We've had time to look back and reflect on Auburn's 2015-16 basketball season in the week since the Tigers' exit from the SEC Tournament in the first round against Tennesse. Over the next few days, we'll be examining the season. Today is just a simple "what happened?" Tomorrow we'll go into some superlatives. Thursday will feature a way-too-early look ahead to next year.
There was a fair bit of excitement surrounding Auburn Basketball this year, as the Tigers brought in an excellent recruiting class and looked poised to make some sort of a run at the post-season. All through 2014-15, I heard reports that Kareem Canty was the best player on the team, and he was sitting the bench due to transfer rules. Now we'd finally get a chance to see him in action!
Of course, as the team got into its preseason practice, things turned a bit sour. Tahj Shamsid-Deen hurt his shoulder again. New Williams tweaked a knee. All of a sudden things weren't looking quite as rosy. I was told by a friend of mine who has a nebulous connection with the basketball program that Kareem Canty had a bit of an attitude issue. We knew the talent was there, but his attitude was definitely a problem.
Auburn dominated its first preseason exhibition against Brevard College. However, the next Exhibition, against Indianapolis, went to overtime before the Tigers came away victorious. Perhaps that should have been a sign of things to come.
The Non-Conference Schedule
Auburn opened the season in dramatic fashion with a take-down of last year's Conference USA champion and NCAA Tournament participant UAB. It was an excellent game right up until Horace Spencer really announced his presence with the walk-off block. Spencer finished that game with five blocks in his collegiate debut. It was the first of many block parties for the freshman.
The Colorado game saw a trend develop that would follow the Tigers through a fair bit of the season. Auburn started hot but allowed the opponent to come back and make it a close game at the half. Then Colorado pulled away in the second stanza. Auburn had issues with the late first half all season long. Sometimes the Tigers were able to overcome it. Against teams like Colorado, they were not.
Two beat downs were followed by a close road game in Conway against former coach Cliff Ellis, and then an overtime loss to Middle Tennessee State in Nashville. It was the MTSU game where Canty really showed what he was capable of, as his stream of three-pointers in the final minutes of the game forced the overtime period.
After a home win against Mercer, the Tigers went on the road for the next few weeks. It was then that the injury bug really kicked the Tigers right where it counts. First was a beat-down at the hands of Xavier, who were not gracious hosts, to say the least. In that game, point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who had already missed time in the early season - was lost for the year with yet another shoulder injury. In Hawaii Auburn won the opening game of the Diamond Head Classic, but lost to Harvard in a game that saw T.J. Dunans lost for most of the remainder of the season, and then another loss to the tournament hosts Hawaii.
The SEC Schedule
Even without Tahj and Dunans, the Tigers still managed to win their SEC home opener against Tennessee. Expectations were dramatically lower than they had been at the seasons' start by this point, but the Tennessee victory showed that there was some magic still there, somewhere. Three straight losses, all by double-digits, tamped those hopes down a good bit, though.
Then came the highlight of the season. Auburn welcomed Kentucky to town on a Saturday night, and Auburn led most of the way to the upset victory. That was followed by a defeat of archrival Alabama in a game that most certainly didn't involve any tampering with the court for an unfair advantage. In those games, Kareem Canty rained three-pointers like sweet summer afternoon storms. For just a brief moment, everything was beautiful and right with Auburn Basketball.
Then reality hit, as the Tigers were demolished by Florida, Ole Miss, Oklahoma State (in a brief break from the SEC schedule), and LSU in turn. In the Oklahoma State game, an already short-handed Auburn played with Cinmeon Bowers, who was suspended. Trips to Athens, Knoxville, and then against the Commodores at home weren't any better.
To make matters worse, prior to the Georgia game, Kareem Canty was suspended. He would never put on an Auburn uniform again. Between Tennessee and Vanderbilt, he announced he would enter the 2016 NBA Draft.
With Cinmeon Bowers running the point, Auburn's hopes for any sort of positive end to the season seemed lost. Somehow, though, the Tigers were able to pull off the upset of Arkansas. With T.J. Dunans returning to the lineup following that, it seemed maybe there was still something left in the tank. A win over Georgia in Auburn was all the Tigers could muster in the last five conference games, though. The Tigers gave Alabama a good run in Tuscaloosa, but couldn't pull out the win there.
Auburn was the last seed in the SEC Tournament. An absolutely embarrassing loss to Tennessee brought the season to a close.
How did we get from promise and optimism to despair? Well, first the injuries. Then more injuries. Then attitude issues. It wasn't until the last few games of the season that we saw an Auburn team that was really looking like a team playing together. It was too little too late, though.
When it came to actual game play, the Tigers haven't been able to box out in a long time. There were sloppy passes from every player. Fouls were constant. There was no true point guard on the team after Tahj Shamsid-Deen got hurt. Kareem Canty was an excellent shooter, but was not a fantastic point guard in relief of Tahj.
Oh, and the free throw shooting was abysmal.
Were There Bright Spots? Sure, there were plenty of them. We'll get into individual player performances tomorrow, but there's the fact that the team never really looked like they quit until that SEC Tournament game. Even when they were getting beat down, they were still trying.
The Jungle was a big bright spot. The student section stayed fairly packed and were screaming their heads off the whole season.
The only SEC game Auburn didn't lose by double-digits was the second Alabama game. That's not just ugly, that's horrendous.
It's behind a paywall, but a few days back a prominent Auburn writer said that someone noted that the worst locker room issues were gone from the team, now, and they look for that to mean an overall improvement for Auburn next season. Canty was an obvious one. I don't have concrete info on the others, so I won't name names, but I'm sure you can speculate.
There is a lot of talent returning to this team next season, and there will be a lot of talent joining them. We'll get more into that Thursday, though.