Aubserver Mailbag 113: The Team That Won't Die
This week: Roster construction, chemistry, #TheRefs, road trips, the Tennessee game, A-Day formats, Coke floats and ironman matches
SG K.D. Johnson (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
You would think, after nearly four months and 30 games, we would know better with this Auburn basketball team.
Go back to last Saturday. Auburn played evenly with Kentucky for the first 15 minutes in Rupp Arena, then got buried in an avalanche. For the first time all year, the Tigers looked lifeless in the second half and needed a late rally to not lose by 40.
That could have easily been the breaking point. The snowball effect of close losses, particularly away from home, had gotten to be too much. And with a road game at Alabama up next? If you thought the kill shot was coming, no one would’ve blamed you.
But in a season of inconsistency, the most consistent thing about this Auburn basketball team is how it bounces back. The Tigers have lost consecutive games, sure, but they’ve not let a bad overall performance roll into another one.
So when Auburn came out on fire in Tuscaloosa on Wednesday night, shooting the lights out and building a lead that reached 17 points in the second half, it wasn’t the most shocking thing in the world. This team just refuses to die.
Auburn has flaws, there’s no doubt about it. Those flaws came up again in the second half, when the Tigers lost that massive lead and fell in overtime to the Crimson Tide. Three of their starters fouled out, including a season-long MVP who didn’t play in the last 7:58 of regulation.
Auburn’s struggles with fouling and stringing together stops, combined with a couple of brutal cold spells on offense, led to a season-defining result in all the worst ways.
And yet, even with eight losses in its last 11 games, Auburn still has a clear chance at nailing down an NCAA Tournament bid Saturday in a home game against Tennessee.
What Auburn has lacked in NBA-ready talent or smooth offensive execution this season, it’s made up for a good bit of it with resilience. A veteran-filled team just keeps swinging — no matter what happened in the last game.
And it’s that ability to avoid multiple ugly losses and take care of business when they absolutely needed to the most that has kept the Tigers alive.
Are all these close calls and “what ifs” frustrating for Auburn fans? Sure. It’s even more frustrating for the players and the coaches themselves, because their own issues have been compounded by a string of bad breaks. This is a snakebitten squad.
Yet it refuses to die. A lesser team would have packed it in weeks ago. Auburn just keeps swinging, even when things feel like they should be spiraling. That amount of heart guarantees nothing in an often cruel sport, but it keeps giving the Tigers a chance to dance.
This week’s mailbag, as you might expect, tackles a lot of basketball questions after Auburn’s gut punch of all gut punches at Alabama and before its massive home showdown with Tennessee on Saturday. We’ll also take on some spring football chatter and other topics, but the bulk of this is about a basketball team that is still alive — even when a lot of people would expect it to be left for dead.
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How is an Auburn fan supposed to emotionally balance “the lows now were once the highs / this is the golden age of AU hoops / I really love this group of players / these are really good teams they’re barely losing to” with “oh god this is so frustrating?”
Auburn fans, I think there’s plenty of room for both sides of this equation in your thoughts and feelings about these 2022-23 Tigers. And I think that all the truths of the first part only add to the second part — but in a more healthy than just raging about your team losing.
It’s all about perspective. If Auburn beats Tennessee, it gets to 20 wins overall and 10 wins in the SEC. That will have happened now five times in the last six seasons. Before Bruce Pearl, that had only happened five times ever at Auburn. From 2000 to 2016, this record in a “down season” would have arguably been the best one for the program. And we all know the SEC is a lot better than it was in the 2000s.
What’s even more frustrating for everyone involved is that Auburn is just a handful of possessions away from being an easy top-four seed in the SEC Tournament and having a nice spot in the NCAA Tournament already settled. If the ball bounces differently or the whistles go another way in a few spots, Auburn is cruising right now.
But a big reason why it’s not able to say that is because of its flaws. Auburn fouls a lot, which affects the rotation on a team that just isn’t as deep with talent as others have been in the past. A team that needs to grit-and-grind to wins has a harder time doing that with the foul counts, and Pearl hasn’t hidden the fact that this offense has had its share of struggles, limitations, challenges, or whatever you want to call them. It’s been much more difficult to get points in crunch time because of those problems, too.
Auburn is 19-11 but the No. 29 team in KenPom. Only three teams (West Virginia, Michigan State and Iowa State) are rated higher while having fewer wins, and they play in tougher conferences. Only two more (Arkansas and Creighton) have the same number of wins. And there are more than a dozen power-conference teams with more wins that are firmly behind Auburn in the metrics.
This is not a bad basketball team at all. In fact, this is a team that has a better opponent-adjusted efficiency margin than the 2020 team that didn’t get to finish its season, and it’s not too far behind the first SEC championship team under Pearl in 2018. The results, which matter the most, just haven’t reflected that reality.
The fact that Auburn still has a good shot at making the NCAA Tournament and, according to the numbers, won’t be completely dead with a loss to Tennessee on Saturday in a season in which it stepped back says a whole lot about the state of the program.
So my advice to Auburn fans is to not lose sight of that context, because it can keep you sane during the Madness.
I think as college sports fans, we can be shortsighted and oversimplify solutions to complex problems — the “can justs” or “we need tos.”
The main one I’ve seen floating around — which I don’t necessarily disagree with — is that Bruce “needs to reevaluate” a lot of positions and personnel during the summer. And if we “can just find some shooters, we’ll be great again.”
You made a point recently that Alabama, of all teams, sort of did this between last season and this one — they went out and worked the portal really well and some of their 2021-2022 guys left — but I’m genuinely curious as to how we see that potential “house cleaning” happening at Auburn.
What are the actual steps that you take as a coach to, if need be, nudge certain players out the door to bring in fresh talent, especially when those players have shown loyalty right back to you (and helped you win a championship)?
These are college kids, after all — the appeal and ease of the transfer portal notwithstanding. Do players, to some extent, “take the hint,” or does it have to be as direct and as cold of a business decision like Moneyball?
Obviously we have Aden Holloway coming in, who is looking more and more like an incredible answer to our guard woes, and we can also look forward to (fingers crossed) Chance Westry’s return to full health, but even if Auburn makes an unlikely and miraculous run in the SECT and beyond with the guys we have, surely Bruce is thinking about these things, right?
Is it really as simple as “We’ll just start over with new blood?” Is this loyalty (warped as it might seem) a uniquely Auburn problem or does every coach have to consider it to some degree?
It’s easy for us as fans to snap our fingers like this and expect what we want to change, especially during a down year, but I truly don’t know if it’s as simple as we want it to be.