Aubserver Mailbag 70: Offense Wins Championships
This week: The best from basketball, Walker Kessler, transfers, Devan Cambridge, spring football, Chris Jericho, ITYSL and Olivia Rodrigo
C Walker Kessler (Jacob Taylor/Auburn Athletics)
Welcome back to The Mailbag.
Every year, when football season and basketball season both are complete, I always worry about having enough stuff to write about in these offseason mailbags.
So, naturally, this one is one of the longest I’ve ever written. The questions this week were just that good — even if all of them weren’t strictly about Auburn basketball or football.
No time for a long introduction this week. Let’s just jump right in with a two-parter from one of our most loyal subscribers.
We talked all year about "yeah, this is a really good team, but we haven't even played our best game yet!" and then the season abruptly ended. So in hindsight, what was the best single game performance of this team this year?
Also: Bruce Pearl approaches you and asks you to make the case to Walker Kessler to stick around for one more season. What's your pitch?
One of the most interesting aspects of this Auburn basketball team this season is that it was capable of playing elite offense and elite defense. It rarely did so at the same time.
Look at a fantastic game for Auburn in points per possession on offense, and the defense probably was in the bottom half of its performances on the season. The reverse was often true, too.
If we’re ignoring the quality of opponent, Auburn’s best game this season was the 99-68 win over Nebraska in Atlanta. The Tigers nearly dropped 100 on a Big Ten team and had a top-half defensive performance in terms of rating in this game. The fact Auburn did it without Bruce Pearl on the sideline is even more impressive.
But Nebraska was a bad basketball team this season — No. 139 in KenPom with a 10-22 record overall. What about the best team Auburn beat this season, Kentucky?
In terms of offensive efficiency, only the Nebraska and Syracuse games top this performance. Walker Kessler was unstoppable, K.D. Johnson was a menace, and Jabari Smith played an impressive all-around game. Defensively, though, Kentucky posted good numbers across the board, and Auburn almost shot three times as many free throws.
My final answer is going to be LSU, a team that went to the NCAA Tournament and was pretty strong when Xavier Pinson was healthy. Kessler’s triple-double was the headline performance, but what about Auburn holding LSU to just 1 point in the first 10 minutes?
Auburn turned the ball over a lot against an elite LSU defense, yet it was in control for the entire game and still finished with good shooting percentages. Smith, Allen Flanigan and Wendell Green Jr. all shined in this one, too.
Scoring 70 against LSU wasn’t a guarantee this season for any team, and Auburn did a better job of holding down a fully healthy Will Wade offense than anyone else did. It set the tone for an SEC title run and was one of the most fun environments of the season inside the Arena. I know LSU didn’t do well down the stretch, but it was an NCAA Tournament team with a lot of elite talent. Auburn played quite well that night.
Before I answer your second question, I think it’s important to note that Bruce Pearl isn’t one to convince players to stay in school if they’ve got good NBA evaluations. He’s very much a “go get your money” type of coach, which I think helps him a lot in the recruiting process. If the projections look good for Kessler, I don’t think he’s going to try to keep him locked up on Lake Martin.
But, in terms of a pitch, here’s what I’ve got: Everyone knows Walker Kessler was one of the most dominant defenders in college basketball this season. No one in Division I basketball has protected the rim like him in almost 15 years. He had two triple-doubles this season after Auburn spent its entire history with just one. There’s only so much you can do to improve your stock after a season like that, right?
If you look at mock drafts right now, Kessler is projected in the post-lottery picks — the high teens to the 20s. When it comes to centers in the draft, most people view Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, Memphis’ Jalen Duren and Duke’s Mark Williams as ahead of Kessler in terms of stock. Arizona’s Christian Koloko and Fresno State’s Orlando Robinson might also be in the mix in the first round.
The league is going to prioritize offense over defense, even at the center position. Kessler was automatic around the rim in nearly every game. But he wasn’t an efficient jump-shooter, even though that’s something that he can bring to the table in terms of playing style. If he could expand and improve his offensive game, he’d be a more well-rounded prospect in the eyes of the league. (I, personally, think he’s already fantastic and will probably go later than he should. There’s only so many 7-foot-1 dudes who can move like him on this planet.)
This was an incredible year for centers in college basketball. Most of them will be moving on to the next level. In terms of the 2023 draft, French phenom Victor Wembanyama will lead the way, but there aren’t a ton of can’t-miss big men in that class as it stands right now. It won’t be as crowded as this Holmgren-led class will be.
If Kessler decided to come back to Auburn, he would have an opportunity to showcase a stronger offensive game and get even more accolades as one of the premier centers in the country. That’s the pitch.
Kessler is NBA-ready right now, but there’s always room for improvement — even if you were an insanely dominant defender. He just needs to make the best decision for himself and his family, and it wouldn’t hurt Auburn as a program to see yet another underclassman become a draft pick under Pearl’s watch.