Observations: Miami 79, Auburn 61
Bruce Pearl's Tigers ended a historic season in crushing fashion, playing surprisingly rough on both ends en route to their lone lopsided loss.
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PF Jabari Smith (Matthew Shannon/Auburn Athletics)
Few, if any, would have expected Jabari Smith to not be on the floor for the final seconds of his phenomenal freshman season. The same goes for fellow Atlanta area natives Walker Kessler and K.D. Johnson, who had so many memorable moments during their sophomore campaigns with the Tigers.
Wendell Green Jr. was on the floor as time expired, but he was the exception. When Bruce Pearl unloaded his bench with 19 seconds left of the Tigers’ second-round NCAA Tournament game, nothing felt normal.
Auburn was going to lose to an underdog. That wasn’t completely out of the ordinary. But for the first and only time in 34 games, Auburn was going to lose by double digits. There would be no last-minute comeback efforts by Smith, Kessler, Johnson, Green or Zep Jasper.
Jim Larrañaga’s undersized, veteran-laden Miami team did exactly what it needed to do to pull off the upset — and it did so convincingly, as Pearl’s Auburn played its worst game of the season.
“Miami played very well, their experience, their speed, their quickness right from the jump — they had us,” Pearl said.
Auburn overcame a rough start to hit the locker room with just a one-point deficit Sunday evening in Greenville. But when Miami’s veterans loaded up and took it to Auburn on both ends of the floor to open the second half, the Tigers didn’t have another comeback in them.
Things were just too abnormal for Auburn in this one, all the way around and all the way to the bitter end. And a title-winning campaign that reached several historic highs ended with a crushing new low.
For the final time this season, here are five Observations, the Rotation Charts, the Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night from Auburn’s 79-61 loss to Miami.
A simply stunning frontcourt finale
During the regular season, Auburn’s guard play was the ultimate barometer for wins and losses. That seemed destined to continue in the NCAA Tournament. Smith and Kessler had been consistently strong, even in losses, and Miami just didn’t have the size to match up with the star-studded front line.
But what actually happened Sunday night was a complete reversal of any logic going into the game. Smith went 3-16 from the field and 1-8 from deep in one of the worst offensive performances of his freshman season. He never got into rhythm against Miami’s high-pressure defense and was remarkably well off his usual mark.
“They're just very physical in every catch,” Smith said. “They sent somebody any time I tried to attack or make a move. They just kept bodies on me. They switched every ball screen. … I had some looks that just didn't fall, but credit to them, just making them tough. Keeping bodies on me, like I said, being physical with me, sending two people. They just defended well as a team, I would say.”
Kessler got into early foul trouble, went 0-6 on his usually reliable close-range shots and was benched down the stretch for Jaylin Williams — an undersized big man who was Auburn’s best performer at 12 points on 5-8 shooting. (The only other decent offense came from Johnson and Green driving to the basket.) Kessler was -15 in just 13 minutes, finishing a scoreless night with just two rebounds and two blocks.
“We didn't (play Williams as a center) so much this year because Dylan Cardwell and Walker were so good at the five and so consistent, there really wasn't much need to,” Pearl said. “But we were down. So we needed to have (Williams and Smith) both out there on the floor a little bit. And just in the last five or six minutes, Jaylin played so well that we just had him up there.”
Auburn’s closer losses this season came with either Smith or Kessler — or sometimes both — playing well overall. For the first and only time all season, they were both well below their best at the exact same time. It was a performance that left Pearl without any real explanation.
“If I knew, I probably could have prevented it,” Pearl said. “It's like sometimes when you talk to the losing coach and he doesn't have the answers, because I didn't have the answers. …Jabari and Walker have been as consistent as anybody we've had, right? Part of it is just getting off to a bad start. Walker picked up two early fouls, missed a couple of easy ones early.”
Auburn’s All-American frontcourt was the main reason why it won the SEC regular-season title outright and reached No. 1 in the country for the first time ever. But in what will likely be their last time playing together, Smith and Kessler were both so far out of their element in what should have been a favorable matchup — and that resulted in the Tigers’ lone lopsided loss.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Matthew Shannon/Auburn Athletics)
Offense never overcame a turnover-heavy start
Miami knew exactly what it wanted to do on defense. It’s a team built on forcing turnovers, because it doesn’t have the size or strength to be a highly efficient defense on a per-possession basis.
That shock-and-awe style worked early. Miami forced four turnovers in the first five minutes of the game, then four more in a stretch of 4:03 later in the first half. The Hurricanes built a nine-point lead off of that.
