Auburn just has to get better.
That’s the message. The Tigers have spent all season trying to reach for a bar suddenly set sky high. They’ve been bent on proving that last year’s stellar postseason wasn’t a flash in the pan, seemingly focused on that in every workout since last summer.
And now the postseason is near. Suddenly only one game stands between Auburn and the SEC Tournament — entering soon that postseason proving ground that Auburn has had eyes on ever since last year’s run to the Final Four.
But the Tigers aren’t talking tournament now. When Samir Doughty stepped in front of the media after a disappointing loss to Texas A&M on Wednesday, his first words weren’t about seeding or championship expectations.
“Just getting better for the next game,” Doughty said instead.
Yes, before worrying about taking the show on the road, Auburn figures it has some problems to fix in-house first.
Auburn (24-6 overall, 11-6 SEC) closes the regular season Saturday at Tennessee (17-13, 9-8), looking to bounce from a disappointing loss to Texas A&M and to shore up its placement in the SEC Tournament starting March 11. Auburn can enter placed as high as the No. 2 seed and as low as the No. 4 seed depending on how the chips fall this weekend.
But Auburn is more concerned about simply playing better — because, obviously, fine seeding in the postseason won’t matter much if the team isn’t playing well enough to take advantage of it.
“It’s going to be a tough game to beat Tennessee, so we’re really focusing on the next game,” Doughty said. “We can’t do anything about this game — watch a little film, see what we did wrong.
“But like I said, we need to move on as fast as possible if we want to win this next game.”
Auburn gave up 78 points Wednesday to a team that averaged 62.1 per game going in. The Tigers’ defense seemed to struggle at times as Texas A&M seemed to have an answer every other trip down the court and kept Auburn from stringing together scores in a comeback bid.
Auburn also only managed to get to the foul line for 18 free throws, its third-lowest in SEC games this season.
One more: Auburn’s 16 turnovers marked the third-most it’s given up in an SEC game this season, and most in eight games.
Where Auburn is normally good, it wasn’t, and that’s surely more concerning to Auburn than the fact that the Tigers got bit by an upset bug going all around college basketball. Yes, Kentucky lost seemingly inexplicably to Tennessee at home this week, while Alabama lost at home to last-place Vanderbilt, but for Auburn, this loss came through things like defense and the controlling of turnovers which Auburn has been able to hang a hat on for most of this season.
It’s fixable, Doughty said. But now’s the time to fix it.
There won’t be much margin for error left after Saturday.
“They were forcing us to drive in the paint, and they had a few people rotate to take charges,” Doughty said. “We talked about them taking a lot of charges. … We talked about making one more pass; sometimes we didn’t do that. Everything was correctable. But credit to them, they played great defense throughout the game, especially in the first half. They forced us into 13 turnovers in the first half.”
Auburn beat Tennessee 73-66 in the teams’ first meeting Feb. 22, by coming back from 17 points down.
It was a home win over Tennessee in last year’s regular-season finale that propelled Auburn into the SEC Tournament and onto the tournament championship.