Observations: Auburn 43, Northwestern 42
Yes, that's in basketball. And, yes, the Tigers' offensive issues are quite large at this point in the season. But they're coming back from Cancun still undefeated.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, these Observations are unlocked for everyone to read. (OK, it might also have a little something to do with the fact that this was a rough game of basketball.)
Either way, thanks for checking out The Observer, whether you’re a subscriber, a free email list member or you’ve happened to find your way to this corner of the Auburn Internet. We hope all of y’all enjoy the holiday.
(Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Remember Auburn basketball’s home win over Alabama in 2013? The one that was famous for Cam Newton showing up on the front row of the student section, grabbing a cheerleader’s megaphone and leading the cheers?
A lot has changed for the Tigers since that happened, which is close to a decade now. That win over Alabama was the only thing that kept Auburn from losing 17 straight games to close that season.
Tony Barbee was fired a year later. Auburn replaced him with Bruce Pearl, who has won two SEC championships and an SEC tournament title, made a Final Four run and led the Tigers to an NCAA Tournament spot in four out of the last seven seasons. (That includes the COVID year, where Auburn was a projected No. 5 seed.)
With all of that in mind, consider this: Auburn scored six more points in that win over Alabama than it did in its win over Northwestern on Wednesday night.
Auburn’s 43-42 victory to close the Cancun Challenge was an outlier among outliers when it came to offensive ineptitude. The Tigers shot 26% from the field and won. Their effective field goal percentage was 31%, which was the second-worst of any game in the Pearl era. The last time Auburn scored that few points in a game and won came in 1997.
One night after torching an undersized Bradley defense for its best offensive performance of the season, Auburn had a historically bad night on offense against a Northwestern defense that also currently sits in the top 10 of KenPom in adjusted efficiency.
But the Tigers made more plays in a chaotic final minute, including a Wendell Green Jr. steal that set up an Allen Flanigan go-ahead transition finish and a defensive stop right before the buzzer.
“Our offensive execution leaves a lot to be desired,” Bruce Pearl said. “But we showed heart, we showed character, we showed toughness, and we gutted this one out.”
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s ugly win over Northwestern, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.
C Johni Broome (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
The most glaring issue with Auburn’s offense
At this point, Auburn fans can’t be surprised with an off night shooting the ball. The Tigers were 5-21 (23.8%) from 3-point range and missed all but one of its mid-range attempts outside of the paint. One night after being quite efficient with their jumpers, they never were able to find their rhythm at any point.
However, it’s not a stretch to say that Auburn should be able to overcome its shooting problems by using its size and strength to power its way into higher-percentage attempts. And then there’s the bench, which has been able to be a strong lift for the Tigers when things aren’t working well for the starters on offense.
Instead, Auburn was a rough 3-10 on layup attempts and only dunked the ball twice against Northwestern. The bench played 86 combined minutes and scored 23 points, but 19 of them came from Flanigan and K.D. Johnson. Dylan Cardwell had the other four. The freshman trio of Chance Westry, Yohan Traore and Tre Donaldson all went scoreless. (In fairness, Donaldson only played three minutes.)
“You know, our bench struggled, our young guys struggled — as you would expect with the physicality,” Pearl said.
Northwestern matched Auburn’s physicality on defense, and both offenses crumbled against that style. It’s one thing for Northwestern, a team that wasn’t particularly good at 2-pointers coming into the game, to struggle in this type of contest. It’s another thing for Auburn, which gets large chunks of its points from around the rim and at the free-throw line, to do the same.
Auburn finished +8 in rebounds, but Northwestern had more points in the paint and second-chance points. If it wasn’t for the fact Auburn actually hit five 3-pointers to Northwestern’s two, this would have been an abysmal first loss of the season for the Tigers.
“We've got to be more physical,” Pearl said. “I thought our 5 men, Johni and Dylan. could have been more physical in there. That was an issue.”
