Aubserver Mailbag 109: Why has Auburn played at a slower pace this season?
This week: 2019-20 vs. 2022-23, alternate timelines at the 2, the tough schedule ahead, Jarquez Hunter, Gran Turismo and more
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
One thing that has stuck with me throughout this Auburn basketball season is how unfamiliar it has been for the Bruce Pearl era.
Let me explain. The great seasons under Pearl have been banner-worthy. Auburn has won two regular-season titles under him, and those years will go down in history. Then there’s the Final Four run that may never be replicated — even if the program continues to get better over time.
The COVID cancellation of the 2019-20 postseason kept fans from experiencing what I think they’re getting with this 2022-23 team. It wasn’t always pretty, but those Tigers took advantage of their schedule and shook off several frustrating losses in order to get a top-four seed in the SEC Tournament.
That’s the ceiling of this Auburn team, I think. Not only are there stylistic similarities between the two squads, they project out to be around the same level. Being a solid NCAA Tournament team that didn’t win a championship is something that fans haven’t really gotten to see yet. The goal is always to win trophies, but there’s still value in building a program where this is the “disappointing” type of year. Remember, Auburn is 16-4 and a ranked team right now. The Tigers have come a long way.
This week’s mailbag leads with a question about the style of offense Auburn is running this season, which naturally got me thinking back to that experienced 2019-20 squad that didn’t get a chance to finish what it had built over the course of an up-and-down SEC schedule. It’s not a perfect like-for-like comparison, because they never work out that way. But I’m still struck by the similarities.
Also in this mailbag, we tackle questions about the 2 guard position, the tough schedule ahead, weird schedule quirks, the state of the SEC and why Jim Nantz is a robot. We wrap up with a few Auburn football questions and some fun involving baseball and video games.
Thanks for subscribing, reading, listening and asking questions as always. I won’t be in Morgantown this weekend for the West Virginia game, but I’m looking forward to continuing the on-site coverage of this basketball program as we get closer to what should be an intriguing spring football schedule on the Plains.
Except for the South Carolina game, Auburn’s offensive pace of play has seemed to me to be very slow this year compared to previous years under Pearl. I have not read extensive commentary from Bruce about the reasons for this. (I could have missed it but see obvious reasons for not talking about it.)
What are your thoughts on Auburn’s pace of play on offense? It seems to me that, as starters’ minutes have gone up, offensive pace has decreased.
Do the numbers back this up? This could be a way of “resting” in game. It could also be a recognition that AU’s talent level is not as high as in years past and that a higher number of possessions is not necessarily to Auburn’s advantage.
My impression has been that we are more of a half court team and that many of our shots come late in the shot clock, which often means tougher shots and lower percentages. I am pleased at the results so far, but the rock fights do get hard to watch.
I am writing this before the A&M game, which I expect to be played at a snail’s pace, but I am hoping to be (pleasantly) surprised.
Auburn has definitely played at a much more methodical offensive pace this season than usual. According to KenPom, the Tigers’ average possession length is 17 seconds, which is the lowest for the program since the first couple of seasons under Bruce Pearl. Auburn’s adjusted tempo is 67.9, and that’s tied with the 2019-20 team for the lowest mark under Pearl.
This team and the 2019-20 team have a lot in common in the way they operate on offense. They both are/were among the nation’s best at offensive rebounding — at a rate of exactly 35.3%, oddly enough — and do not shoot the 3-ball efficiently. The presence of Austin Wiley in the 19-20 team and Johni Broome in the 22-23 team have forced them to be more deliberate on offense, trying to get their back-to-the-basket bigs more touches.
When you don’t have an elite, go-to scorer or have a roster built to play a small-ball, 3-point-heavy system, you want to rely on your defense and not get into track meets. Auburn is more dependent on having to draw up half-court sets in order to get good looks, which naturally take more time off the shot clock.
And that pace has gotten slower deeper in the season, when Auburn has been able to really lock in on its strengths on offense. The Texas A&M game was played at one of the five-slowest paces of the season so far. LSU was even slower, and both the Arkansas and Ole Miss wins were below the usual standard. Mississippi State was the fastest SEC game, but that had a lot to do with the number of turnovers in it. Auburn was able to attack a bad South Carolina team more quickly because of matchup advantages, and then things reverted to the norm for Texas A&M.
Pearl has not shied away from calling his team “offensively challenged” this season. Losing an elite scorer like Jabari Smith and the strong pick-and-roll offense of Walker Kessler has made this team look very different from the last one. The Tigers have done well in a good number of SEC games by relying on the balance among their veterans, yet this isn’t a team that’s built to come back from big deficits like Wednesday night against Texas A&M because of the shooting struggles.
Auburn has had to adapt to a roster that isn’t as talented as last season. The added experience has made it easier for the Tigers to slow it down and operate more smoothly in the half-court, but Texas A&M showed how that can get out of sync when Wendell Green Jr. gets really affected by the pressure. I believe that a healthy Chance Westry could have really helped Auburn with several of its biggest problems. However, that’s something the Tigers can’t rely on this season, and it’s made for even more adjusting on the fly.
The Tigers have had some bright spots on offense over the last few weeks — prior to the Texas A&M game, that is — but there’s just not enough consistency. (That’s just life as a good but not great, college basketball team.) They have to rely on executing their formula really well in order to beat good opponents, and a lot of that has to do with a slower-paced offense.
The five-game winning streak showed what that looks like when Auburn is clicking. The Texas A&M game showed what that looks like when the other team is doing a much better job at executing.
Pick one to be on this year’s team: Desi Sills, Justin Powell, Trey Alexander