Scouting Report: Auburn

The non-conference journey is over. The SEC season begins. It's time for the Vanderbilt Commodores to stand up to Kentucky and Florida and build the resume they will need to get into the NCAA Tournament. In order to prove that they're on the same plane as the Wildcats and Gators, however, they need to show they can take care of business against the SEC West.


No, Vanderbilt doesn't need to play its best game on Saturday afternoon when the 2012 SEC season begins against Auburn. However, a team whose level of focus has wildly fluctuated over the past month and a half has no business looking past anyone on the conference slate. Vanderbilt, which did not look particularly impressive this past Monday against Miami University after whacking Marquette a week ago, has to get to a point where it can deliver high-level performances on a consistent basis. The Jekyll-and-Hyde identity cultivated by this program over the past few years is precisely why VU has been bounced in the first round of the NCAAs. Teams can't flip the switch at certain times; they need to be fundamentally sound, rugged in nature, and mentally armored throughout the course of an SEC season. This team has given away bad losses at home in each of the past few SEC campaigns. Arkansas and South Carolina could tell you all about it. Therefore, even though Auburn sets a low standard, there should be no cause for complacency in the VU camp, because Vanderbilt's basketball history shows that complacency is a foremost demon for the Dores. This SEC season – given the relative paucity of achievements in the non-conference slate (Marquette being the only poker chip for the selection committee) – has to become a season in which VU gives away no bad losses and is still able to win twice against Kentucky and Florida, pick any combination. A dedication to excellence has to be reaffirmed this Saturday against a lower-tier SEC West foe.

AUBURN AT-A-GLANCE

The Tigers are not about to thrive in the 2012 SEC season, but the good news for coach Tony Barbee is that his team is better than it was a season ago, when Auburn and LSU lived in the SEC cellar. Auburn actually has a couple of decent wins to its credit this season. The Tigers whipped a not-that-bad South Florida squad in December – yes, the same South Florida team that just won by 17 points at Villanova earlier this week – and they also won a road game in a tournament setting, topping Hawaii at the Diamond Head Classic just before Christmas. Hawaii then beat Xavier and Clemson in that same tournament on its home court, so Auburn really achieved something when it edged the Warriors by three points in Honolulu.

Good wins aside, Auburn's overall level of quality is still relatively low. The Tigers possess a measure of length on their roster – a lot of rangy perimeter players with considerable wingspan – but they're not supremely polished or skilled at the offensive end of the floor. In those two aforementioned victories over South Florida and Hawaii, Auburn averaged under 60 points per game. This is a team that will beat appreciably talented opponents only by defending at a very high level and creating a rock fight with stacks of missed shots and loads of ugly, grind-it-out possessions. It's really rather simple, then: Vanderbilt and Auburn are polar opposites. A game based on smooth, precise offensive execution will favor the Dores to the –nth degree; Auburn needs to make this game as ugly as humanly possible.

Starting Lineup

Center – Rob Chubb – Junior, 6-10, 242; 2011-12:
10.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg

Chubb is best described as a serviceable center. He's not hugely powerful, but he fills the middle with more size and bulk than anyone else on Auburn's roster. He is a limited big man, though, in that he has earned just 30 free throws in a month and a half. That statistic tells you that Chubb is not light on his feet; he doesn't possess the low-post moves or the instinctual quickness that are needed to outmaneuver defenders and get the body leverage needed to accumulate a low of foul shots.

Forward– Kenny Gabriel – Senior, 6-8, 209; 2011-12: 12.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 3.1 blocked shots per game

This is the player who stirs the drink for the Tigers. Gabriel is not quite a five-point player – he needs to become a better pure shooter in order for that to be the case – but he does everything else extremely well to lead the charge for Auburn. Gabriel's passing is solid, but his three biggest tools are his defense, his rebounding, and his ability to score near the basket. It's quite impressive to behold for a player with his comparatively modest size: Usually, one would think that you need to be a tall tree – with long limbs – to average three blocked shots per game, but Gabriel does so at 6-8, a terrific accomplishment. The fact that he's able to provide that level of help defense and still snag eight boards per game speaks to his basketball IQ and his energy on the court. Moreover, Gabriel's one-two combo of blocks and rebounds doesn't prevent him from being Auburn's best scorer. If Barbee had more players like Gabriel (and also Frankie Sullivan; see below…), Auburn basketball would have a chance to make a name for itself once again.

