Wednesday November 24th, 2021
Battle 4 Atlantis
Imperial Arena - Nassau, Bahamas
Time: 1:30PM CT
Network: ESPN, Auburn Radio Network
The last few years, Auburn has raised its basketball profile high enough to be invited to several of the prestigious Thanksgiving showcase tournaments around college basketball. Since 2016, Auburn has played in Cancun, Charleston, Maui, Brooklyn, and Ft. Myers over Feast Week, and it’s led to the Tigers getting to match up against premier non-conference opponents like Duke, Xavier, and Gonzaga.
This year, Bruce Pearl leads his team into the most high-profile tournament yet - the Battle 4 Atlantis, at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. The field includes perennial powers Michigan State, UConn, Syracuse, a solid Pac 12 team in Arizona State, two of the best mid-major programs in the country in Loyola-Chicago and VCU, and of course, defending national champion Baylor.
This field is loaded with quality opponents, and Auburn will get three guranteed games this week against them to help improve their resume for March.
Auburn draws #23 UConn in its first game this afternoon in a game that might be the most evenly matched of the four first round tilts today.
Get to Know UConn
The Huskies, lead by Dan Hurley for the last three years, have played some of the best basketball in the country coming into this week. Albeit against a featherweight schedule (LIU is their best opponent, ranked at #275 in KenPom), UConn has won their four games by an average score of 92-51. There has been no struggling in Storrs so far.
Connecticut returns most of their NCAA Tournament team from last season, sans James Bouknight who was a first round draft pick. This is a fairly deep roster that has plenty of experience playing together, with freshmen and newcomers only contributing about 10 total minutes per game.
It’s hard to pick out who the offensive “leader” is on this team, as they have five regulars averaging over 10 points per game. That may be due to extended bench minutes in their blowouts, but it’s impressive nonetheless as it’s indicative of a solid system that the whole roster is comfortable playing in.
In the backcourt, UConn relies on a trio of guards. Senior RJ Cole starts at point guard, and he’s just an all around solid fifth year guy to have leading your team. He’s struggled some from three this year, but he was a 39% shooter from deep last year, so he will be someone to keep an eye on. Andre Jackson will play the 2, and at 6’6” he will be a difficult matchup for KD Johnson and Zep Jasper. Jalen Gaffney will come off the bench as a combo guard and the 6’3” junior is a smoldering 8-13 from three this year.
On the wing is Tyrese Martin, another 6’6” senior. He’s had a great start to the season shooting, and he’s an active rebounder on the offensive end. On paper, his game projects similar to Devan Cambridge’s, so that should be a good matchup to watch.
Down low, UConn’s height advantage falls away, but they have a stable six guys at 6’9” or taller in the front court. Fifth year senior Isiah Whaley starts at the 4, and while he isn’t the most prolific scorer, he was one of the premier shot blockers in the nation last season. The Huskies leading scorer, sophomore Adama Sanogo out of Mali, has avaeraged nearly 16 points per game this season, and was arguable the the best rebounder in the Big East last year. At 6’9”, he may have his work cut out for him against Auburn’s bigs, but it will take a concerted effort to keep him contained.
Keys for Auburn
- The Huskies have played a strange brand of basketball in terms of pace so far. They’re 8th in the nation in length of offensive possession, while they’re 293rd in length of defensive possession. Yet, they’re also 5th in the nation in opponent’s eFG% and defensive turnover rate. They’re going to try to force Auburn into taking bad shots late in the shot clock, or else risk dangerous passes to try and find someone else. This is where Auburn’s good ball security from the first two games needs to be emphasized, as sloppy passing will likely lead to a quick two points the other way.
- UConn has an overall height advantage over Auburn, but that is mostly in the back court. The Huskies have used that size advantage to force opponents into shooting just 24% from three, so it would behoove Auburn to not try and force that if it isn’t there. Instead, this may be the perfect game to let the fearsome foursome in the front court get to work at the basket. Walker Kessler is 4” taller than anyone else he’ll play against, he needs to attack the rim here.
- Due largely to their tendency towards taking two-point attempts (301st in the country in 3PA rate), UConn is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. The Huskies get their own misses at a nearly 44% rate, over 15% higher than the national average. Again, Auburn will need to lean on Kessler and Jabari Smith raking in a healthy amount of rebounds to keep second chance points low.
This is a tough one, because while UConn has played significantly better basketball than Auburn to this point, they’ve done it all at home against some truly bottom of the barrel opponents. I’m going to say Bruce uses the first half struggles this team endured in Tampa to light a fire under his team. The Tigers clamp down defensively in the second half, and Auburn wins 74-65.
Oh, and be on the lookout for Jabari Smith highlights all over the internet this afternoon. This could be a real statement performance for his NBA draft hopes.