Auburn Basketball: November thoughts

Malcolm Canada shoots over a Nicholls State defender. - Kyle Taylor/ Auburn University photo

We don't know what we don't know. We might not know until conference play.

So here we are: November, the slow descent into college basketball. Maybe nothing really matters until February, but I love these first few months. It doesn't necessarily tell you a lot about where a team will be in March, but to me, it is some of the best times to watch the game. We get to see all that "diamond in the rough" action -- nothing is too polished, at times even sloppy. Maybe we get lucky and it's complete hustle and muscle.

In the meantime, what can I tell you about this year's Tigers? Not a lot. Don't take that in a negative way -- it is just that with an opener against Nicholls State, the unknown isn't really explored. Did the Tigers score? Yes. Did the Tigers win? Of course. Let's take a walk through the rest of this month's schedule.

  • Nov. 15 Northwestern
  • Nov. 19 Jacksonville State
  • Nov. 23 Murray State
  • Nov. 26 Tennessee State

All of those are at home. Auburn is expected to win every single one of those games and is currently ranked 156th out of 351 schools (based on games played through Nov. 10), according to kenpom.com. Northwestern sits at 190, Jacksonville State at 245, Murray State at 196 and Tennessee State at 272. Not exactly a tough schedule.

We won't learn much about these guys until December. The Tigers play Iowa State in Ames, Iowa on Dec. 2 as part of the SEC/Big12 Challenge, and they meet Illinois in Atlanta on Dec. 8. Iowa State is currently 33rd and Illinois 44th, per kenpom. This is the highest level of competition before conference play begins in January against the likes of Missouri (41), Tennessee (32) and Florida (7).

Here are the things that did catch my eye from the game against Nicholls St:

  • KT Harrell (Junior SG, 6'4, 216), the transfer from Virginia, is a solid player. In his 31 minutes against Nicholls State, he was 5-of-9 inside the perimeter, 2-of-4 outside the perimeter and made 5-of-7 free throws. He also had five rebounds, an assist and a block. The easy comparison is that he reminds you of Frankie Sullivan. Frankie's greatest strength was that he could carry the team and virtually will it to win. Some of the hardest things as a fan to watch last year were the times when Frankie put his team on his back and it still wasn't enough to notch a W. I am excited for the energy and talent that KT brings to court. It is evident when he steps on the court that he elevates his teammates to play better. Let's hope that is something that continues to develop over the season.
  • Malcolm Canada (Junior PG, 6'3, 224) is a JUCO transfer from Ellsworth CC. He split time with Tahj Shamsid-Deen at point and only played 17 minutes, compared to TSD's 23 minutes. First of all, TSD is a capable guard. But what impressed me the most was the hustle in Canada. He is incredibly vocal on the court. If there is a loose ball, he is the one on the ground fighting for it. I have missed Josh Langford at times for his role as the enforcer, and it is nice to see head coach Tony Barbee bring in a guy with a little meat on his bones and maybe even a little fire in his eyes. I love Canada already. TSD is a better shooter, but Canada will be the one that stays in people's faces. He had five defensive rebounds, one assist and two steals.
  • Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (Senior C, 7'0, 226) has definitely been eating over the summer. He put on 20 pounds and is playing like he is 20 pounds heavier stronger. He went 3-of-4 from the field and made 2-of-3 foul shots. He grabbed eight boards total (three offensive and five defensive), an assist and four blocks. One of his blocks consisted of him standing and merely pushing down on the ball as a much shorter guy tried to shoot. He's got some mojo going, and he is going to need it come January.

The things that plagued last year - missed foul shots, lack of offense, breakdowns in defense -- were not really evident against Nicholls, but again, it is hard to know what will unfold against teams that are on par with Auburn and those that are playing at a higher level. The questions to which I wish we knew the answers are these:

  • Point guard. I don't really know why this is a question since landing a guy to command the offense is obvious. Barbee always gets criticism (and frankly a lot of it does come from me) on the large number of JUCO transfers he hauls in, but maybe this year he finally got it right. Canada will give us different looks than TSD, namely on defense and under the rim. TSD (Freshman, 5'10, 163) looks to be the better pure shooter of the two and has a quickness to him.
  • Foul shots. The Tigers made 68 percent of its attempted free throws in the opener. They left 13 points on the court. Thirteen points. This is the stuff that drives me nuts. Sixteen games last year were decided by 10 points or fewer. Four were decided by fewer than five: Boston College (away), DePaul (home), Illinois (away) and Ole Miss (home, same game in which Marshall Henderson unloaded his double-bird on the student section). Gotta have those free points.
  • Defense. Barbee always talks about wanting to see more physicality from his guys. This was never more apparent than in the Murray State game. I was horrified when I watched Ed Daniel (shoutout to Woodlawn) MANHANDLE the Tigers inside and Isaiah Canaan launch a hailstorm of treys. I go back and forth on what I consider a solid perimeter defense. I have settled on "if the guy can't launch his shot in the first place and is forced to pass inside, then 80 percent of the battle is won." Sounds simple, right? I know it is not -- factor in size matchups (or mismatches) and fatigue, and it starts to break down a little.
  • Offense. Auburn might not land the top five recruits every year like the Big Blue Bandwagon, and I always wonder if Barbee runs a flex offense because at times it maybe covers up some deficiencies in shooting from downtown. I mentioned fatigue earlier and I often debated on whether it was the conditioning or just the lack of offense. Scoring points gives that 2-3 seconds to get down the court and set up the defense.

My biggest challenge this year is learning to let go of my expectations and maybe some of my dreams about the state of Auburn basketball. This year could be a lot better than last year, but it could be more of the same. For now, I am going to just enjoy seeing the guys play and relish that non-conference victory postgame bourbon.

Auburn hosts Northwestern State on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Auburn Arena. If you are in town for the football game against Georgia, why not make a weekend of it and check out the game? The guys always play better in a packed house, and the Arena is gorgeous.

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