Auburn earned its sixth straight win this past weekend, knocking off the 6–4 UAB Blazers. The Tigers’ 8–1 start is the best start since 2011, however, Auburn has yet to play any sort of premier competition. Still, the Tigers are developing into a solid team despite not having Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley. With the semester coming to a close, so does any hope for Purifoy and Wiley to see the court for the Tigers this season, if ever again.
UAB may not be a powerhouse, but with those players in plain clothes and Mustapha Heron missing the contest due to back spasms, it would have been the perfect time for the Blazers to knock off an in-state opponent. However, the players who have been asked to bear extra burden with Purifoy and Wiley out took on even more of a load as the Tigers led from wire to wire to beat the Blazers 85–80.
It was the Bryce Brown show, yet again. The junior was 6–9 from downtown and led all scorers with 27 points. It’s simply astounding to see Brown mature and evolve as a player from the previous two years. Hitting the long shot has never been his problem as he set records as a freshman. Adding his ability as an outside-to-inside threat, instead of simply being a perimeter player, has helped with need for offensive rebounds, an area Auburn has struggled with under Pearl. Brown slashing to the rim creates points in the paint, which is really important, but also important is his dead ball points. Brown was 5–7 from the free throw line.
That isn’t to say that Auburn hasn’t gotten better in the paint. The Tigers added 14 offensive rebounds with transfer forward Desean Murray, who kicked in four, leading the way. He added 18 points on the day as well as an assist and a steal.
Having Murray be the first off of the bench has been instrumental to Auburn’s early success. His experience showed up when he was pressed into a starting role with Wiley’s disappearance from the lineup. He has exceeded Horace Spencer, a Tiger for three years, and staved off freshman Chuma Okeke, who might have been a day-one starter. Murray’s ascent has allowed Spencer and Okeke to provide high quality depth, something Auburn hasn’t had in years.
In addition Jared Harper exploded for 21 points and was Auburn’s second leading scorer. Though he rarely is one of Auburn’s top scorers, he continues to show that he can excel as Auburn’s point guard. Although he is much smaller than Heron, he can turn on the multi-dimensional threat that Heron possesses.
Anfernee McLemore, after a surprising game against Gardner-Webb where he was perfect from downtown and scored a season-high 17 points on 4–4 shooting from beyond the arc, had a quiet game with just five points and nine rebounds against UAB. But, he had an astounding six blocks.
Auburn continues to struggled on defense, specifically closing out teams. The Tigers led by as many as 14 points in the first half but let the Blazers close the gap to as close as 71–70 late in the game. That’s been a common theme for the young Tigers. Still, they came away with a win.
Up next is a Middle Tennessee State squad that has already knocked off Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. It sits at 6–1 with its lone loss being to Belmont. The Blue Raiders are led by senior forward Nick King, who averages 24 points per game, nearly double the next scorer. Only Giddy Potts, the senior guard, plays more minutes than King.
If Auburn can get King into foul trouble early, it can take MTSU down pretty easily. Auburn needs to be careful about fouling King because he’s an 85% free throw shooter, and he is a multi-dimensional player who can and will take three-point attempts. He has the highest scoring average on the team.
Look for MTSU to turn the ball over significantly while trying to force the ball to King. Auburn should have the advantage when Anfernee McLemore takes on the 6′ 7″ King. According to ESPN’s Matchup Predictor, which uses the Basketball Power Index, Auburn has a 58% chance to knock off MTSU.
The game will to be televised on the SEC Network and will tip off Saturday evening at 5:00 PM. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @Best5Zach as I live tweet in-game action.
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