Week 1 of conference play proved to be a success for Auburn, as the Tigers picked up two wins to start 2-0 for the first time since the 2002-03 season. Despite missing Chris Denson and Jordan Price, Auburn provided a balanced effort on the offensive end and played tough defense to gut out two victories.
Going into SEC play against LSU, Auburn was playing its best basketball of the season, taking then-No. 12 Illinois to the final buzzer in Chicago and picking up an impressive home win against Florida State. The key in both of those games? Someone other than Frankie Sullivan showed up on offensive.
Auburn carried that same type of play into the game against LSU Wednesday night. If you would have told any Auburn basketball fan that Sullivan would shoot 3-of-10 from the field with only 10 points and Auburn would win comfortably, they would have probably called you crazy. Auburn beat LSU, 68-63, but the good Tigers were up by double-digits for most of the final 10 minutes of the game. The score looked much closer because of Auburn's lack of focus and execution at the free throw late when LSU fouling to extend the game. Even in a win, the inability to put the game out of reach is concerning and something I'm sure Tony Barbee let the players know about the next day in practice.
Allen Payne lead the Tigers with 15 points, four rebounds and four assists, and Rob Chubb chipped in with eight points and eight rebounds, but the player of the night was true freshman Shaquille Johnson. Shaq had 11 points to go along with nine rebounds in what was his best game in his young Auburn career. He is a good rebounder from the guard position because of his elite athleticism, and he 's not afraid to get in the lane and be physical with guys much bigger and taller than him. Watching him Wednesday night reminded me a lot of Dwyane Wade in the way that he played. I'm not comparing Johnson to Wade, because that would be unfair, but his athleticism and hustle resemble the way Wade plays.
Auburn shot a dismal 39.3 percent from the field in the first half, but the Tigers found the stroke in the second half, shooting an exceptional 53.8 percent. They held LSU to 38.7 percent in the first and 36.1 percent in the second, forcing the Bengal Tigers to shoot a lot of deep threes and forced attempts late in the shot clock. Turnovers weren't much of an issue for either team as both teams ended up with 12.
All in all, it was a good game for Auburn. The Tigers stepped up when their best player was having an off night, they defended well and overcame a cold first half, playing well in the second half and down the stretch, which was something last year's team failed to do time and time again.
Riding high after winning its conference opener, Auburn traveled to Columbia, S.C., on Saturday for it's first conference road test in what turned out to be a hostile environment. The Tigers came out on fire and never looked back, shooting a scorching 58.5 percent from the field, and beat the South Carolina Gamecocks, 74-71, in an incredibly exciting and hard-fought game. They were plagued by foul trouble the whole game, thanks in large part to a terrible officiating crew and an acting job by Carolina forward Michael Carrera that would make Jack Nicholson look like a rookie. I could go on and on about Carrera and how much he got away with and how many bogus calls he got, but I'll just leave it right there. The officials were bad both ways, but the way they handled Carrera's constant flopping and fouling was infuriating.
It didn't take Sullivan long to heat back up after his cold night against LSU as he came back with 17 points and five ssists. Two of those assists were absolutely beautiful passes as the defense crashed to him. He made two huge back-to-back three-pointers to give Auburn a five-point lead and the momentum after Carrera drew several bogus fouls on Shaq and Noel Johnson. As much as Carrera tried to flop and get away with just about anything, he was thoroughly outplayed by Chubb who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and drew Carrera's 97th (fifth by the officials' count) foul to disqualify him with about four minutes left in the game. Josh Wallace played a good game at point guard, finishing with seven assists and working hard to get Auburn good shots every time down the floor.
The story of the game, however, was freshman Brian Greene Jr., who finished with 14 points and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the field, including two three-pointers. That made back-to-back games in which a freshman stepped up big for Auburn when the Tigers needed it. With Shaq and Noel both in foul trouble against the Gamecocks, Auburn needed another guy to step up outside of Sullivan and Chubb, who were already having good games, and Greene did just that.
These were two contests that Auburn probably would have lost last year, especially the South Carolina game. Auburn overcame just about everything that can go wrong in a basketball game on Saturday to win, and to do it on the road was even more impressive. This Auburn team is far from being all the way there yet, though. They struggled at times in both games with giving up offensive rebounds and second chance points, and they too often fell asleep in the zone defense. But even through all that, Auburn came away with two SEC wins in as many tries. The Tigers have done all this without Chris Denson and Jordan Price, two major players, especially on the offensive end. That's definitely a sign of progress.
Player of the week in a lead role: Frankie Sullivan
Weekly averages: 13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists
Player of the week in a supporting role: Shaq Johnson, Brian Greene Jr.
Weekly averages, Johnson: 8.0 points, 5.0 rebounds
Weekly averages, Greene: 9.0 points, plus 8-of-8 FG, 3-of-3 3FG