At times it’s been both very easy and incredibly tough to like the hire of Bruce Pearl at Auburn.
Very clearly the move was a bold one, and everything which followed Pearl to the plains of Alabama has been surprising and almost expected.
So essentially the last four seasons for Pearl and the Tigers have been two-faced. Full of excitement and progress and recruiting wins, full of off the court troubles and plenty of losses on the court. There’s been no shortage of news at least.
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As the season was set to tip, nobody quite knew what to make of Auburn. I had them preseason #8 but never felt good about it. The talent on the roster was so deep due to the recruiting wins off the court I mentioned, and Pearl had steadily helped this team to win more games each year.
But the FBI came in and rocked college basketball, arrested Auburn’s Associate Head Coach Chuck Person, and summarily forced Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy to sit out and suddenly two of Auburn's top three or four players were out.
An early slate proved the right blend of confidence booster and win padding as Auburn only face one top-100 team in their first nine opponents. They started by beating everyone not in the top 100 (7-1) before squeaking by some solid mid-tier teams by winning against UAB, Middle Tennessee and on the road against Murray State. By that point, they’re rolling and would rattle off 14 straight wins before finally succumbing on the road to Alabama. In that mix, a road win at Tennessee. All in all, not bad.
If there’s a knock, Auburn has just two top 50 wins, both in league play and only Tennessee was ranked. Missouri will be the second highest KenPom rated team (currently 35th) to face Auburn, and the rest of their schedule is on the easier side, with Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M all getting the Tigers once.
They’re a good rebounding team but one without elite size. Part of that comes from 6’3” combo forward DeSean Murray, who boasts a 13.1% offensive rebound rate and a 20.7% defensive rebound rate. In all the Tigers have three players with offensive rebound rates over 10%.
- PG: Jared Harper v. Jordan Geist
- CG: Bryce Brown v. Kassius Robertson
- WING: Mustapha Heron v. Jordan Barnett
- CF: DeSean Murray v. Jontay Porter
- POST: Anfernee McLemore v. Jeremiah Tilmon
Despite Porter’s struggles in College Station, I’d expect Cuonzo Martin to stick with the same five here. Pearl has a ton of flexibility with his lineup, but he started this five against Georgia and I like this lineup. It has a healthy balance of offense and defense.
The obvious matchup to watch here would be Heron versus Barnett. Both wings are highly athletic with the ability to stretch the floor and attack the rim.
But the more intriguing lineup matchup for me is the undersized front line of Auburn versus the Tigers young bigs. Murray’s exceptional rebounding for his size against Jontay’s skill, and McLemore’s defensive prowess confronting Tilmon’s aggression around the rim.
And yet, that doesn’t even bring up the point guards. Missouri has an obvious weakness at the position but one that has been relatively shored up with Geist's recent play. If you want to worry about a matchup this is probably the one you worry about. Harper likes to get his defender in a pick-and-roll and attack downhill and Geist struggles in that area.
Missouri is all around less efficient, plays slower, turns the ball over more but shoots at a higher percentage.
I’m about to be basic but... Mizzou really needs to break out of their slump, and I’m looking hard at Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson as guys who need to play really well. And it would also be ideal for Jontay Porter to start making his shots again.
Honestly, the way the Tigers have been playing defense the last few weeks has been encouraging, but the dip in offensive production has been equally as discouraging. What the Tigers really need is to see some early shots go in. Whether that means attacking with Tilmon on the inside or seeing Kassius or Barnett get a couple early open shots to drop, it doesn’t matter. They can’t afford to give Auburn the necessary breathing room at home early.
Auburn is far from infallible. They’re good, and legitimately so. Matt’s breakdown of their offense gives you an idea of why they find a lot of easy scores. Missouri is good enough defensively to give Auburn trouble, particularly on the road. But Auburn’s athleticism and ability to attack the tin gives them advantages Tennessee didn’t have.
Auburn wants to play at a higher pace and get things going in transition. Cuonzo would love to make this game into another rock fight. So if we see this game in the mid 60’s you have to feel like Missouri is doing its job of controlling the pace and flow. You almost think Mizzou needs this win more than the Auburn Tigers, who are coming in at 5-1 in league play. Win and you’re looking at 4-3 with a chance to catch a road win at Mississippi State. Lose and you’re almost having to win in Starkville just to stay on pace.