Auburn men’s basketball has the odds-on favorite to go No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft on its roster. It has two possible lottery picks in its front court. All it had to do was win a couple games in the conference tournament, and its No. 4 AP Poll ranking most likely would’ve translated into one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers lost to on-the-bubble Texas A&M on Friday in their first game of the SEC tourney. If you watched it, it featured a classic March Madness formula for an upset: Pressure the guards into hero ball tactics, and force the all-world front court to think hectic, forced shots are good shots because they’ve barely touched the ball all game.
That prospect, Jabari Smith, shot 5-16 on the day, scoring 17 points, and saving his stat line with late 3s after his team fell down by as many as 20 in the second half. Wendell Green almost spoiled the Aggies’ upset, hitting a few deep 3s as the regular-season SEC champion narrowed the lead late but could never pull ahead.
Walker Kessler, Auburn’s other possible lottery pick, played with a shoulder sleeve and contributed 16 points, nine rebounds, four blocks, and three steals. Smith, Green, and Walker were the only Tigers in double digits, as the team combined to go 9-36 from deep and shoot 30 percent from the field overall.
Credit to Buzz Williams for having a game plan as well put together as his suit, and guard Quentin Jackson for his turnover-negating chase-down block after what would’ve been a crucial giveaway late. The Aggies also only had three players in double digits, but they hit free throws to seal it and made half of their 3s.
I know Bruce Pearl took Auburn to the Final Four in 2019, but this isn’t that team. That team, led by Chuma Okeke, Bryce Brown, and Jared Harper, shot 30 3s a game, fourth in all of college basketball, and hit nearly 38 percent of them (via Sports-Reference). Had Okeke stayed healthy, this “Yeah, but…” about Pearl may not be happening, but it did happen so now this is happening.
Pearl is a cheap John Calipari knockoff, who can get recruits and rack up regular-season wins, and both resort to screaming without a plan when it’s time to make adjustments. The difference is Calipari’s recruits have been able to overcome bad coaching while Pearl is still in search of players he can’t hold back.
This Auburn team is more talented than the 2019 iteration, but they are not as well-suited for guard-oriented anarchy, and they’ll have to execute and not rush like Smith did when he short-armed an open floater during their failed comeback.
Also, those 36 attempted 3s are 11 more than they shoot on average, and the Tigers are making a meager 32 percent of them on the year. That’s fine when you score almost 80 points a game, but time and again we’ve seen tournament games devolve into shooting contests, and that’s what they have to avoid.
Perhaps now that the Tigers will likely be a 2 seed, the betting masses who know Smith, maybe Kessler, and no one else on this team will be a little more cautious before advancing them into the Elite 8 and beyond. I think Smith is a can’t-miss prospect, too, but entrusting my bracket to Pearl is a perilous exercise, and one that I’ll be shying away from.
Texas A&M has now won six straight, but Joe Linardi had them in his last four out on ESPN after the game. They’re extremely hot, and they’ll have to stay that way to sneak into the Big Dance. If they play the way they played Friday — like bracket busters — they could earn an opportunity to show that they’re capable of upsetting a team on college basketball’s biggest stage.