Observations: Mississippi State 64, Auburn 58
The Tigers had some familiar struggles for the second time this week, falling in a tough road game as the Quad 1 quest continues.
PF Jaylin Williams (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Bruce Pearl hates it when he’s right.
That’s one of the Auburn head coach’s go-to sayings, right up there with “in position to be in position” and “defense and rebounding travel.”
Pearl was right about a number of things ahead of Auburn’s road game against Mississippi State. The area that specifically triggered that phrase, though, was the Tigers’ recent struggles with defensive rebounding in light of the Bulldogs’ strength on the offensive glass.
“Gotta do a better job with that,” Pearl said Friday, a little more than 24 hours before Auburn tipped off at Mississippi State. “It'll be absolutely our No. 1 concern when we play the best teams on our schedule. I hate to be right sometimes. But my concern of where we were with our defensive rebounding — that's a big part of it.”
In the first half Saturday, Mississippi State snatched 11 offensive rebounds and turned it into seven second-chance points. Then, Auburn didn’t allow a single one for the first 15:57 of the second half. That improvement went a long way for the Tigers’ chances to hang in there on the road against a better-shooting Bulldogs’ offense after halftime.
But the offensive board that ended the drought was a killer. Tolu Smith scraped up a 3-point miss, and Cameron Matthews drew a foul off of it. Instead of Auburn getting the ball down by a single point, Mississippi State kept the possession alive and went to the line for two.
Matthews hit the first and missed the second one — but he was able to rebound that second miss and put it back in to give Mississippi State a four-point lead.
After Johni Broome hit two free throws on the other end, Mississippi State got yet another second-chance bucket to go up by four points. (The Bulldogs would finish the game with 15 more rebounds than the Tigers, which is never a great recipe for success on the road.) Denver Jones cut into the lead with a wide-open 3-pointer in the corner, but Auburn was unable to capitalize after a Broome block on the other end.
On a BLOB possession, Mississippi State’s Josh Hubbard delivered the dagger: A wild 3-pointer to put the Bulldogs back up by two possessions. The game turned into a free throw contest down the stretch, and Mississippi State used its advantage to walk away with a 64-58 win.
For an Auburn team that had won 11 straight games by double-digits heading into the week, it was a second straight road loss.
And, as friend of the newsletter Nathan King noted, second-chance points in the final minutes were crucial in both games: Against Alabama on Wednesday, Auburn allowed four offensive boards and six second-chance points in the final 5:22 of a game ultimately decided by four.
“You know what? This is very interesting: Who do you have out there at the end?” Pearl said. “I'm looking at my best defensive players. Some of those guys can be solid, but they won't make plays. Some of them can make plays, but they're not solid. At the end of both games, we didn't get stops, we didn't get rebounds. That's what cost us at Alabama. And that's partly what cost us at Mississippi State. Free-throw check-out, we don't get it.
“I think, in some ways, we lost both games kind of the same way.”
Of course, Auburn will look back at the road loss at Mississippi State and find other similarities. The Tigers shot less than 34% from the field as a team and 25% from 3-point range, adding to their sizable shooting struggles in true road games this season. They also had just one more assist (12) than they did turnovers (11).
Auburn was strong in both of those areas — and defensive rebounding, to an extent — when it was reeling off a long streak of comfortable wins, mostly at home. But taking that show on the road is easier said than done, especially in a season when top-10 teams are winning less than 60% of the time against unranked foes in road games.
The Tigers added to those struggles this week, losing to a pair of tough teams that are better than their overall records suggest. They’re still in a good position to contend and be among the top programs in the country this season. However, they’ve got some serious learning and growing to do after a tough week on the road.
And that brings us to another new Pearl-ism — and one that he repeated Friday:
“I’ve said we’re not as good as people think we are given our ranking,” Pearl said. “I understand that. Because I think our guys have played pretty well to their ability. The question is: Can you play well when the competition steps up? That’s the challenge. We don’t need to play better than we played in the first five (SEC) games where we won.
“But can we play that way against Alabama in Alabama? Against Mississippi State in Mississippi State? Or can we keep playing that way? How will some adversity affect us? How will some losses?”
The Tigers are about to find all of that out.
In addition to the defensive rebounding breakdown, are two more (quite lengthy) big Observations from Auburn’s 64-58 road loss at Mississippi State, along with the Rotation Charts, Nerd Stats and Quote of the Day.
Johni Broome stepped up, but this team needs more
It’s been a theme for Auburn basketball this season: You might be able to hold off Broome in the first half, but he’s going to get to his numbers in the second half.
That came true against a Mississippi State frontcourt that is one of the nation’s best on defense. Broome went scoreless in the first half Saturday. In the second half, he had 14 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting. He also finished with seven rebounds, two assists, three blocks and a steal in a season-high 34 minutes.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State star center Tolu Smith had a season-low nine points and committed three turnovers. Broome spent the majority of the game guarding Smith, as Dylan Cardwell only played six minutes due to lightning-fast foul trouble.
“When Johni Broome is 5-for-7, and the rest of the team shoots the percentage they shoot, a better coach would have gotten him the ball more and gotten the ball to him more, with more touches and in better positions,” Pearl said afterwards. “I thought that our team, particularly Johni Broome, did an outstanding job defending Tolu Smith.
“If you would've told me that we would've come in here and held Tolu to just six shots and turn him over four times — boy, I tell you, we'd have a fighting chance. And we did.”
This was coming off of a huge performance against Alabama for Broome, who had 25 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks. Broome isn’t a consistently dominant big man, and there are some matchups where it takes some time for him to get going. But he’s good for a chunk of scoring, rebounding and rim-protecting every single game, and that’s quite valuable compared to the rest of college basketball.
But what made Auburn so dangerous during the winning streak was how several players could break out on any given night — and the overall depth of the rotation all contributed at a high level.
That didn’t happen this week.