Goin’ streaking? Auburn looks poised for deep NCAA Tournament run

AUBURN, AL - FEBRUARY 01: Samir Doughty #10 of the Auburn Tigers reacts as the final seconds wind down in the second half of the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Auburn Arena on February 1, 2020 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
AUBURN, AL - FEBRUARY 01: Samir Doughty #10 of the Auburn Tigers reacts as the final seconds wind down in the second half of the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Auburn Arena on February 1, 2020 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images) /

After Auburn basketball made the Final Four a year ago, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers are on track for another deep run in the 2020 NCAA Tournament.

Auburn basketball is about to go on another run as they did all the way to the Final Four last year.

When the Auburn Tigers entered the 2019 NCAA Tournament, no one wanted to play Bruce Pearl’s squad. They were led by guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper who launched a barrage of 3-point attempts that led them to the Final Four.

After the departures of Brown and Harper, Pearl and Auburn faced questions about whether they were a one-year wonder. They are unquestionably a different team than they were a year ago but that doesn’t mean they are any less dangerous and capable of a big-time run in March.

Coming off of Tuesday’s overtime win over a feisty Arkansas team and eyeing Friday’s tilt against the SEC-leading LSU Tigers, Auburn is 20-2 on the season but curiously sits as the No. 11 team in the country. Their ranking, however, should not color the perception of what this team is.

Senior guard Samir Doughty is very much the go-to guy for the Tigers after the departures of Brown and Harper and has lived up to the billing, averaging 15.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 steals. Doughty is followed closely behind by Isaac Okora and J’Von McCormick, both of whom are averaging double figures on the season, 13.0 and 11.0, respectively.

That trio has stepped up to fill the void left by the previous backcourt stars for the Tigers but, in a bit of contrast, this year’s Auburn team is more balanced in terms of the scoring. While only those three players average double-digit points per game, Auburn has six players averaging 8.0 or more points per game on the year. Last season, the Tigers only had Brown, Harper and Chuma Okeke averaging more than 7.5 points per game.

However, the balanced offensive game isn’t the only key to Auburn’s success thus far in the 2019-20 season. A testament to the coaching ability of Pearl who, despite his flaws and previous transgressions remains an elite director on the sidelines, the Tigers have adopted a completely different style of play than what they put on the floor a season ago.

As mentioned, Auburn was a team that thrived with the 3-point shot last season, having their four leading scorers shoot 37.0 percent or better from the outside. They pushed the pace to break-neck levels and were looking to get as many looks as they could to bomb away from deep. But with their shooting taking a dip, Pearl has adapted.

While the Tigers’ 3-point shooting has dropped by almost 7 percent from last season, they are only averaging 0.4 points fewer per game as a team. They are not the efficient, deep-shooting team from a year ago but they have utilized the size they have both in the frontcourt and backcourt to become a lethal rebounding team that continues to create opportunities.

Auburn is averaging almost seven more rebounds per game than they did last season and it’s been a complete team effort in doing so. Six players — coincidentally, the six leading scores — on the Tigers roster are averaging 3.9 or more boards per game with four of those players grabbing at least 4.5 rebounds per contest. Wiley leads the charge with 8.9 per night.

Because of the way the Tigers have adopted a new style of play, they aren’t getting the same buzz as a potential March Madness dark horse. It’s not hard to understand why given how many people tend to gravitate towards the 3-point shooting teams given what they can accomplish when they get rolling from deep. At the same time, that shouldn’t make this iteration of Auburn any less dangerous.

To tip-off February, the Tigers welcomed Kentucky for a date and they handled their business against the Wildcats in a 75-66 win. And this isn’t the first time they’ve done so against top-tier competition. Pearl’s club is 10-2 on the season against Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 teams on the season when it comes to the NET rankings and has no losses outside of Quad 1. They have more than proven capable of competing at the highest level.

If you’re expecting Pearl to unleash hell with a ton of pace and shooting as he did last year in making it to the Final Four, then you’re going to be sorely mistaken when you watch these Tigers play. But if you do see them flirting with another trip to the Final Four in spite of that, don’t be surprised either.

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