Can a stronger bench power Auburn in an upset bid vs. Houston?
When the Tigers went nuclear on offense vs. Iowa, almost all of it came from the bench. Keep that in mind against Houston.
SG K.D. Johnson (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
BIRMINGHAM — In the span of four minutes and three seconds of its NCAA Tournament opener on Thursday night, Auburn went full run-and-gun and dared Iowa — one of the fastest and most efficient offenses in America — to keep up.
During that stretch, the Tigers shot 7-8 from the field and 5-6 from deep. They more than doubled what had started as an eight-point lead, stretching it all the way to 17 before the Hawkeyes could get the sweet relief of a media timeout.
For a team that switched its offensive identity to a more methodical, half-court approach this season, the barrage was reminiscent of Auburn’s famous postseason run from a few years ago. More than half of Auburn’s 19 points during that run came on the fast break.
And what might have been more notable about Auburn’s offensive explosion wasn’t when or where it was happening — but who was doing it.
Before Allen Flanigan capped the run with a strong layup through contact, Auburn had gotten 17 unanswered points from K.D. Johnson and Tre Donaldson. Neither of them missed a single shot. Lior Berman was Auburn’s only miss during the run, but the walk-on still made a couple of big defensive stops that set up fast-break buckets.
For the first half of the run, Yohan Traore was playing the 4 in place of the injured Chris Moore and foul-troubled Jaylin Williams. Dylan Cardwell spelled Johni Broome in the second half of the run.
Flanigan and Broome were the only Auburn starters who saw any playing time during that run. The bulk of the minutes, and the production, came from a bench squad that had to get even deeper with the problems at power forward.
And that fact was also vintage Bruce Pearl. In March, teams prefer to tighten their rotations and barely have their starters see any time on the bench.
Not at Auburn. Not under Pearl.
“I've always believed in not shortening your bench come tournament time,” Pearl said Friday. “And I know that's not certainly how the way it is in the NBA. I want my guys fresh and furious at the end to be able to win the game.”
When Donaldson was turning in an incredible offensive performance in his NCAA Tournament debut, starting point guard Wendell Green Jr. had gotten off to a rough start against Iowa. He was 1-7 from the field with just one assist.
So how did Green feel when Auburn turned to his freshman backup?
“Relaxed,” Green said with a big smile, following Auburn’s 83-75 win over Iowa. “I'm relaxed. I'm like, 'Just keep going, bro. Just keep going.' I'm cheering him on, just like he's been cheering me on all year. It felt great for him to do that. Got my legs ready to finish the game.
“When I went in, he told me, 'Go finish the game.' And I told him that I've got him.”
In the final five minutes, a fresher Green — who sat for nearly nine straight minutes in the second half — had 10 points and two assists to put away the Hawkeyes.
Led by Johnson and Donaldson, Auburn’s bench combined for 26 points Thursday against Iowa. While Iowa had 27 bench points, 21 of them came from one player.
An expanded 11-man rotation meant the Tigers had 77 bench minutes, while the Hawkeyes’ bench only played 56 minutes. Four of the Tigers’ six bench players scored, and all six played at least nine minutes. Two of Iowa’s four bench players played nine minutes combined and were responsible for just two points.
“It was incredible to get guys — from Lior, to K.D. Johnson, Tre Donaldson, Yohan,” starting shooting guard Zep Jasper said. “Those guys played a great game. We needed everyone. This is March Madness. This is what it's made out of.”
And now, with Auburn set to face No. 1 seed Houston in Birmingham on Saturday evening, a rotation that’s deeper than most teams left in the tournament could be an X-factor for an upset bid.