It’s been a while since we’ve done a Q&A with another SBN blog, but I really like what the guys down at CollegeandMagnolia.com have been doing over the last few years with their basketball coverage, so when Will McLaughlin approached me about doing a Q&A I thought it was a great opportunity to get a perspective on the Tigers from the Plains of Alabama.
RockMNation: Bruce Pearl has obviously changed the tone and expectations for the Auburn basketball program and turned Auburn Arena into one of the most entertaining venues to watch college basketball in. Considering Auburn is quite clearly a football comes first school, what is next for Pearl and his program as far as expectations in the eyes of the Tiger faithful?
Will McLaughlin, of College&Magnolia.com: Personally, I would love for Auburn to be known as a basketball school, but the reality is, that’s not going to happen. Football is and will always be king in this state. But Bruce Pearl has certainly made things a lot more interesting and fun on the Plains from November-March over the last few years. What Bruce Pearl has done in 5 years here has been nothing short of remarkable. This was a place nobody wanted to come and rebuild and those that had tried left here on bad terms (Tony Barbee). Pearl’s taken a program that people could care less about and made it one of the most fun sports on this campus. The student section has taken on a life of its own since Pearl’s arrival on the Plains. I got here in 2015 during Bruce’s first year, but I’ve heard stories from those here beforehand that you could walk in 5 minutes before tip-off and have a place to sit pre-Bruce Pearl years. That really changed beginning last year, especially once SEC play started and now, if you’re not in line to get in an hour or more before doors open, you can forget having a place in the student section (especially for Saturday games). It’s become one of the loudest student sections in all of College Basketball. I think that in itself is one of the biggest successes of Auburn’s program is the students involvement with Basketball has evolved so much in the 4 1/2 years I’ve been here.
Now, it comes down to being able to sustain that success and there’s been some bumps in the road this year. Auburn came out of nowhere to win the SEC Regular Season last year and went from being the “hunters” to the “hunted.” Expectations for this year’s team were sky high and Auburn hasn’t adjusted to that very well. As far as the fanbase go, I think we have to understand that we are not and will never be Kentucky. Just because Auburn won 1 SEC Regular Season Championship doesn’t mean we’re going to win it every year and people don’t understand that (same thing happens in football here). SEC Basketball has gotten so much better the last couple of years and the reality is that we’re not going to bring in the McDonald’s All-Americans that Kentucky does BUT Bruce is going to bring in those kids that have a chip on their shoulder and will play with the personality that Bruce possesses. There’s a lot of disappointment from the fanbase losing 3 games in a row and it’s definitely understandable but there’s a lot of basketball left to be played. We’ve got a lot of people with the football mentality when it comes to losing games and we have to get over that hump as a fanbase. That’s probably one of the next biggest steps in regards to expectations from the Tiger faithful. Ultimately, reaching the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons would be a remarkable accomplishment for Auburn Basketball.
As for the future, Auburn looks to bring in its best recruiting class ever next year as Bruce has done a phenomenal getting kids out of Georgia, mostly the Atlanta area, to come play at Auburn. Granted, Auburn is only about 100 miles from Atlanta so it’s not too far for these kids to come here. But the future is bright for Auburn Basketball!
RMN: After exploding onto the scene last year the Tigers had high expectations coming into the season with Purifoy and Wiley coming back. Yet they’ve hit a little of a skid of late. What’s gone wrong with Auburn the last couple weeks?
McLaughlin: Wiley sustained a foot injury right before the Kentucky game 2 weeks ago and hasn’t played since (he’s out for this game as well). That was the start of this 3 game losing streak. The Tigers have struggled on the defensive side of the ball giving up 80+ points in each of their last 3 games. This from a team that was only giving up around 65 points a game for a good stretch of the season. Teams have shot the 3-ball really good against us (and that’s my biggest concern playing Missouri) consistently this season. In this 3-game stretch, Auburn’s bigs have struggled and as a result, Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi State dominated in the paint.
Purifoy missed the first 9 games of the year and has struggled to find a role on this team. He went a few games without playing at all and Wiley’s injury has forced Bruce to put him in and try to fit him in the rotation. In addition, the chemistry on last year’s team was incredible and everyone knew their roles. This year, roles have had to change throughout the season with guys in and out of the lineup and that’s played somewhat of a part of why things haven’t gone as well as anticipated.
