By Ken Cross
Last season, like this season, the Auburn Tigers could score the ball on generally anyone. The problem was stopping teams defensively as coach Bruce Pearl’s youthful Tigers were learning the stridence that it took to compete in all phases at an elite level.
Guard Mustapha Heron noted on Saturday that the defensive mantra was built over the summer as the Tigers learned and applied it to their on-floor activities. In the end, it manifested itself as the players worked hard in the weight room and got physically stronger.
“We just put more emphasis on it and trying to play hard and we just had to get in better shape,” said Heron.
So now as the Tigers won a through 78-61 contest over Georgia on Saturday and then look at Kentucky in Auburn Arena Wednesday, that defensive identity has been developed to the point where they have accrued a defensive efficiency rating of 37 on kenpom.com after finishing at 147 a year ago.
“We weren’t a very good defensive club a year ago and it cost us so many games,” said Pearl, “It put so much pressure on our offense. We were one of the leading scoring teams in the league last year and we couldn’t get stops, we couldn’t get rebounds, we couldn’t finish plays by taking charges.”
Even after losing Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, Auburn still out-rebounds it’s opponents by 4.2 per game. The team uses it’s versatility and athleticism to get around bigger players in the paint and to get deflections. The group also gets a quicker leap off the floor to secure rebounds or taps back out to the perimeter. Anfernee McLemore continues to impress on defense and on the glass and at 6-7, he leads Auburn in blocked shots with 24.
That recipe worked nicely in Saturday’s win. Auburn out-rebounded a bigger Georgia team, 31-27. One of the interesting points was that even with Yante Maten patrolling the lane, Auburn still scored 17 points off eight offensive rebounds and held Georgia to only five offensive boards.
“I thought we did a good job and you know to hold Georgia to five offensive rebounds is really something,” said Pearl, “We mixed up defenses and did everything we could to lengthen their possessions. They only took 49 shots and part of that was full court pressure in making them get the ball up the floor.”
Freshman Davion Mitchell continues to step up on the defensive end for the Tigers. His on-ball defense has been really good and he has helped this team continue to build into a defensive mindset that will not waver.
“Davion Mitchell – that was one of his best games for us, but his ability to defend on the ball really affected Georgia’s ability to get into their offenses and the farther you can push those guys out, the farther it is for Maten and then on the catch, but he still gets 20,” Pearl commented, “I thought we made their catches difficult and Davion played with great confidence for a freshman.”
Each of the nine players in the rotation plays a key role and creates a presence with their individual styles of play. All of those are prolific and a tremendous addition to the Tigers. That diversity of play is a huge reason Auburn stands as a Top 10 team and 22-3, 10-2 in the SEC, with just three weeks until the conference tournaments.
As for the offense, with Bryce Brown missing, Jared Harper stepped up and had a career high 24 points while dishing seven assists. He called his plays with efficiency while helping the Tigers force 13 turnovers and convert 25 points off those.
“Chemistry, toughness resilience – that’s what make teams special and this team has been really, really, really good,” said Pearl.