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Another game against Auburn, another opportunity, and another stiff test

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A big win is possible Thursday, but it probably won’t be easy.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 14 Auburn at Saint Louis Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The impact of departures on a college basketball program can be overstated for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we assume too quickly that a team will miss its leading scorer, without drilling past the points column to see if that production came efficiently. Sometimes the performance of secondary players is overlooked because they didn’t receive a lot of minutes and therefore their counting stats were suppressed despite efficient play.

Auburn wasn’t exactly pegged for a dramatic step backward after losing five rotation players to the pros or graduation—the Tigers were picked fourth in the SEC—but whatever skepticism did creep in has quickly been tossed aside by the team’s performance this season.

The Tigers lost their top three scorers, but that team was deep with effective contributors, and one way to get over losing good players is with a balanced approach among the solid guys who are returning. And that is exactly what Auburn has done. No rotation player is accounting for more than 22.8% of the shots while on the court—several guys have above-average workloads (20% being average), but nobody is carrying the load to a dramatic extent.

Auburn Offense

2020 Tigers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Tigers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Offense 110.7 (18) 54.0 (42) 17.8 (73) 36.5 (16) 39.3 (43)

The difference between last season and this one lies almost entirely at the offensive end. The Tigers finished 2019 sixth in efficiency and have dipped to 18th, but that’s the sort of change you really have to squint to see.

If there’s one area where the Tigers are really hurting from roster turnover, it’s the perimeter, where they’ve gone from an elite three-point shooting team to merely an average one. Senior Bryce Brown took 334 threes last year and made 41% of ‘em. Point guard Jared Harper, who turned pro, took another 260, and made 37% of those. Six players on the 2019 squad attempted at least 100 threes, and four of them are gone.

So Auburn isn’t as deep as it was there, but the Tigers have compensated by shooting much better inside the arc—they are ninth nationally at 56.7% on twos. The Tigers continue to lean heavily on three-point attempts for offense, but shoot it just well enough for it not to be a problem.

From a Four Factors standpoint, they are really well-rounded, which helps them get through stretches where their outside shots aren’t falling. It helps a lot when you can rely on offensive boards and trips to the free throw line to mitigate cold snaps from the perimeter.

Starters

J’Von McCormick (6’0, 185) — McCormick has been an excellent distributor but has felt the strain of an increased role in the scoring. He’s only 12-39 (30.8%) from three and, bizarrely, 6-21 from the free throw line. There’s no way he doesn’t get better there.

Samir Doughty (6’4, 195) — He’s been an outstanding shooter in his 1+ seasons at Auburn and is the team’s biggest perimeter threat. He’s getting to the free throw line a lot and he’s a good free throw shooter. Pretty good at being disruptive defensively, too.

Isaac Okoro (6’6, 225) — The freshman is shooting slightly better from two (65.7%) than he is from the free throw line (65.5%). He’s willing to shoot from outside but so far hasn’t shown the ability to make those shots consistently.

Danjel Purifoy (6’7, 230) — Primarily a jump shooter, and a solid one: he’s a career 36% three-point shooter. I wouldn’t expect him to bring too much else to the table.

Austin Wiley (6’11, 260) — Monster of a rebounder and an excellent shot blocker. Also a career 58% shooter on twos. He is prone to both fouls and turnovers, but if he’s not doing either of those two things, he’s generally doing something good.

Bench

Anfernee McLemore (6’7, 220), Allen Flanigan (6’5, 200), Devan Cambridge (6’6, 190), Jamal Johnson (6’4, 195). McLemore gives Auburn another exceptional shot blocker and paint scorer, though he isn’t nearly the impact player on the glass that Wiley is. Johnson has attempted 27 threes and six twos this season. Pretty obvious what he wants to do and you have to be focused on that defensively since he’s hit 44% of those threes.

Flanigan and Cambridge are freshmen who aren’t logging a lot of minutes but also aren’t shy about shooting the ball when they’re in the game. They’ve been iffy outside shooters but effective inside the arc.

Auburn Defense

2020 Tigers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Tigers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Defense 90.8 (34) 45.7 (75) 19.9 (150) 27.7 (161) 22.6 (25)

The Tigers disrupt a lot of shots thanks to Wiley and McLemore, who rank in the top 90 in block percentage, and their presence discourages opponents from trying to get shots in the paint. Auburn has forced opponents into a lot of threes and those opponents have made only 29.5% of those shots. That may have a lot to do with Auburn’s perimeter defense, but there is good luck involved here too.

The Pomeroy Predictor likes Auburn by six.