Observations: Auburn 61, Florida 58
Bruce Pearl's Tigers probably will have to grind out a lot of SEC games like this. But the defending champs will be happy with a 1-0 start.
(Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Everyone in the building knew that the ball was going to Colin Castleton.
Florida’s fifth-year, two-time All-SEC center — the one who, in the words of Bruce Pearl, “kicked (Auburn’s) ass” to the tune of 41 points across two games last season against eventual National Defensive Player of the Year Walker Kessler — was getting it in a 1-point game with the shot clock turned off.
Castleton pivoted at the top of the key with Johni Broome, who was recruited by Florida as a transfer last season before he picked Auburn, playing tight defense on him. Wendell Green Jr. came over to double him. And when Castleton tried to drive downhill for a look, Broome’s frontcourt mate Jaylin Williams stepped over to provide pressure and potentially draw a charging call.
With all that defensive attention on him, Castleton dribbled the ball off of himself. It went skittering into the path of Chris Moore, who picked it up and quickly saw Green racing down the floor. Green got a tough left-handed layup to fall and put Auburn up by 3 with just a few ticks left.
Florida’s late heave fell well short. K.D. Johnson threw the ball up in the air in celebration. Broome hugged Green in front of the Auburn bench.
Auburn was now 1-0 in SEC play, and it won by shutting down Florida’s best player.
“Coming into Auburn, this is one of the games I had circled on the calendar,” Broome said afterwards. “Good matchup. (Castleton) is a good player. But the main goal of the gameplan was to stop him.”
After having his way with Auburn last season on two separate occasions, Castleton had just six points Wednesday night. He went 1-6 from the field and had three turnovers.
Heading into the SEC opener, Pearl preached defense in practices. He challenged Broome and backup center Dylan Cardwell to do whatever it took to slow down Castleton.
Former Auburn assistant and close Pearl family friend Todd Golden had other good Florida players at his disposal, but everyone knew the Gators start and end with the big man. Castleton had eight rebounds, yet zero of them were on the offensive end. Every shot he took was contested, and he didn’t get any second chances to score.
“You've got to make plays defensively,” Pearl said. “None of this sitting back. You've got to make plays. You've got to create turnovers. And that wins, defensively, and obviously it did for us. They had nine assists and 12 turnovers, didn't shoot it very well from 3, and we ended the game with a defensive stop and a turnover.”
In a league that Pearl says “is going to be a rock fight” — and one that saw top-10 Arkansas and top-20 Kentucky both lose on the road Wednesday night — Auburn is starting with a victory.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t going to raise anyone’s expectations of the team. But it was a win, and every single one of those mean more from here on out.
“That’s our team,” Green said. “We’ve got to win defensively. You know, offense is not always going to be there. And championship teams, they have the best defense. So I think that’s our biggest thing this year, for the whole of conference play.”
Here are five Observations from Auburn’s 61-58 thriller over Florida, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
SF Chris Moore (Jacob Taylor/Auburn Athletics)
Defense and rebounding win SEC games
Pearl isn’t shying away from the fact that his team is offensively challenged. There’s no Jabari Smith to light up the box score. The returning guards haven’t taken a step forward in their scoring production. Williams’ improvement has been a real positive, but he hasn’t consistently taken over games yet.
But Auburn’s best wins of the season so far — Saint Louis, Northwestern and now Florida — have been won with defensive stops when it mattered most. While things can obviously change and improve on the offensive end, these Tigers know where they will make their money in SEC play.
“We're gonna have to be a team that just has to guard people, because, unfortunately, offense has been difficult all year,” Pearl said. “… Our defense and our rebounding were both elite, and that was enough for us to win.”
Auburn was a massive +12 on the boards, and all of that advantage came in the offensive department. Both teams had 23 defensive rebounds, but Auburn rebounded 17 of its own misses. That led to 12 second-chance points in a game in which every single bucket was extra valuable.
Broome had 11, dominating the glass on both ends of the floor. Green, per usual, took advantage of all the boxing out elsewhere to come down with five rebounds of his own. Five other Tigers had multiple rebounds in the victory.
How do you help out a struggling offense? You corral more than 40% of your own misses, which extend possessions and create easier chances to score.
“That's what's special about this team: We rebound the basketball,” Broome said. “You've got the PG over here getting five rebounds. That's big. … It gives people like Wen the green light to shoot the ball. If he shoots it, we're going to most likely get the rebound — whether it's me, Dylan, Chris Moore, Allen Flanigan — we're going to get the rebound. It gives our guards more confidence to shoot the ball, because if it doesn't go in, we're going to get the rebound.”