RMN: Auburn is still blocking shots and turning their opponent over at a higher rate than ever but their overall defense has dipped from last season. What is the reason for the dip, and what does Auburn have to do to fix it?
McLaughlin: Yes, Auburn is one of the better shot blocking teams and can force a lot of turnovers but you’re absolutely right in the sense that our defense has dipped a bit this season. Going into the season, that was one of Bruce’s biggest concerns and until recently, Auburn’s been a pretty good defensive team. We lost one of our best rebounders and toughest guys to transfer in Desean Murray, who I really wish we had right now. We don’t have that excellent gritty rebounder that we did last year and it’s hurt us in some games. Auburn’s also missing Mustapha Heron from last year’s group who was guaranteed for 15 points, 6 rebounds a night. Auburn’s one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the country, which is strange because Auburn’s a good offensive rebounding team. And as I alluded to in previous question, the 3-point defense hasn’t been good. Teams seem to shoot the 3-ball well against us and in addition, a lot of opposing teams have done good at slowing the game down and making those 3s late in a shot clock, demoralizing for a defense.
RMN: Last year and this year the Tigers have been led by their guard play. But with more post options available to him, how has Bruce Pearl handled their interior depth and rotations this season?
McLaughlin: While there’s no question Auburn goes as Jared Harper and Bryce Brown do, they’ve relied much more on getting the ball to their interior guys this season. Auburn has slowed down their offense a little bit compared to last year to accommodate for guys like Wiley. Chuma Okeke has started at the 4 spot all season long and when he’s fully engaged and aggressive, he can be one of Auburn’s best players. Anfernee McLemore started the season at the 5 spot but Austin Wiley took over the starting role towards the end of non-conference play. Now of course, with Wiley hurt, McLemore is back in the starting role. Bruce’s goal was to play Wiley and McLemore about 20 minutes each at the 5 spot but Wiley was beginning to play 25-26 minutes as he was getting more comfortable with the offense and producing as well. The injury couldn’t have come at a worst time for him and Auburn but he’s dealt with foot trouble throughout his time here. Horace Spencer is another interior guy you’ll see a lot of as he brings energy off the bench, isn’t afraid to dive on the floor for a loose ball and has one of the biggest hearts on the team. McLemore and Spencer have dealt with foul trouble a lot more recently and Wiley’s injury has taken away significantly from Auburn’s interior depth.
RMN: What has been the biggest pleasant surprise for you and the Auburn faithful from this team so far this season?
McLaughlin: I think for most fans, they would tell you they’re surprised Auburn’s record is what it is and not a good kind of surprise but if I had to find a pleasant surprise, I’ll go with Malik Dunbar. Dunbar was a Juco guy brought in last year, known more for his highlight-reel dunks than anything else. With the depth on this year’s team, I don’t think many people expected much from him this year. However, he has been more of a scorer, averaging 8 points a game and has improved from 3-point range. He’s been Auburn’s best and most consistent player off the bench. He’s an energy guy like Horace Spencer and there have been games this year that Dunbar’s energy has given the Auburn the boost necessary to win games. He’ll do things that make you wonder what in the world sometimes but then will reward you with some incredible plays as well. We just call that “Classic Malik” around here.
RMN: Last, Missouri comes in with some obvious struggles. How do you see this game playing out and what is your score prediction?
McLaughlin: Auburn has had trouble with teams that play at a slower tempo this year and with Mizzou’s tempo numbers, I’m afraid possessions will be at a premium and the game will favor Mizzou in that aspect. Bottom line is this: this is a must-win game for Auburn. While I’ve been a bit critical in this Q&A, I still believe this team has a run in them and it has to start tonight. They can’t afford to lose another game at home with their well chronicled struggles on the road. Tonight’s the first of 3 straight home games for Auburn and I look for Auburn to get back on track tonight. I think you and I both have very similar score predictions for this one. Auburn 71 Missouri 60
My thanks to Will for taking the time. You can follow him on twitter @ShootyHoopsWill if you’re into following reasonable college hoops fans of the SEC.