A Wild Week in Auburn Basketball!
Auburn Freshmen, Including Devan Cambridge, Really Stepped Up!
(AP photo Julie Bennett)
War Eagle, everybody! What a strange week in Auburn basketball. A week ago, a trip to the snow in Missouri, and a double digit loss, had us reeling with a huge headache. Then Auburn really stunk up the joint in Athens, Georgia at midweek. I did not have a whole lot of hope with Tennessee coming to town yesterday, but Auburn erased a 17-point second-half deficit with an 18–0 run and flushed Tennessee down the stretch for a big 73–66 win over the visiting Volunteers.
Auburn has built its 22–4 record mainly on defense, forcing turnovers, limiting the other team’s best player, and not allowing easy shots. This Tiger team will not finish with a reputation for shooting. Cold streaks where the team can’t hit layups much less anything outside the paint are the norm, unfortunately.
A lot depends upon the free-throw line for Auburn, offensively. The Tigers drive the lane, and it is really a gamble on how the referees call the game. Sometimes Auburn gets refs that won’t call anything unless it is a football-style tackle. And then, we get a game where any stray hand in the lane sends Auburn to the line. I’m reminded of the Kentucky game Auburn won at the free throw line a few weeks ago. Then, we get a game like one at Missouri where the refs were maddeningly inconsistent. At least they were until Devan Cambridge was called for deliberately stepping on a Mizzou player’s leg. After that, every judgment call went against Auburn, which heavily contributed to the loss.
The most disturbing facet of this Auburn team the past few weeks is allowing way too many easy shots for the opponent. When the Tigers can’t shoot straight, and are allowing dunks and layups and easy 3’s in the half-court offense, hopes for victory are dim. I have to give head coach Bruce Pearl credit yesterday. He emptied the bench and let the young guys loose. Freshmen Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams contributed great defense and timely shooting. Williams probably had the play of the game when he drove down the lane, tossed the ball to the backboard, then rebound-slammed the ball home for a thunderous dunk. Williams also contributed 3 steals in limited minutes.
Forcing turnovers won the game against Tennessee. Tennessee had 24 turnovers, and 18 of those were steals by numerous different Auburn players. That, and actually making free throws down the stretch. For better or worse, Auburn’s offensive plan this season is to pass the ball around the perimeter till the shot clock gets to 10 seconds, then somebody drives the lane, hoping for either a close-range shot or a called foul. When Auburn gets the foul call and misses at the line, the other team pulls ahead.
While I’m bagging on referees today, I’ll touch on something that has been a big gripe all season. Auburn likes to throw the ball into the paint to Austin Wiley. When that happens, Wiley is immediately double teamed by most teams. He then gets mugged and either will fumble the ball or put it on the floor where it gets raked out. And who can blame him, while he is getting held and near tackled by two big men? We need more foul calls here. I’d also like Wiley to get better at the turn and shoot. That might be the only weakness in his game. Otherwise, Wiley is a terror inside, scooping up rebounds like crazy and altering shots.
For all the woe and hand wringing over Auburn basketball this season, this team sits at 23–4 and will almost certainly get a March Madness bid. When Isaac Okoro returns, this will be one of the top teams in the SEC, and we could see another run like last year. In any event, 20-win teams have been really rare in my years of following Auburn basketball, and I salute these players and coaches regardless of what happens going forward this year.