The No. 11 Auburn Tigers have not captured a victory at the Pavilion in nearly ten years. After a strong second half from junior guard Bryce Brown, the Tigers stormed out of Oxford, Mississippi with a 79-70 comeback win over rival Ole Miss. Coach Bruce Pearl’s team now sits at 8-1 in SEC conference play, holding a two game lead over second place Kentucky. Let’s take a look at why the Tigers have defied expectations this season, and why they are equipped to continue to defy doubters come March.
Second Half Dominance
A common theme for Pearl’s Tigers this season has been breaking away from inferior competition in the second half of games. In Auburn’s 79-65 victory over Georgia, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 40-26 lead at halftime, holding Auburn to 25 percent shooting from the field. Pearl, as he has done all season, engineered the necessary adjustments on both offense and defense during the break. This led to an offensive explosion by the Tigers, with Brown pouring in 25 of his 28 points in the second half and sophomore guard Mustapha Heron adding 14 points.
Auburn has scored 50 points in the second half eight times this season with five of them coming against SEC opponents. Pearl has credited his players for having the willpower and resiliency to close out games. Brown has consistently shown the ability to turn on a second gear on both ends of the floor at will this season. Auburn has the unique blend of calmness, intensity and belief in one another which allows them to climb out of significant deficits in any situation and slam the door on any comeback it faces.
Nine Man Rotation
Unlike some of the other top contenders in the nation, Pearl has the ability to roll out a nine man rotation every game. This depth allows Pearl to create mismatches against any line-up. All nine players average at least 13 minutes per game and this allows Pearl to wear down opponents as each game progresses. It also allows Auburn to ramp up the on and off ball pressure on defense, understanding that they can withstand foul trouble to any certain player.
Come postseason play, teams that roll out primarily six or seven man rotations feel the effect of tired legs. Pearl is unafraid to ride the players who produce for him on a game-by-game basis. This depth provides Pearl with versatility in both creating game plans and adjusting match-ups mid-game.
The Emergence of Bryce Brown
After Auburn suspended both Austin Wiley, a former five-star recruit, and Danjel Purifoy indefinitely for their potential involvement in a federal court investigation against former Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person. Most pundits wrote off Pearl’s squad as both Wiley and Purifoy were potential starters for Auburn this season. In order to have a successful season, Pearl needed one of his upperclassmen to step up and lead his team.
Brown has averaged 16.6 points per game, more than double than his average last season. He has been lethal from behind the arc as well, shooting 40.3 percent from three point range this season. In addition to his dominance of the stat sheet, Brown has been the heart and soul of this Tiger team, sparking second half runs with his play-making ability on and off the ball.
Defense Wins Championships
Perhaps Pearl’s most impressive accomplishment on the season is the turnaround of Auburn’s defense. According to KenPom rankings, Auburn’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 25th in the nation. Pearl’s defense is predicated on heavy on ball pressure with the intention of forcing turnovers. This style of play allows Auburn to rattle its opponents while slowly burning out their energy.
This is where Auburn’s depth plays to its advantage. Pearl can utilize all nine of his rotational players to maintain this intensity for all 40 minutes of playing time. He can continually send in fresh legs to stabilize the pressure as Auburn’s opponents slowly burn out.
Auburn has defied expectations all season long by taking care of business against inferior opposition. However, with games against Kentucky, Alabama, and at Florida remaining, the Tigers must figure out how to consistently show up for all 40 minutes. Pearl’s squad has a chance to solidify a number two seed in the big dance if they continue to manhandle SEC competition. Based on the way the Tigers have rallied around each other this season, anything is possible.
Featured image by Rogelio V. Solis/AP
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