The next two opponents don’t look like they’ll be nearly as tough of a defensive matchup as Northwestern. But Memphis is looking like a fierce defense early in the season, and that game will be played away from the Plains next month. And, of course, Auburn will face a lot of teams in the SEC that will want to use that same blueprint against the Tigers moving forward.
Shooting will come and go, and it wouldn’t shock anyone if Auburn has to be more of a defense-first, grind-it-out team all season long. But if the Tigers can’t be the more physical team, especially when they have the ball in their hands, they’ll have more struggles like this game moving forward.
PF Jaylin Williams (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn’s veterans showed up when it mattered most
One night after Jaylin Williams went 2-3 from deep against Bradley, he hit three more 3-pointers against Northwestern — and Auburn needed every single one of them. The senior power forward, who was named Cancun Challenge MVP, was a small bright spot on a dark cloud of offense for the Tigers.
Williams helped the Tigers spark a 10-0 run in the middle of the second half, when Northwestern had taken the lead and stretched it out to six. He teamed up with Johnson, who drove to the rack for an and-one layup, helped get the ball to Williams for a 3-pointer and then assisted on a Williams dunk in the span of 33 seconds of game time.
Flanigan also got off to a hot start and finished the game with seven points – including that game-winning bucket — plus four rebounds and two assists with zero turnovers. His defensive work on the wing was instrumental in Northwestern having such a hard time operating like it wanted to with its outside shot.
“Jaylin and K.D. were terrific,” Pearl said. “Wendell finally played better the last four minutes of the game, and that's what you need. You need to be able to count on your veterans, and that's why we won the game.”
Green missed his first eight shots of the night and had more turnovers (4) than assists (3). He looked quite out of rhythm on offense, sometimes forcing things with his shot selection and pass attempts. But he still played a game-high 30 minutes and finished well, hitting an important late basket on a midrange look.
Because of their play, Pearl ran with a Green-Johnson-Flanigan-Williams lineup, plus Broome, for large stretches of the second half. The Tigers couldn’t afford to have them off the floor, and they were able to grind out just enough to escape with a low-scoring win in Cancun.
SF Allen Flanigan (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Defense wins (Cancun Challenge) championships
Northwestern had hit at least a third of its 3-point attempts in its five previous games heading into Wednesday night, including a pair of games above 40%.
Against Auburn, it shot 8.3%, its worst percentage from beyond the arc since February 23, 2005 against Illinois — a team that went on to play for the national championship.
“Northwestern was 2-for-24 from 3,” Pearl said. “That's the only way they could beat us. And obviously they didn't have legs, playing back-to-back games.”
The legs were important. Even if most of Auburn’s bench didn’t play particularly well — and that extended to a couple of starters — the fact that it played 11 in its rotation helped in a big way. By comparison, Northwestern only played seven players, and two of them played 37 minutes.
“Look, the fact that we held Northwestern to 42 points tells you about our effort, our energy and our defense,” Pearl said. “That's got to carry us. … And we got a great stop at the end. Part of the reason we play 11 guys is so that at the end, during that possession, my guys can be fresh enough to get that stop.”
Opponents are now shooting 22.8% on 3-pointers (10th in Division I) and 41.6% on 2-pointers (29th in Division I) against Auburn this season. The Tigers rank No. 12 nationally in effective field goal percentage on defense, and it’s still No. 3 in the country in block percentage. This is a fantastic defense.
Auburn can still tighten things up on the defensive glass, as the easier second-chance points really helped Northwestern stay in the game. (That goes back to the physicality down low.) But you can win with defense, especially early in the season, and Auburn took that to the extreme Wednesday night.
Chance Westry’s role might be tightened up soon
With Green struggling against Northwestern, Auburn could have really used a lift from Westry, the versatile playmaking guard who is still in the process of getting back up to speed from preseason knee surgery.
Westry didn’t have a bad game at all against Bradley, but things changed against Northwestern. He went 0-3 from the field and 0-2 from the free-throw line in 10 minutes while not recording another stat except for two fouls.
