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About Last Night: South Carolina 80, Auburn 77

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Things aren’t going as planned...

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn lost its second straight SEC game last night, and the Tigers now stand at 2-3 in the conference, which doesn’t bode well for a team that we thought had a shot for a deep run in March.

What we saw in Columbia was better than what we saw there last season, but it still wasn’t great. Auburn (once again) started out ice cold from the floor, and it seems like *every* *single* *time* out there’s someone on the other team that has “the game of their lives”.

It was that way with South Carolina’s Chris Silva last night, as he went for 32 points and 13 rebounds, dominating the paint on his way to giving early exits to Anfernee McLemore and Horace Spencer due to foul trouble. Auburn put the Gamecocks in the double bonus five minutes and ten seconds into the first half, because the Tigers took way too long to adjust to the way the officials were letting things happen under the basket on both ends of the floor. Let’s be frank — it wasn’t an evenly called game on both ends of the floor, even though the number of fouls turned out to be pretty even at the end of the game.

Hey, it’s great for South Carolina and what they’ve earned under Frank Martin. His style of play has given them a little bit of leeway, especially at home, when it comes to certain actions. Dave Neal and Andy Kennedy on the SEC Network broadcast talked at length about Silva, and how he can get people in foul trouble, or get into quick foul trouble himself. Without looking at the game-by-game box scores, I would imagine that the number of times he gets into bad foul trouble come almost exclusively away from Colonial Life Arena. I would also imagine that his style of play doesn’t change between home and road. I don’t know what Auburn can do about this, because they’ve been horrifically outshot in terms of both free throw attempts and free throw makes in conference play. You may think that it’s because Auburn shoots a huge number of threes, but that’s not enough to bear out the stats.

Enough of that, there are some other things to discuss that will matter every time out. First off, the absence of Mustapha Heron is much more dire than we thought. Last season, there were exactly three games that Heron failed to score double digit points — Temple, Gardner-Webb, and at Alabama — and it’s no coincidence that Auburn went 1-2 in those games.

Auburn won its first four SEC games last season with Heron scoring 16 at Tennessee, 17 against Arkansas, 15 against Ole Miss, and 14 at Mississippi State. Without Heron’s output in those meetings, Auburn loses all four. What we’re seeing now is the absence of a near-automatic 15 points per game. Heron got it almost every single time out, he had a subpar (single-digit) performance less than 10% of the time, and more often than not, he was hitting in the upper teens or twenties.

With Heron doing that every time out, it didn’t matter if either Jared Harper or Bryce Brown had a slow night. As long as one of them was somewhat on, we were going to be more than fine. It also wasn’t mandatory that Anfernee McLemore, Chuma Okeke, or someone else had a huge night. Without Heron, we’re still trying to find a true identity for this team. They’re talented, but they’re not putting it together like they did last year. And now, everyone sees this team as the target. There’s no more 4-14 spurring this group on. When the opposition sees “Auburn” on the front of the jerseys, that’s the motivation.

What’s definite is that the Tigers need a win. At Mississippi State ain’t gonna be a picnic, and there’s a definite likelihood that Auburn comes back home at 2-4 in the conference. That would almost wipe out a shot at the SEC regular season championship. What is good is that Auburn’s already had some of the toughest SEC games it’ll face. Things are going to get easier with four of the five games after this Saturday at home. We need it.