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Scouting the Contenders 2022: Auburn Tigers

Bruce Pearl, Auburn
As March Madness slowly inches closer and closer, "Scouting the Contenders" takes a look at some of the nation's best teams in a chaotic race, scouts their strengths and weaknesses, and takes a best guess on just how far they could go in the NCAA Tournament. We begin with the nation's current No. 1 team, the one-loss Auburn Tigers.

Track Record

  • 21-1 overall, 9-0 SEC 
  • Lone loss 115-109 to No. 17 UConn
  • Notable wins: 62-53 vs. Loyola-Chicago, 70-55 vs. LSU, 81-77 @ Alabama, 80-71 vs. Kentucky
  • Seeking second Final Four appearance in school history (2019)

Scouting Report
Football will probably always rule the day at Auburn, but there's no question that Bruce Pearl and company have revolutionized what the hardwood means on the Plains. Prior to Pearl's arrival following the 2014 campaign, the Tigers list of basketball accomplishments was underwhelming, to say the least. The program hadn't gone to the NCAA Tournament since 2003, hadn't had a player drafted since 2001, and hadn't finished with a winning record since 2009. In a half-decade, Pearl has delivered an SEC regular season title, an SEC Tournament title, a Final Four, and now, perhaps the program's best shot ever at a National Title. Auburn is cemented as the nation's No. 1 team and is riding a 18-game winning streak as they prepare for the second half of SEC play.
Pure talent...What's different about this Auburn team? Well, for one, this is the most talented team, top-to-bottom in program history. It begins with Jabari Smith, the highly touted, five-star recruit who is considered one of the favorites to be the top selection in the 2022 NBA Draft. Smith is the type of talent Auburn fans haven't seen since Charles Barkley and Chuck Person were running up and down the court in the 1980s; he's got a versatile offensive game, a smooth jump shot, and the athletic traits you'd like to see from any star in this age of basketball. Smith is the big name, but he's far from the only contributor likely to have an NBA future. North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler is a seven-footer shot-blocker who has seen major improvements during his time with the Tigers, guards K.J. Johnson and Wendell Green are spark-plug guards, and wing Allen Flanigan is one of the SEC's most underrated players, even though he's been hurt for big chunks of the season. In a lot of ways, this lineup has become a traditional modern college basketball roster; it's got a mix of freshmen and veteran transfers, plus a few holdovers from past Tiger teams. It's not a very deep group, but doesn't need to be for this team to be successful night-in, night-out, especially if Kessler and the bigs can stay out of foul trouble..
Mentality/attitude... One of the other big things that jump out at you when watching this Auburn team is the mentality and attitude they play with. It's a hard thing to describe, but you it when you watch this team. They play with a limitless energy and a type of "bulldog" mentality that you can't really teach. Take Johnson, a former Georgia transfer, as a primetime example of this. He's undersized, just six feet, and isn't the quickest or most athletic player on the court. But, he plays incredibly hard, he's a sticky on-ball defender, and isn't afraid of the big moment. The same can be said for Green, or fellow guard Zep Jasper, or any number of other Tigers. They don't necessarily play a pretty brand of basketball, but have a type of confidence and swagger on the hardwood that lends itself to success. You can credit that to Pearl being able to bring these guys to campus, but then working to instill that type of hard-working, gritty attitude each time they play.
Defensive/rebounding prowess... One other thing I really love about this Auburn team is their work defensively, and on the glass. Everybody wants to focus on offense in today's basketball, and for good reason, but this Tiger does the smaller things super well. It's a great rebounding basketball team throughout the roster. Kessler and Smith are their two top rebounders, but guards Wendell Green, Flanigan, and Devan Cambridge are some of the best rebounders anywhere in the country at their respective positions. Don't think this has a large impact on the game? Auburn's victory this weekend over Oklahoma was fueled by a dominant 41-29 rebounding advantage and they snatched up 27 of 33 possible defensive boards. It's one thing to have talent, but not allowing opponents second chance points? These are the types of things that make a difference in March. As for defense, it helps when you have the nation's shot-blocker in Kessler, who is swatting away shots at a historic pace, but he's not the only piece to the puzzle on the defensive end. The guards are all skilled perimeter defenders and Smith's versatility on defense is a massive luxury, as he can realistically guard 1-5. This is also a defense that rotates and communicates as well as any in college basketball, which again, is credit to Pearl. In modern college hoops, where teams full of transfers are the norm, getting a team to be this cohesive and work so well together is a rarity. But when you get it, it can make all the difference between a good team and an elite team.