“I thought their ball pressure, it bothered us early,” Pearl said. “We came down, and we got disrupted. Zep was disrupted passing out of the double-team and things that we knew they were going to do that we hoped to take advantage of the double-team, and we really never did. We were inviting the trap and then trying to make plays out of it.”
But when Auburn was able to take care of the ball, it didn’t shoot well at all. It started 5-19 from the field. Things changed late in the first half, when the Tigers took a turnover-free stretch to hit seven of 10 shots and cut the Miami lead to one point at halftime.
Then they missed their first nine shots of the second half, including six looks from in close, and ultimately finished shooting 30.4% from the field against one of the nation’s worst defenses on a per-percentage basis.
“We had some afraid to fail moments,” Pearl said. “We missed a lot of balls around the rim, just a ton around the basket. We panicked a little offensively. I obviously didn't do a great job getting us the better looks in this game. But… our front line has always been very dominant, and tonight, even starting the second half, my gosh, we got the ball inside a couple of times and just weren't able to get it down.”
Auburn never got into any sort of rhythm offensively after the early turnovers, and it manifested itself in a truly stunning shooting performance.
The fact that the Tigers shot poorly away from home isn’t all that surprising, given the final month of the season. However, Miami didn’t even need all those turnovers to get a win. Auburn was shell-shocked and had just one stretch of great offensive play. Miami simply outplayed Auburn in a matchup the favorite was supposed to control.
The defense struggled, too
According to KenPom, this defensive performance for Auburn will go down as one of its five worst of the season in terms of points allowed per possession.
A Miami team that didn’t shoot well at all from deep — 3-15 (20%), so just a tick better Auburn — still scored 79 points against an elite defense.
While Auburn was 12-26 on layups and dunks, Miami was a more efficient 19-32. The Hurricanes also hit 10 midrange jumpers, with a variety of players getting involved in the pull-up game. Miami’s three starting guards combined for 56 points, just five fewer than Auburn has an entire team.
“They're really quick,” Pearl said. “The guards, each one of those guards — Wong and Moore and McGusty — those three kids are going to win their matchup almost every night, right?
“This is the first time that we got it handed to us because we just didn't know how to respond. My best player is 18, and they have four players that are 24, and that experience showed, it really did.”
Perhaps the most damaging team stat for Auburn was fast-break scoring. Miami had 30 points. Auburn had one. Miami scored 17 points off turnovers, but not all of those were off of fast breaks. The Hurricanes won a lot of 50-50 balls and were simply quicker down the floor than the Tigers.
It didn’t matter that Miami barely played its reserves and Auburn was a deeper team. Miami, more than almost anyone else Auburn played this season, made Auburn’s defense look a step behind.
“They're a very aggressive team, so, like, they didn't really give up the whole game,” Williams said. “So they just played a better game than us overall.”
(Matthew Shannon/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn lost the coaching matchup, too
Pearl is usually hard on himself as a coach. Even in wins this season, he’s talked openly about decisions he made that didn’t work. He’s never one to throw his players under the bus, and he gives himself a lot of criticism.
On Sunday night, he lamented the decision to not change up Auburn’s rotation early in the second half. Auburn’s starting five was -6 in the first half, and it was the exact same number to start the second half. The Tigers were able to battle back from the first big deficit, but not a second one.
“One of the things we talked about after the game was what can we learn from this?” Pearl said. “What can we learn? I thought just we hadn't been hit in the mouth like that all year. We responded, and by the end of the first half we battled back.
“But when they hit us in the mouth again at the start of the second half, I thought of going with a different starting lineup, and I probably should have because of how poorly we started. I put that on me. I probably should have gone with a different lineup to start the second half, because that lineup started so poorly.”
Larrañaga seemed steps ahead of Pearl all game long. Auburn was slow to adjust to Miami’s defense, and there were too many breakdowns on defense at key moments in the game. Some of the lineup decisions will be called into question by fans, with Pearl pointing out two of the most obvious ones in the postgame presser.
Miami’s game plan on both ends of the floor was strong, and the Hurricanes executed it quite well for one of their best overall performances of the season. Auburn was at its worst offensively and near its worst defensively — and Pearl and his staff will absorb a good bit of the blame for that.
Auburn’s coaches guided this team to an SEC title and a No. 5 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The state of the program hasn’t been this strong in a long, long time. So, when things go south on the sidelines, it feels like a more surprising blow for the Tigers. This one will linger for a while.
