"If you’re a little disappointed in how we’re playing right now, you should be. If you’re wondering what this team could be this season, you should be. We’ve given you enough reason to." - Bruce Pearl after USC Upstate Win
Auburn basketball is 6-1 for the first time since the 2011-12 basketball season. Sounds great until you remember that in 2011-12, the Kenny Gabriel-led Tigers finished 15-16. Auburn opened out 9-2 in 2007-08 before slumping to a 14-16 final record. In 2003-04, Auburn started 7-0 before finishing 14-14 in Cliff Ellis's last year.
In February 2001, this happened:
Which has nothing to do with what we're talking about but was really, really awesome.
Back to the question, how good is this Auburn team, really? We're 6-1. Today we learn that Auburn is #21 in the official RPI. Barring upsets, we should be 9-1 when we face Oklahoma December 21st. But does it mean anything? What can we expect going forward?
We're starting to get an idea of Auburn's ceiling and floor.
On defense, Auburn is a long, athletic team. We go ten deep. All ten can run. They like to play fast, put pressure on the ball and get good looks off of turnovers. Our forwards get a lot of blocks and alter shots they don't block. Last year, we had difficulty keeping Spencer out of foul trouble but the addition of LaRon Smith means that we now have two Horace Spencers who can generally finish one entire game between them.
You got five seconds to decide how you going to turn this ball over ... I'm just here to help you. pic.twitter.com/tYHpq4iaBI— LaRon Smith (@LaR0n) December 4, 2016
Offensively, Auburn's starters (with the exception of Spencer) are good at driving to the hole and either finishing, drawing contact, or dishing to an open teammate. All ten players are unselfish. They all pass well and have good shot judgment.
Auburn is weak in the middle. Being lean and athletic doesn't help against strong centers. Auburn got thrashed by two talented big men in the Purdue game. Then we got shoved around by USC Upstate's backup center. If you see a team coming in with a 6'11", 250+ center, Auburn is not going to have a lot of fun against him.
Even in games where we don't face an overpowering center, we struggle on the glass because our forwards don't love rebounding. Mustapha Heron is our leading rebounder today. As much as I love them, Horace Spencer, LaRon Smith, and even Danjel Purifoy should feel ashamed. Schematically, we're putting more emphasis on getting rebounders in position than we have in years past, but the results aren't showing up. If Spencer and Smith start taking as much pride in rebounding as they do in defense and shot blocking (or, if the reports are true and Austin Wiley shows up next week), Auburn will move from a very good team to a top 25 team. Auburn is doing very well with their first shots but we absolutely need more second chance points to finish off the better teams we'll face this year.
Auburn fans shouldn't worry about another dramatic meltdown. Unlike the teams listed above, Auburn has played some good teams. Georgia State, Texas Tech, and UAB are quality wins. Auburn has a legitimate chance to escape non-conference play at 10-2 or better. A conservative estimate puts us at 9-3, 10-3 if you look ahead and count the January 28th game with TCU. We're young, we're inconsistent, but we're undeniably good.
If they keep playing like they're playing now, Auburn should break even in conference play. Rock M Nation's Power Rankings put the Tigers at 7th in a crowded field. After Kentucky, Florida, and South Carolina, it's hard to separate the rest of the field from 4th-10th. Auburn should expect a 9-9 conference record, understanding that due to normal variations and luck, we could get 7 or 11 wins just as easily. The most likely outcome is that Auburn enters the SEC Tournament play at 19-12, needing to reach the finals (or, at least a competitive semifinal loss to Kentucky) to get an NCAA Tournament berth.
My best guess as of December 6th is Auburn finishes as one of the "Next Four Out" and gets to host one or two NIT games. All this could change. If Austin Wiley arrives next week, and if he pans out, Auburn should win 3-4 more games than they would without him and easily make the tournament.