Even Bruce Pearl can’t seem to put a finger on this Auburn basketball team.
The stats make no sense, he says. From the outside, it’s been hard to figure out when the team is going to fall into a slump or when it’s going to catch fire for another magnificent comeback.
But Pearl, at least, knows what it’s supposed to look like with this team.
And when it’s clicking, through four double-digit comebacks in SEC play alone, the Tigers have shown they’re capable of just about anything.
No. 15 Auburn (23-4 overall, 10-4 SEC) hosts Ole Miss (13-14, 4-10) tonight at 6 p.m. at Auburn Arena and on SEC Network, looking to play up to that potential again with the mad postseason in March looming large.
Ole Miss is one of the teams that has fallen victim to one of those supernova Auburn comebacks earlier this season, that coming when the Tigers roared back from down 19 points in the second half to win 83-82 in double overtime in Oxford. They charged back from being down 17 points in the second half to Tennessee last Saturday before winning. Auburn also came back from down 15 against LSU and down 11 at Arkansas, and that’s not to mention a nine-point comeback win at Mississippi State in January. And, as Pearl pointed to Monday, the team has somehow won 23 games despite being 10th in the SEC in shooting percentage.
But as Pearl sees it, Auburn does three things well that he considers among the most critical factors to winning, in rebounding, in holding the advantage among turnovers, and in getting to the free-throw line.
“Offensive efficiency is probably the fourth thing,” he said, surveying things Monday as his team geared up for Ole Miss. “We do three out of those four pretty well.
“And that, combined with having kids that care, kids that aren’t selfish particularly offensively, it’s been good enough to find a way.”
It was enough Saturday for Auburn’s first win without freshman sensation Isaac Okoro, who has returned to practice for Auburn this week and has “a chance” to return to the court against Ole Miss, Pearl said, but hasn’t seen action since he went down late in the last Alabama game with a hamstring pull.
Auburn lost without him at Missouri and then at Georgia, but found better balance offensively in the win over Tennessee. In those two games on the road, steady seniors Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick and Austin Wiley made up most of Auburn’s scoring, combining to tally up 59 of Auburn’s 73 points in the loss to Missouri and 48 of Auburn’s 55 points in the loss to Georgia.
Saturday, Auburn rolled up 26 bench points with those three only having to score 39 of Auburn’s 73 points. Freshmen Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams had nine points and eight points, respectively. All nine players who entered the game scored.
Pearl contributes some of that better balance to playing at home in Auburn Arena, where freshmen like those two and Allen Flanigan, who have five points, tend to be more comfortable.
But that balance is another thing Pearl sees when he looks at this team and imagines what it’s all supposed to look like.
“We had three seniors at Georgia and Missouri that carried the ball and we couldn’t win because ‘Auburn basketball’ is when everybody contributes,” Pearl said. “That is where we are best and so at home we had some other guys definitely contribute, and we had more balance.
“That has been our strength all season long and we need to continue to focus on that.”
Auburn’s game against Ole Miss serves as a precursor to Auburn’s showdown Saturday at Kentucky, but Auburn won’t overlook the Rebels team that swept Auburn last year — and handed Auburn its last home loss at Auburn Arena.
Auburn is a perfect 15-0 at home this season but last lost on its home floor when Ole Miss came to the Plains to beat Auburn 60-55, limiting Auburn’s scoring, nailing shots late in the shot clock and shortening the game and the window of opportunity for Auburn’s then-explosive offense.
Ole Miss had another stout gameplan for Auburn in Oxford earlier this season, mixing its man defense and zone defenses to go up 19 and give Auburn everything it wanted back in that first meeting on Jan. 28.
But Auburn found a way to win again there.
Down the stretch, the Tigers are clawing to do more of just that — whether it makes a lot of sense on the stat sheet or not.