A brutal end to a historic season
Even with a disappointing postseason that had two of the season’s worst performances in the span of three games, Auburn basketball still accomplished a lot of what it set out to do in 2021-22 — make history.
An SEC regular-season title, especially an outright one, is a rarity for this program. Smith and Kessler will go down as one of the best pairs of teammates to ever play on the Plains. Getting to be the Auburn team that finally got to No. 1 in the polls and have one of the longest winning streaks of the modern era will stand out.
It was a special team that exceeded early expectations and still provided memorable moments down the stretch. The speed of how it all came together isn’t normal, and that was on the minds of several players Sunday night.
“Our relationship off the court was tremendous,” Johnson said. “We all get along. We hang out every day, the four of us, the five of us, the whole team. And BP bringing us together. We all had a good bond with our coaching staff. It felt like a family. It felt like home when we first met.”
It won’t ever be exactly the same for Auburn, which will most likely lose Smith and potentially others this offseason. The Tigers will have to address some issues — such as outside shooting — with an adjusted cast of characters thanks to an always-evolving recruiting and transfer portal process.
It’ll always be tough that the last image of this Auburn basketball team was a season-worst performance and an ugly loss on the biggest stage. But the lasting images should be much different for a team that secured a banner and pushed the program further into a new era of consistent contention.
It was a special season from a special group.
“It just felt like a family,” Smith said. “It really felt like more than basketball being around everybody. You know, we gave it our all, but it just didn't end how we wanted it to. But I feel like without basketball this team will still always be together, no matter what.”
(click the charts for full-resolution versions)
For those of you new to the rotation charts, the above shows how the Tigers substituted throughout the game. Each box represents a minute of game time — the darker the shade of blue, the more time played in that minute.
There is also a plus/minus per minute to show how well Auburn did during each 60-second span. The darker the green, the more points the Tigers outscored their opponents. The darker the red, the more points the opponents outscored the Tigers.
By reader request, I’ve split the charts into two distinct halves to make it easier to read.
The early foul trouble for Kessler really threw off everything for Auburn. Dylan Cardwell had some decent early rotation minutes, and the Williams at the 5 move created some of the best stretches of the game — but his absence on defense loomed large.
Auburn’s bench gave it some fight after the surge to start the second half from Miami. However, it couldn't last, and Auburn just didn’t have any sort of consistency the rest of the way with any lineup.
Only three players who played more than the final seconds were outside of the negatives in plus/minus: Williams, Cardwell and Devan Cambridge. Another tendency-breaking aspect of this game is that the bench showed up for the most part, yet Auburn still got soundly beaten.
Auburn’s guards weren’t great by any means, but they still weren’t the main reasons why they lost the game. Still, Auburn didn’t get the same level of pop of ball movement and defensive play from Jasper in this one. He was -17 in just 18 minutes, and the Tigers had to play more WGJ late.
C Walker Kessler (Matthew Shannon/Auburn Athletics)
Past readers have asked for explanations on some of these advanced statistics. I’ve added screenshots to definitions, both here and here. Think of those as quick glossaries, just substitute PER (player efficiency rating) for “Game Score.”
Auburn averaged just .836 points per possession and scored on 38.4% of its trips down the floor against the worst statistical defense left in the NCAA Tournament. Brutal.
Miami had three players have PERs of 15 or more, including two that nearly cracked 20. Auburn’s leader in PER was Williams, at 8.4. That says a lot.
Johnson led Auburn’s starters in floor percentage at 36.6% and in offensive rating at 78.4. Those are two weak numbers, which underscore just how tough it was for anyone to do anything on that end of the floor for the Tigers.
Despite the rough shooting game, Smith set another career high in rebounds (15) and had an incredible defensive rebounding rate of 34.9%. There’s something to be said for a young shooter continuing to play hard, even when things aren’t falling on offense.
Kessler will finish the season with a block percentage of 19.1%. That will give him the best mark for any Division I player since Larry Sanders had 19.3% for VCU in 2007-08.
Quote of the Night
“Just how fun it is, just showing me why I came to college, why I chose to come to college. The ups and downs you're going to have, the tough games you're going to have, the different defenses. All of that support coming to college. I feel like that's what I'll take from it, just the challenges I faced, the good times I had, the bad games, the good games, just taking it with me and taking Auburn. Just thanking them for everything.
I feel like, if I had to make a decision a thousand more times, I wouldn't choose nowhere else but Auburn. It was fun.”
— PF Jabari Smith on what he’ll take away from his freshman season