Guard – Noel Johnson – Sophomore, 6-6, 200 2011-12: 1.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, only 5 games played this season

Johnson is representative of Auburn's limitations. Barbee – knowing that he doesn't have an abundance of meal-ticket scorers – has been tinkering with one of the spots in his starting lineup, looking for the right combination. At some points in the season, Chris Denson has been Auburn's fifth starter. On other occasions, specifically during the second and third games of the Diamond Head Classic, Josh Langford was given a chance to take the floor as part of the Tigers' starting five. Now, Johnson's getting a turn as a starter, beginning with Auburn's 85-56 loss at Florida State on Jan. 4. With only five games and minimal minutes to his credit, Johnson is very much a mystery, but the early sense is that he's an energy guy who will commit to defense and rebounding. If he can provide those ingredients in copious amounts, Barbee will likely stick with him as the season unfolds.

Guard – Frankie Sullivan – Junior, 6-1, 206; 2011-12: 12.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.6 assists per game

Sullivan also rates as a player whom Barbee can and should trust with extended minutes in the SEC season. Alongside Gabriel, he demonstrates a level of holistic excellence which Auburn needs more of on the recruiting trail. He's not a lethal long-distance shooter – no one on the Tigers is – but Sullivan definitely has a nose for both the ball and the rim. He finds his way through defenses and is a competent passer. Because Gabriel devotes so much energy to shot blocking and point guard Varez Ward (see below) commits himself to the glass, Sullivan is the man who – more than anyone else on the AU roster – needs to be a bit more selfish in looking for his own shot. Sullivan can maximize Auburn's chances of winning by seeking more opportunities at the offensive end of the floor.

Guard – Varez Ward – Junior, 6-2, 208; 2011-12: 9.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.3 apg

Ward is a coach's dream. As the point guard and facilitator for Barbee's offense, Ward takes it upon himself to serve his team. He subjugates his point production to other more important causes, and he does this at both ends of the floor. On offense, Ward's first priority is to get his teammates involved. On defense, Ward helps Gabriel, Sullivan and Chubb on the glass, giving Auburn a gang-rebounding dimension that Vanderbilt and other SEC opponents will have to be mindful of. Ward owns a classic point guard's commitment to ball distribution and movement, but – in a departure from a normal point guard – he plays a rugged, blue-collar game and risks his body in the paint to pull down rebounds. Ward doesn't need to be defended or countered as a scorer; he needs to be dealt with as a passer and – chiefly – a rebounder.

Bench

Precisely because Auburn doesn't possess five-star talent (with the possible exception of Gabriel), Barbee must use a lot of bodies in search of the right matchups and combinations. If you look through Auburn's season and Barbee's distribution of minutes, you'll notice that he turned over parts of the lineup in the second and third games of the Diamond Head Classic, against Long Beach State and UTEP. Barbee wanted to use that tournament in Hawaii as a time to find out what he had. He lengthened his rotation and has made the Tigers a 10-man team instead of an eight-man outfit. This past Wednesday against Florida State, at least nine players received at least 16 minutes of action; that's consistent with an approach built on creating interchangeable parts, the opposite of a star system in which four or all five starters are expected to play at least 33 minutes per night. Perhaps Barbee will shorten his rotation for the SEC, but the sense here is that he'll keep it at nine or ten players for this league opener against Vanderbilt.

You noticed in the section on Noel Johnson that Barbee has used Chris Denson and Josh Langford as spot starters during the course of the season, but they're going to be on the bench for this contest. The other Auburn reserves you're likely to see in this game are center Willy Kouassi, forward Adrian Forbes, and guard Josh Wallace, who all played 16 minutes against Florida State. None of these three players offer any appreciable statistical production. They're expected to play defense and enable Auburn to generate a maximum of energy for 40 minutes each gameday. Only Denson – averaging 11 points per game – and Langford (at 6.8 points per contest) provide an appreciable degree of scoring punch for the Tigers.

Keys to the Game

1) Give the bench extended minutes... but ending this game early.
The long grind of a conference season demands the ability to beat vastly inferior foes by convincing margins, thereby limiting the strain placed on starters (looking at you, Festus Ezeli) and saving everyone's best for the big boys such as Kentucky and Florida. Vanderbilt can play a lot of players in this game, but it can do so in two different ways. The Dores' starting five can struggle, thereby requiring help from the bench, or VU's starters can blow the doors off Auburn, thereby giving the bench a lot of minutes on the back end of the second half. Hopefully, Vanderbilt will choose the latter option.

2) Board up. Auburn's rebounding by committee – especially from its guards – is impressive and formidable. Vanderbilt needs to be ready to box out and protect the glass at every position on the floor. If shots don't fall for VU, the Dores have to be able to answer the call by wiping the window clean.

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