Shooting... How can you find weaknesses for a team that's currently 21-1 and riding a historic win streak? It's not super easy, but every basketball team has weaknesses, and that's no different for the Tigers. The most obvious one is three-point shooting; so far Auburn has been able to get by offensively by sheer will power and some crafty offensive players, but this is not a great shooting basketball team. Beyond Smith, who doesn't shoot a crazy amount of threes, they don't have a regular contributor above 40% from downtown, and nobody is even particularly close. These guards just aren't super efficient from the field; give Green, Johnson, and Jasper credit for still finding ways to score, but only Johnson is shooting above 40% from the field. That's a genuine concern because the fact of the matter is, they are going to run into some hot shooting teams down the stretch, whether it's still in the regular season or in the NCAA Tournament. Getting a healthier Flanigan will help take some pressure off these other guards, but the reality is that these guys need to be more efficient on the offensive end to maintain their current hot play.
Free throw shooting... You don't need to be a great free throw shooting team to win it all, and recent NCAA champs bear that out. However, when you get deeper in the season and games get closer, you would like a National Championship favorite to be a little bit better at the stripe than the Tigers. They are fairly mediocre in both free throw percentage (74%) and free throws attempted per game, with 19.8. Those numbers have been helped quite a bit by the fact that Smith and Green both get to the line and shoot a high percentage, but the team as a whole isn't great. Again though, I pause for some context. Auburn is averaging over 80 points per game despite less-than-stellar shooting from the field and free throw line and to be fair, they've improved in this category over the last few weeks. But, when you get to March and the margin for error is so thin when it comes to winning a National Title, it is a potential concern. Virginia in 2019 was the prime example of a team that showed that the margin for going home in the Sweet 16 and winning a National Title can be razor thin, as they won several games by the skin of their teeth.
Program history... I'll admit that this is a relatively unfair "weakness" for this Auburn team, but it is something people consider when choosing a National Championship team. This is not a program with a rich history of winning in March, as their lone Final Four appearance came back in 2019. That doesn't mean that you should automatically pick a Duke or another blue blood if they were to be matched up in the Tournament, but getting over the top and winning the first one is always the hardest (just ask Gonzaga). 

Bottom Line
In a college basketball season where there hasn't been an overwhelming (or two) favorite, Auburn has taken up the mantle as the national frontrunner. Obviously, it's unfamiliar territory for the Tigers, but they haven't been flustered at all by the added pressure and seem to be playing with even more confidence. With that being said, it's a good possibility they're going to lose another game this season, whether it be in the regular or the SEC Tournament; how does this team respond? I'm always curious about the routes different teams take to March Madness. Some face a brutal schedule and may struggle through the regular season, but that seems to make them tougher and ready for the adversity of March. Other teams coast through the regular season, but are able to turn it on against tougher competition. There's no formula that indicates one is better than the other, but is this Auburn team one that battle through the adversity that comes with playing six hard-fought games over three weekends? Auburn hasn't faced a breezy schedule, but it wasn't up to par with other top teams in the non-conference and the SEC has faded during league play (namely LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas). I'm curious if this team hasn't been through enough battles to adjust to the NCAA Tournament. I still think this is a top-tier National Title threat, but the overall favorite? I'm not sold just yet, but if they keep up their hot play, it's hard to imagine this team not entering the Big Dance as the clear favorite. 

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