The 2016-17 Auburn Men’s Basketball season started with more anticipation and expectation from Tiger fans than any season in recent memory. Auburn fans could name you four freshmen they were excited about seeing play basketball for the first time probably ever. I was caught up in the hype. Mustapha Heron youtube videos were coming up in my suggested youtube feed every day. I watched them all. I was so ready for this dead-eyed young James Harden to take Auburn Basketball to the next level. He had the stare of a Great White Shark, or maybe just Nick Marshall. Either way, I wanted to see him dominate the SEC.
Austin Wiley was a rumor. We heard he might start playing as early as this season, but I was hesitant to believe the NCAA would do something that smart in regards to Auburn Basketball. Speaking of the NCAA, it had set free the beautiful bird that is Danjel Purifoy and we were all so enamored by what he could do.
So here we are. What did we just see? Are we disappointed, or are we hopeful? I asked some of the other writers on this site to give me their take on the Auburn season in 3 words or less. I will be using those throughout this piece. We are just like you, and we are still trying to make sense of what just happened.
“3 and Auburn”- Ryan Sterritt
1998-99: Considered by many to be the best season in Auburn history. Auburn earned a number one seed into the NCAA tournament. Chris Porter and his afro were on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was a magical time. It was also the last time Auburn averaged 80 points per game. Until this season. This year, Auburn was an offensive machine, especially in transition. When Auburn dictated the tempo of the game, it would blow teams out of the water for stretches.
Auburn shot more threes than all but one team in the SEC this year, and had the highest 3 point percentage in the entire conference. On the other end of the court, Auburn gave up more made threes than all but one team in the SEC and Auburn’s opponents shot a higher percentage from three against the Tigers than any other SEC team but one. No team exemplified the “live by the three, die by the three” cliche more than Auburn this season.
Basketball is a funny game—usually a team as good at Offense as Auburn was this season wins a lot more games than Auburn did. Auburn was in so many games against really good teams and just couldn’t get it done on defense.
“So Frustratingly Close”- Walt Austin
This is the sentiment most often expressed in the comments on the game threads. We are equally as frustrated by this team as we are excited about how close we came to being relevant. Auburn doesn’t have any business having success in basketball, to be honest. Since 1990, only 15 different schools have won a basketball national championship. It’s a hard club to break into. I think we can all appreciate how bare the cupboard was for Coach Pearl when he got here and if we can’t we can look at the roster and see how many of these players got playing time for both Pearl and Barbee. Only Devin Waddell played on this team and one of Barbee’s teams, and he wasn’t a starter for either squad. This Auburn team has zero players on it who spent all four years of their career at Auburn and it has managed to win more games than any Auburn team in nine years. Senior leadership can win you games, and Auburn had to go out and get some in the form of one-year rentals Ronnie Johnson and LaRon Smith. Johnson played extremely well for stretches of the season, but faded in the last four games. Smith was replaced by 17-year-old Austin Wiley.
If Auburn doesn’t make a postseason tournament it can look back on four losses: two to Georgia and two to Ole Miss, respectively. Auburn led in all four of those games, but blew leads in the second half in each. Auburn lost those four games by a total of 22 points, but only one of them (the first UGA game) ended in a double-digit loss. Ole Miss and UGA are both really good basketball teams, and Auburn had them on the ropes. Winning those games gives Auburn 22 wins and probably a berth into the big Tournament. Experience wins those games for the Tigers next season.
“We Got Better”- James Jones
This is the sentiment we need to have. The Auburn men’s basketball program was effectively turned into a newt by various administrative decisions, coaching hires, transfers, and a lack of support. It got better. The arena was rocking, the tickets were selling, and the team was scoring. The Pearl hire was the definition of a home run because it took a dead program and gave it life. Auburn went from the 156th best offense in America under Barbee to 33rd this season. Auburn improved its points per game production from last year to this year by 10 points per game—from dead last in the SEC in points per game to second. Last year’s team had its top three scorers graduate or be dismissed and Auburn improved in every single offensive statistic.
Auburn got better. Auburn is now a tough matchup for every team in this conference because if you have an off night shooting, Auburn can drop a hammer on you. Defensively, there is massive work to be done, but it is easier to fix a defense in basketball than to fix an offense.
“Atrocious Zone Offense”-Dr. Z
Yeah, if there was one thing about the offense that seemed to be less-than-great, it was when Auburn needed to milk a possession. If Auburn was forced to slow it down—either by the other team or to hold a lead—it had a really hard time doing so. If opponents were ever able to get set on defense, Auburn didn’t really have much in the way of set offense to work the ball around and get baskets. That’s partially on Bruce to draw something up, but it is mostly on the guys on the floor. Some of the best teams in all of basketball run a flow-based offensive system—meaning the fast break sets up the offense and each pass leads to a particular cut that just keeps flowing until someone is eventually open. Thats a crummy way to explain it, but suffice to say it is less based on “plays” and more on concepts. The Warriors, for instance only have about five plays, but they run this free-flow offense masterfully. Auburn is running similar sets, from what I can gather and (sometimes) doesn’t have the ability to adapt to doing it against zone defenses who are already in position. Another year of offseason work, and we will see this improve.
“Just So Almost”-me
We will see what the SEC Tournament brings us. Will we live to fight another day or will we end this season with the slow release of a untied balloon from the dentist’s office? Either way, this Auburn season has been a blast to watch. Points are fun! I wish we were better at defense, but I’d rather suck at one thing than suck at everything.
If you want to summarize the regular season in three words, feel free to do so in the comments.
War Eagle, Get Buckets.
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