usually one of the very best offenses in all of college basketball year in and year out.
Baylor shot just 37.5% from the field in the first half. In the final 12 minutes of the half alone, the Bears made only one 3-point attempt and had eight turnovers. (Baylor point guard RayJ Dennis, who was in foul trouble in the second half, finished the game with seven turnovers.) Auburn’s defense was locked in, making it tough for Baylor’s talented roster to get quality looks on a consistent basis.
Things changed after halftime.
Baylor started hot and finished hot, hitting 50% of its shots and committing just four turnovers in 20 minutes. The Bears went 5-8 from 3-point range, too. Walter finished with 28 points, even though Auburn limited some of his shooting impact down the stretch.
Again, the fouls made a sizable difference in this one. Baylor went from attempting just eight free throws in the first half to 26 in the second half. In the final five minutes of the game, Baylor shot 13 free throws to Auburn’s zero. (And less than half of them came in the final minute, when Auburn was clearly trying to send Baylor to the line.)
“It was our defense,” Pearl told Auburn’s radio crew after the game. “Our defense was paramount. Twenty-one points at the foul line, it's something you just can't overcome. It wasn't that way in the first half, so we've got to do a better job of defending without fouling.
“There are some rule changes this year with not being able to bring the secondary defender over to take charges, because if it's close, it's going to be a block. The one-on-one defense is really, really important. But if teams are just going to drive the ball downhill and… I'm allowed to stay between you and the basket, and golly, every time they drove to the rim, it was a whistle. I don't know how entertaining that is when you have that many stoppages in play.”
To Pearl’s point, for a game that opened with free-flowing play — zero fouls in the first few minutes — things were sent grinding to a halt for several stretches. Auburn’s rotations were heavily impacted by the foul trouble. And it felt like what drew a whistle was uneven from the first half to the second half.
Auburn’s defense wasn’t able to adjust to that change, and Baylor preyed on it to complete the comeback.
The referees aren’t going to be consistent from one game to the next in college basketball. (Or even from one half to the next.)
But you can’t blame it all on the officials, even when the box score looks like this. For all his noticeable frustrations with the foul counts after the game, Pearl made it clear that Auburn could have done better.
As best as they can, the Tigers need to improve their defense without fouling in order to maximize their potential this season.
And, while the fouls were frustrating, they at least showed they can limit a fantastic offense in the first half. Lean on the positives, correct the negatives and move forward — which is what you want in a big opener like this.
C Johni Broome and SF Chad Baker-Mazara (Steven Leonard/Auburn Tigers)
The new-look offense got buckets in bunches…
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