There wasn’t any plus/minus information from this game, for some reason, yet it’s probably safe to say that Westry was in the negatives. The Tigers were outscored in two of the three stretches he got in the game, and they didn’t light up the scoreboard during his first run.
On several occasions, you could tell that Westry was having a hard time with his assignments on offense and defense. After the game, Pearl didn’t hold back on what he thought he needed to do next.
“It's difficult with Chance Westry coming in and playing for the first time,” Pearl said. “He's got to know what we're doing. Right now he's struggling to know what we're doing — and I probably need to get him at one position, because that's just too much, to be playing all that stuff. I've got to figure that out.”
Where Westry focuses will be interesting to track moving forward. Donaldson is the only other point guard option among the scholarship players, unless Auburn decides to play Zep Jasper there and give Westry a shooting guard role. Chris Moore had a quiet couple of games in Cancun, so there might be an opportunity for Westry to hone in on the wing.
It’s all up to Pearl. As tantalizing as Westry’s versatility is — and he could still develop to that point at some point this season — it looks like he would benefit the most from getting his feet wet at one spot for now.
(click the charts for full-resolution versions)
For those of you new to the rotation charts, the above charts show 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.
Even with his problems on offense, Auburn couldn’t afford to take Green off the floor for most of the second half. He helped get things together down the stretch, and he also came down with a stunning 10 rebounds in the victory for the Tigers.
Putting Johnson and Flanigan in together worked on multiple occasions for Auburn, as the Tigers weren’t getting much out of Jasper and Moore on the offensive end. That’s not to say that Johnson and Flanigan need to start — it’s about who plays the best in certain combinations — but you can see the value of rolling out both of them together.
You can really see on the second-half visualizer just how much Auburn relied on the WGJ-KDJ-Flan-JWill-Broome lineup. The four others in the main rotation were just on the floor for brief periods of time after the break.
Foul trouble really bit Auburn at the end of the first half, which led to the Tigers having to roll out some unexpected lineups late. That helped Northwestern get right back into a rock fight that it was down by multiple possessions for most of the first 20 minutes.
(Steven Leonard/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.”
Since the Cancun Challenge doesn’t use the typical StatBroadcast service, these Nerd Stats will be lighter and more big-picture-y than usual.
Johnson and Flanigan tied for the team lead in offensive rating at 112, which is pretty remarkable, given just how bad this game was in terms of putting the ball in the basket. Williams wasn’t too far off from them at 106.
Auburn turned the ball over 10% more than Northwestern, yet both teams were even at nine points off of turnovers. If it wasn’t for some strong transition defense by the Tigers, it could’ve been a lot worse in that regard.
Auburn got eight of its 29 2-point attempts blocked on Wednesday night, which is much higher than usual. Again, the physicality down low has to be better when the Tigers have the ball.
Northwestern’s Boo Buie and Robbie Beran were boasting some strong 3-point shooting percentages heading into this game. They went a combined 0-11 from downtown.
After the Tigers’ toughest bench night of the season, their ranking in overall bench minutes this season fell from No. 2 in Division I to… No. 4. They only trail Saint Peter’s, Samford and UT Arlington now.
Cardwell only had two blocks in two games in Cancun, so his block percentage is now just No. 2 in the country at 18.2%. He also ranks No. 25 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, No. 33 in offensive rating and No. 16 in 2-point field goal percentage.
Allen Flanigan is shooting 39% from deep this season. If he can keep that up, that’s a huge boost for a struggling Auburn offense.
Quote of the Night
“Guys, we've got to get a lot better. We do. And you know I've been saying it.”
— HC Bruce Pearl
No mailbag on Friday due to the holiday, but we’ll be back Friday morning with a premium podcast episode talking the Cancun Challenge, previewing the Iron Bowl and getting into the latest on the football coaching search. It’ll be subscribers-only, so people on the free emails can get on the list by hitting the button above and buying a sub.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving. We’re thankful for all of y’all.