Observations: Tennessee 46, Auburn 43
Historically rough shooting and wildly impressive defense, plus a controversial ending, equal Auburn's "most disappointing loss of the year."
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Whenever a basketball game comes down to a final shot or a controversial call — or a controversial lack of a call, in this case — it’s can be important to remember that the ending is just one of more than a hundred plays that happened.
There was a lot of justified anger and frustration from the Auburn side on Saturday afternoon, after the referees did not call a foul on Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamhoua for making contact with Wendell Green Jr. on his potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Nkamhoua appeared to make as much contact and prevent Green from a safe landing area on his 3-pointer as much as K.D. Johnson did minutes earlier on a 4-point play from Santiago Vescovi. That Vescovi 3-pointer, by the way, was Tennessee’s last made field goal of a game that didn’t have very many of them.
But, again, Green’s final shot and Vescovi’s 4-point play were just two of the 131 combined possessions in Saturday’s game. And while Bruce Pearl expressed his extreme displeasure with the officials at the end of the game, he was just as quick to point out the missed opportunities Auburn had throughout the afternoon — starting with himself.
“I've got to do a better job of getting them looks at the end,” Pearl said. “Very disappointed at the end of the game. Very disappointed. But I've got to do a better job of getting our guys looks in practice and working on it. I've just got to work on it more. We work on a lot of things, and I've just got to work on some end-game offense so I can get my team better shots. That's what I'm responsible for.”
The Tigers can get mad at what happened in the final second in Knoxville, and pretty much nobody would blame them. But the fact of the matter is that Vescovi hit his 3-pointer through the contact — and Tennessee hit four more field goals overall — in a game that featured just 30 made shots and 88 misses.
After all, Auburn was the team that missed 10 straight shots in the first half, got a deep 3-pointer from Green, then missed 15 more in a row. The Tigers went from the 15:41 mark in the first half to the 15:34 mark in the second half with just one made shot from the field. That is more than a full half’s worth of time.
Auburn did a lot of things right Saturday afternoon against a top-five Tennessee team away from home. It went virtually blow-for-blow with a defense that is on pace to be one of the best college basketball has seen in the last decade. It also held its own on the glass against one of the nation’s best rebounding squads. And it nearly overcame a 6-point deficit with less than a minute to go.
But this game is about buckets, and Auburn just didn’t have enough of those in a game where they were at the ultimate premium. Still, the Tigers refused to let a historically bad day of shooting keep them from almost pulling off the heist of the season — and they didn’t let a hostile crowd get in their heads at any point.
The same couldn’t be said for everybody else on the floor, according to Pearl.
“I don’t think we were affected at all by the environment, which was great,” Pearl said, before pausing for emphasis. “We weren’t affected by the environment.”
Here are four Observations from Auburn’s 46-43 loss at Tennessee, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Day.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
‘You’ve gotta hit open shots’
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Auburn had one of its worst offensive days of the modern era Saturday. The Tigers shot 24% from the field and 11% from deep. They averaged just .642 points per possession and went 7-19 on shots at the rim.
Just a few days after setting a new high mark in the KenPom era against Georgia, Auburn’s offensive efficiency (64.6) was its worst in a single game since scoring 35 in a loss to Tulsa during Pearl’s first season. And Auburn’s effective field goal percentage of 26.4% was the worst for the program in at least two decades.
Yes, Tennessee is a nightmare factory on defense. The Volunteers’ adjusted defensive efficiency is on track to be the best for any Division I program since the invention of the statistic. They’re also on track to become the first team since 2015 Kentucky to hold opponents to less than 40% eFG for an entire season. That team went 38-1.
But nobody had shot that poorly against Tennessee this season. Auburn went back and forth Saturday from having to attempt a string of tough shots to thinking it was snakebitten on shot attempts that seemed to go all the way down, only to rim out at the last second.
And that’s the real gut punch for Auburn from this game. It wasn’t expected to play this close with Tennessee in Knoxville. It’s not going to get knocked for another close Quadrant 1 loss. (The Tigers even improved a few spots in KenPom after the game.) It’s the fact that the offense had a decent number of quality opportunities, even against a potentially legendary defense.
“I think we're gonna look at it and say we got some pretty good looks,” Pearl said. “We missed some open shots. But when you're playing against the No. 2 team in the country, you've gotta hit open shots. Because it's hard to get open shots.”
Look: Auburn is 17-6 overall with a 7-3 record in SEC play. This is a team that is solidly in the NCAA Tournament picture right now. The Georgia loss is the only one that came against a team that isn’t a top-50 squad, and all but one of those defeats came away from home. In a season with a rather weak bubble, the Tigers are fine right now.
But Auburn has lost three road games (USC, West Virginia and Tennessee) by three points each. In those three games, Auburn has shot 17-69 from 3-point range. That’s 24.6%. Just getting close to a thoroughly mediocre 30% would be enough to flip those results. For the season, Auburn is shooting just 28.8% from deep. Mississippi State is the only worse 3-point-shooting power-conference program.
Yes, Auburn shots from elsewhere, too. But the 3-pointers were almost always the most open ones against a Tennessee defense that is unbelievably tough to score on the inside. And the Tigers just couldn’t hit them.
There are a lot of “what ifs” this season for Auburn, but being just marginally better than bad from deep could have changed a lot for this team.
C Johni Broome (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn’s own defense was ‘incredible’
If you’re going to praise Tennessee’s elite defense for this game, you’ve got to give Auburn just as much attention for what it did on that end of the floor, too.