Auburn comes back state-side with a second place finish in the Cancun Challenge, and with each game this team plays, we find out more about who they are and what they could become. The early parts of the season are like unwrapping a Christmas present extremely slowly. With each rip of wrapping paper, you begin to understand what your mom bought you. Is it a pair of socks? Or is it that BB gun you’ve asked for three Christmases in a row?
We are still finding out if Uncle Bruce has bought us fans a pair of socks or that competitive basketball team we have been asking for. We know more about them, but still not quite enough.
Auburn was trounced by Purdue 96-71. The Boilermakers hit 17(!) three-pointers in this game. Auburn was just not very good. Bryce Brown has spent the last two games disappearing, which isn’t a good look from your best three-point shooter.
Danjel Purifoy is still setting the scoresheets on fire. Scoring 22 against a taller, more physical Purdue team is notable. After the Purdue game, Purifoy was leading the team in points, threes made, assists, and was second on the team in rebounds and usage rate. He is a special player.
"To go ahead and win this game and try to be nationally ranked on Monday, you've got to have special," Bruce Pearl said. "We didn't get special out of the coaching staff and we didn't get special out of the players." Well, not to disagree with Pearl here, but he got special out of Purifoy. Danjel could have played better, I guess, but not much better.
Mustapha Heron had a solid game and is continuing to develop into the go-to guy for this team. He is also leading Auburn in rebounds as a shooting guard. He should look Spencer and Smith in the eyes after each practice and just remind them he is out-rebounding them. As a freshman.
Against Upstate, Auburn struggled to put nails in the coffin of the Spartans, winning 90-83. Auburn was up by as many as 18 in the second half, but held on to only win by single-digits. There were some nice plays by the Tigers, and Jared Harper continued to look like a blur on the court. He is becoming my favorite player to watch because it just looks like he has a different gear than everyone else. He runs past fast players like they were running in sand.
Auburn struggled with another big, physical 7 footer. The Tigers don’t have a ton of size, but they have to learn how to defend a big body down low. Between Spencer and Smith, we have “defensive” specialists who need to learn how to bang. We can’t have a bench player for SC Upstate score 20 on us just because he is 7-feet tall.
Auburn has played it’s last home game for more than a month, and will now play on the road against rival UAB in Ballingham* on Saturday. This game could trip the Tigers up, because the Blazers return an experienced team and are well-coached. Auburn had a tough time with the Blazers last season, and it is always tough to play a rival on the road. Auburn will have to defend Chris Cokley, a 6-8 junior forward who makes it go for the Blazers. He leads the team in points and rebounds. They also will have to figure out how to score around William Lee, a 6-9 forward who is averaging three blocks per game. On the bench for the Blazers, is a 7 footer from France named Thomas Smallwood, but he doesn’t play too much, so maybe the Tigers will be OK.
Things I think about this team
I think Auburn is still playing like a young team. Not closing out games, like the two against Texas Tech and SC Upstate, is a hallmark of young basketball teams. Pearl has to keep coaching these guys that the other team isn’t just going to quit because Auburn got up by 15.
I think they Auburn is starting to play really good turnover-forcing defense. Auburn scored 20 off of turnovers in the last game. If the Tigers can be a team that forces turnovers, it will hide their inexperience and make their lack of size a non-issue.
Things I know about this team
I know this team is offensively challenged when Heron and Purifoy are on the bench. Those two play the most minutes on the team, and are first and second in Usage. Heron and Purifoy have Usage percentages of 18.7 and 15.8, respectively. That stat was calculated before the SC Upstate game, but it shows you how important they have been to this team. If you don’t know what Usage percentage is, it is a stat that calculates the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor. Those two are on the floor a lot, and account for nearly 35 percent of the Tigers’ plays. To be honest, when I calculated the stats, I was surprised that number wasn’t higher.
Things I want to see
I want to see more out of Horace Spencer. Auburn needs him to be a factor. They need him to finish alley-oops, to rebound, and to block shots. Currently, his blocks and rebounds per game are down from last season, and that needs to change. Auburn is undersized at the block, and Spencer is going to have to play out of his mind for the Tigers to have a chance in conference, much less on the road at UConn coming up. As good as Heron is, it really isn’t a good thing that he is leading the team in rebounds. That title should be Spencer’s. When your coach compares you to Dennis Rodman, you can not be out-rebounded by a freshman guard.
*don’t know if that’s a thing, but it should be.