By Ken Cross
As the clock wound down on Auburn’s 89-64 win over UConn on Saturday, the Tigers hopefully have finally given notice that yes, the are a player in the SEC and yes, they are a national player that will be a tough out, barring injury, through the upcoming SEC season.
With the SEC at it’s deepest in certainly the last 25 years, the attention in the league has of course gone to Kentucky and Florida in the preseason. Texas A&M finally garnered attention with it’s non-conference schedule and the wins therein.
— Auburn Basketball (@AuburnMBB) December 24, 2017
Now, as Auburn is still without Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, coach Bruce Pearl has done an impressive job of putting the pieces together and building the chemistry around nine players who average double figures in minutes as Bryce Brown leads four players in double figures at 16.2 ppg.
“We were bought here to bring credibility and competitiveness to men’s basketball,” said Pearl, “I’m pleased with that. It’s a big win for our program. The focus is on the kids. Focus every ounce of this on the players they are the ones that have stayed together.”
Junior forward Horace Spencer embodies the look of how unselfish this team is and how the players have solidified the team’s bonds in allowing chemistry to develop. When Anfernee McLemore took his game to another level, Pearl added him into the starting lineup and had Spencer come off the bench. Spencer, who is McLemore’s work out partner, never wavered as he continued to see double figures in minutes and solid production across the boards.
“Horace Spencer didn’t drop his effort, his attitude, his leadership, his toughness one bit,” said Pearl, “When other teammates on a team see that, it’s contagious. Don’t worry about shots when you have leadership like Horace Spencer has given us.”
Pearl laid the ground work and built the foundation in his first three years as there were obvious ups and downs as the previous regime generally didn’t recruit SEC caliber talent and the program fell to the bottom of the SEC. However in year four, the Tigers are beginning to defend the way Pearl’s teams at Tennessee, Milwaukee, and Southern Indiana where they consistently made stops and turned great defense into easy offense with points off turnovers.
Auburn has forced 15.9 turnovers per game and averaged 19 points off those per night while holding the opposition to 40.1 percent from the field over the first 12 games. They have a major shot-blocking presence in Anfernee McLemore, who has 37 shot blocks on the season. The improvements in this team are astounding, but defensively, Pearl will tell you that this team’s defense is far from a finished product.
Saturday, that defense took on a strong look as well with Bryce Brown guarding UConn’s leading scorer Jalen Adams and holding him to 14 points as he shot 5-of-15 from the field.
“He has got a tremendous head cold,” said Pearl of Brown, “He comes in this morning, and you could just see he was kind of drained from all the medication. I don’t know if you had a chance to talk to Jalen Adams, but I guarantee he would tell you that Bryce guarded him as well as anybody, I would think.”
Brown, Jared Harper, and Mustapha Heron have turned into one of the most solid backcourts in the nation as they all averaged double figures with Brown netting 16.2 ppg. Desean Murray, who averages 11.1 ppg., has come in as a transfer from Presbyterian where he led the Big South in scoring two years ago and averaged a team-leading 7.8 rebounds per evening while scoring 11.1 per night.
Then, Auburn’s bench averages around 25 points per game as Pearl’s teams always feature a deep and productive group coming off the bench. The Tigers do not see any drop off the substitutions.
“When we go to the bench, we don’t really drop off – Malik (Dunbar) played really well tonight and Davion (Mitchell) had one of his best games,” explained Pearl, “Chuma (Okeke) is so quiet – had eight rebounds. You don’t even notice him out there. Chuma is a guy, in the back half, I am going to challenge even though he is a freshman.”
Amazingly, even with the dynamic of Pearl on the bench, the Tigers haven’t gotten received any national TV attention as of yet and they do not even have a date on ESPN or ESPN2 until they play Kentucky and Texas A&M on back-to-back Saturdays in February. The Tigers have been terribly under-represented on national TV and not ranked in a year in which they are part of the volcano that is SEC basketball. Continuing to win at this level is the only remedy for that ill.
“I told the kids all week ESPN was coming to town, not to watch us, but they are coming to watch UConn,” exclaimed Pearl, “They’ve been on, as they should, on a lot. They’ve been on for Oregon with the Nike festival and against Arizona. We only been on ESPN two, maybe three times this year. You have to take advantage of it.”