Aubserver Mailbag 106: What’s gone wrong for Auburn basketball?
This week: The Tigers’ biggest hoops issues, how they could get better, why you shouldn't freak out after the Arkansas game and more
HC Bruce Pearl (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
There’s no real reason to have a long intro to the mailbag most weeks, but that goes double for this week in particular.
Is the sky falling?
What have we done to deserve this
Spirits are not high after Auburn basketball’s 12-point loss at Georgia on Wednesday night. The Bulldogs have improved in their first season under Mike White — and the SEC title-winning Tigers needed a late bucket to escape with a win in Athens last year — but there’s just something about trailing to a rival you’ve dominated in recent seasons for more than 38 of the 40 minutes of game time that sets off the alarm bells.
And, yes, like Johni Broome said on Wednesday night, it’s just one game. Auburn still has 16 more of those in conference play, plus a trip to West Virginia. It just counts as one loss, and the Tigers enter the weekend with the same SEC record as Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri and LSU.
It’s early, and upsets are happening left and right in college basketball. No one is undefeated. On the same night No. 22 Auburn lost to an unranked Georgia, No. 4 UConn, No. 12 Miami and No. 16 Duke all lost to unranked opponents. Duke lost by 24 to a NC State team that just lost by 14 to Clemson. UConn has now taken back-to-back double-digit losses on the road to conference foes.
So, is Auburn doomed to be the same team with the same type of performance that it put out in Athens on Wednesday night? Of course not. Teams vary throughout the season, and everyone wants to be playing their best ball in March instead of January.
However, the Georgia loss followed a similar pattern to the previous defeats at the hands of Memphis and USC. High-scoring guards gave Auburn’s struggling backcourt major trouble in all three games. The offense is prone to long cold spells, and a statistically strong defense still gets beaten with familiar formulas at times. The three losses all came away from home, and Auburn is going to have to get quality wins on the road in order to go dancing this season.
The problem is that only two SEC teams — South Carolina and Vanderbilt — are ranked lower than Georgia on KenPom right now. Auburn plays seven teams that are projected to be better than Georgia away from home between now and the end of the season. And the long undefeated streak at home will be put to the ultimate test, as a strong Arkansas team comes to the Plains this weekend, along with Alabama and Tennessee later in the season.
Are Auburn’s problems fixable? Yes, to an extent. The Tigers can improve their perimeter defense and how they handle attack-minded guards, shoring up the common breakdowns on that end of the floor. They might struggle with their jumpers, but they have proven they can overcome a decent bit of that by avoiding clumsy turnovers, attacking the offensive glass and finishing more efficiently at the rim.
Still, almost halfway through the season, your roster is your roster. Auburn might be able to improve a good amount by doing the things it’s done well much more consistently, but out-of-nowhere progress in areas that have been problems all season long shouldn’t be expected.
In order to make the NCAA Tournament with the type of non-conference schedule it had — a stretch of good, not great teams with a lack of a marquee win — Auburn will most likely have to finish SEC play with a winning record. The Tigers won’t be expected to beat Arkansas at home Saturday night, and the sky won’t be falling if they don’t. Their next six SEC games all come against teams still ranked below them in the advanced numbers.
So, no, the sky is not falling. Three seasons ago, Auburn lost two early SEC games by a combined 41 points and still rallied to enter the tournament as the league’s No. 2 seed. There’s plenty of time to turn things around.
But it’s going to be one of the most challenging coaching jobs of Bruce Pearl’s highly successful Auburn tenure. The offense and defense both need to adjust. Changes in the rotations could be the key to unlocking something in an experienced team with a championship pedigree. Yet, to paraphrase something Pearl said earlier this season, if the fixes were easy to see — they would’ve done them already.
This week’s mailbag tackles a lot of your questions about Auburn basketball after the rough loss at Georgia. There’s also some fun topics like classic PlayStation games and the continued airport debate towards the end, too.
Thanks as always for supporting The Observer. Like with the football program, win or lose, we’ll be here to cover the basketball team and answer your questions the best way we can. Let’s go.
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