Gut Check Time for Tigers
It’s been a rough stretch for Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers. Auburn dropped a 92–84 match to the 22nd ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville, running the losing streak to three and losses in four of the last six games. The Tigers, who shared an SEC regular season title with Tennessee last season, are now 9th in the SEC with a 2–4 conference record.
Auburn lost only six conference games all of last season, and the vast majority of those losses came after Auburn lost Anfernee McLemore, who was doing an admirable job replacing then-ineligible Austin Wiley. In fact, four of those six losses were without McLemore on the floor to end the season. Starting with the home game against Kentucky, Auburn has once again been without Wiley, but even with McLemore and additional depth from Danjel Purifoy, the Tigers can’t seem to get it done.
It’s been a tough time to be an Auburn basketball fan. Why, because it’s starting to feel the same as being an Auburn football fan. There isn’t an Auburn fan alive that doesn’t understand what that means. Long story short, Auburn football has seldom been able to live up to high expectations. Such as settling for a 10–2 season, when there were thoughts of National Championships, is what happens. Where being a playoff team in 2018 was the expectation, it was an 8–5 dud of a season. And, it wasn’t the first time that’s happened.
The difference between the basketball and football programs has been that for the average basketball fan packing Auburn Arena, especially the student section, Auburn has had few aspirations of being an elite team. This season is the first time in nearly 20 years that Auburn was viewed as a potential elite-eight or final-four team. The Tigers certainly started out looking like an elite team, but the season has eroded as of late.
I spoke on the Outside The Huddle podcast on Sunday night about this very issue and what has happened to Pearl’s squad. This team has had identity problems from the beginning, but that’s not unheard of for contenders. Blueblood teams experience this every single year with one-and-done roster turnover. The issue here is that there isn’t a shortage of games played between the ten or so players but of the combinations and game-play style of those guys.
The lack of identity among the potential lineups on the floor has led to bad basketball to the point that there isn’t one single thing that coaches, players, or fans can point to. Of course, there are some common trends. First and foremost, every opponent that Auburn plays seems to have a player experience a career night against the Tigers. This dates back to last season when Alabama’s John Petty hit eight three pointers on his way to 24-point night.
In the loss to South Carolina, it was Chris Silva’s 32-point career night. Against Mississippi State, it was Quinndary Weatherspoon’s 27-point outburst, a full eight points more than he’s scored against any SEC opponent this season. It’s simply baffling how opponents find success against the Tigers. Even crazier is that Auburn didn’t shoot badly. In fact, they were fantastic shooting the ball, hitting over 52 percent of their long ball attempts and 91 percent of their free throws. While there are some other things to consider, such as the Tigers inability to play zone defense, there is one stat that jumps off the page, if one looks further than each game as a single data point.
Jared Harper has turned the ball over at an unprecedented rate this season. That’s tough to say about a diminutive player like Harper, who has been a part of something special for Auburn. He plays with such grit and heart you have to love the guy. But, here are the meat and potatoes: in half a season, Harper has four games where he turned the ball over four or more times, with a six turnover game against State. He had just four games all season with four or more turnovers and even less as a freshman in 2016-2017, when he had just two.
Sure, it’s tough to blame a couple of bad beats on Harper, considering that it’s only a few turnovers per game, but it’s really the only hard data point one can point to. Couple that with the fact that Harper has scored at least 15 points in the last five games, including the three straight losses, and you may find enough bread crumbs to formulate a theory. A team that looked to transition from a streaky outside shooting team in the past to a more rounded team with three-point-presence players simply hasn’t done so—on either end of the court. Harper has had to do more and more, which has led him to assume more of a scoring role, which in turn has led to more turnovers and scoring outbreaks by opponents.
Most fans that have watched this program grow aren’t pressing the panic button yet. The SEC is a better league than it has been in a very long time, if it’s not in the best shape ever. This is a league that looks like it may get 11 teams to the Big Dance, and while Auburn may not be a No. 1 or No.2 seed like everyone assumed, its in fine shape to make the tournament.
However, Auburn takes on Missouri in their midweek game, and this is a gut-check game for the Tigers. They cannot lose this game. The 10–8 Tigers from CoMo are 1–5 in conference play and are coming to Auburn Arena to play in one of the most intimidating environments in college basketball. Auburn simply doesn’t lose in the Arena, but the panic button will be slapped early and often if Pearl and Company can’t pull out a win.
The game tips off at 7:30 PM on the SEC Network.