Ole Miss forward K.J. Buffen trys to steal the ball from Auburn's Jarred Harper February 13, 2019 (photo: USA TODAY Sports)
It was the year of high expectations. Auburn started out highly ranked, but after out-of-conference play, the Tigers looked less and less like a contender and more like a pretender.
That paragraph could be applied to two different Auburn teams this year. While failing to meet expectations is something very familiar to Auburn football fans, it is a new occurrence to Auburn basketball fans. As many old-school Auburn basketball followers will tell you, simply having expectations for the Tigers is something new, which has softened the blow for the slide back to center for the Auburn basketball fan.
Regardless of the raging commentary between Auburn basketball fans, the fact remains that this team is struggling mightily. Judging these young men is a tough thing to do and should be done with the understanding that they are young men. And while the aim isn’t to be tough on them, some serious introspection is needed.
To avoid a season of regret, Auburn would have to put together great post-season play. A month ago, that was understood. Now, Auburn is in serious contention to not even make the Big Dance and have a shot at redeeming what has, so far, been a disappointing season.
Yes, the Tigers are still firmly in the mix thanks to an SEC conference that is playing really good ball. Yes, losing Wednesday to Ole Miss in and of itself shouldn’t be the sole reason to slap the panic button, even as disgusting as the game was. Fans are quick to look at single games to judge an entire season. Wednesday’s performance was the loss that caused a lot of fans to start questioning the entire the season.
Auburn is winless against currently ranked teams. The Tigers have now lost two games at home, a place they simply do not lose. They are below .500 in conference play with Kentucky and Tennessee looming. And Wednesday night Auburn scored a new low with just 26 firs-half points at home. A very telling, nonstatistical but important aspect of Auburn’s want of success was the lack of support in that game. Fans simply did not show up. Statistically, neither did Auburn’s shooting.
Credit Ole Miss for coming to Auburn Arena and shooting the clutch shots needed to turn the lights out on Auburn. Statistically, the Rebs weren’t great from long range, hitting under 40 percent. It was how they did it. At one point, Ole Miss hit four triples with one second left on the shot clock. A fifth time, it missed the shot, got the rebound and ran the shot clock down before missing another shot and getting yet another rebound, putting Auburn’s squad on defense for over a minute. As talented as Auburn is, as suffocating as it can be in situations, one maddening fact about this squad is the ability to make heroes out of their opponents. It defies statistics. Only Auburn could play flawless defense over and over and still play into its opponents hands.
Regardless of the defense it was shooting and turnovers that buried Auburn. The Tigers hit only 25 percent from beyond the arc with Chuma Okeke hitting more than guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, combined. The two guards were 2–20 combining for just 18 points. Okeke did his best to keep Auburn in the game, scoring 23 points, nearly half of Auburn’s paltry 55 points.
Just weeks ago, Auburn’s losses were easy to accept by pointing to aberrations: bad shooting here, poor rebounding there. However, over the last month one thing is painfully obvious: Jared Harper is having his worst year wearing orange and blue. And that isn’t even up for debate. Harper added six turnovers Wednesday night. Three of them were head scratching, such as a failed alley-oop or dribbling into the lane with three defenders waiting. His turnovers per game have crept up each year from 1.5 to 2.1 to 2.5 this year. While 2.5 doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s been the rate in SEC play that is simply scary. Harper had only three games with four or more turnovers in his first two years. He has six this year with back-to-back games of five and six, respectively.
Auburn’s high hopes for the season were boosted by the return of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Yet neither has been a factor, and it is simply baffling. Auburn was 12–1 to start the season and in those games, Wiley had double-digit points in eight. Since the start of SEC play, Wiley has yet to score double digits.
It doesn’t help that Wiley battled a lower body injury that kept him out of several games. But the truth is he hasn’t played to the level sold to fans as a top draft pick coming out of high school. As of Wednesday night, many fans on social media started using the term “soft” when it came to talking about the big man. His biggest problem, outside of being able to rebound against men the same size or larger, is how he catches the ball on the block but finishes falling away from the basket—something a dominating player would never do.
In addition Danjel Purifoy hasn’t scored more than eight points, and while he is starting to show up, he still hasn’t eclipsed the play fans saw from him as a freshman.
It may not be time to hit the panic button, but Auburn has a long row to hoe to prevent a disappointing season. The Tigers start to work on that redemption Saturday at 11:00 AM against Vandy in Nashville.
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