Scouting Report: Auburn
Vanderbilt won't light up the night (or the afternoon) on many occasions this season, so defense must become this team's refuge. Such was the case on Saturday in the Palmetto State, as the Commodores closed out South Carolina in an aesthetically ghastly but emotionally satisfying seven-point triumph. Forget about style points for the next two months. Vanderbilt lost to Wisconsin in last year's NCAA tournament, and as a tribute to the Badgers, VU will need to muck up games in much the same way that Wisconsin does if it wants to be a threat in the SEC.
On Wednesday, the Dores meet an Auburn team that scored just 53 points at home in its last outing. Vanderbilt must seize on this point of vulnerability and ensure that the Tigers don't find any confidence whatsoever at the offensive end of the floor.
The Tigers enjoyed a brief period of prosperity under former coach Cliff Ellis in the late 1990s and early 2000s, making the Sweet 16 in 1999 and 2003 before bowing out of the Big Dance. Since the 2003 season, however, the Plainsmen have been plainly poor, attaining just two winning seasons and only one 20-win campaign, failing to make the NCAAs in a full decade of competition. Auburn won't make the NCAA tournament this year, either, but at least the program shows signs of improving. Coach Tony Barbee, a branch of the John Calipari coaching tree, knows he has a long-term project and not a quick fix on his hands. This season, he's been able to get a win over Florida State in non-conference play while splitting four league games, a reasonable feat for his program. In a weak SEC, Auburn should aspire to a mid-tier finish, and winning roadies against struggling foes such as Vanderbilt is what will enable to Tigers to reach their more attainable goals.
AUBURN STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 47. National rank: 179 (out of 345).
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 34.4. National rank: 145.
Free throw shooting percentage: 67.2. National rank: 220.
Turnovers per game: 14.4. National rank: 234.
Turnovers per game forced on defense: 15.2. National rank: 62.
Blocked shots per game: 3.9. National rank: 121.
Center – Rob Chubb – Senior, 6-10, 250 2012-13: 10.1 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game
Chubb averaged 8.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season, so he's made modest but real improvements as a brawny, muscular, space-filling center in the middle of the paint for Auburn. He's not going to thrive based on quickness or agility, but on the basis of power. Agile footwork can beat him to loose balls, but sound positioning is a must. Chubb knows his limitations and plays within himself, so it's not as though he's an unintelligent player – he possesses a firm awareness of what he's supposed to do on the floor. A strong work ethic is necessary to combat him on the glass.
Forward – Allen Payne – Junior, 6-6, 215; 2012-13: 8.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.4 steals per game
Last season, Payne averaged 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, so he has definitely grown in his role on the AU roster. How much better a player is he, though? Payne is getting 10 more minutes of playing time on a per-game basis (at 28, which is up from his average of 18 in 2011-2012). Payne earned 13 foul shots in Auburn's win over Florida State, and he went 7 of 12 from the field in Auburn's 68-63 win over LSU on Jan. 9. He's a reticent shooter, but when he looks for his offense, he can be very productive.
Guard – Noel Johnson – Senior, 6-6, 205; 2012-13: 6.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg
Johnson received just under 12 minutes of playing time last season, barely registering to any meaningful extent on the stat sheet (2.1 points per game). This year, he's playing 20.4 minutes a game, which – similar to Payne's level of improvement – still leaves questions about the extent of his progression. Vanderbilt's players – and the Memorial Gym crowd – will get to see what Johnson can do as a starter and not as the reserve he was last season. Johnson hits 41.4 percent of his threes, but he takes roughly four per game (70 attempts in 17 contests), meaning that he's not a high-volume shooter. One has to get to six attempts per game (maybe 5.5 at the very least) in order to be considered a volume three-point shooter.
Guard – Josh Wallace – Senior, 5-10, 170; 2012-13: 3.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.6 steals per game
Whereas other Auburn players have made appreciable statistical advancements from last season due to increased playing time, Wallace has remained stagnant. He's getting just over 25 minutes per game, up from 18 in 2011-2012, but he's still scoring just over three points per contest. Wallace and Noel Johnson have to become more potent scorers and more credible shooting threats for Auburn to thrive, as you'll see in the assessment of the next Tiger starter below:
Guard – Frankie Sullivan – Senior, 6-1, 206; 2012-13: 17.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.2 apg
Why do Noel Johnson and Josh Wallace have to grow as scorers and shooters? It's because Sullivan takes way too many shots for the Tigers. Sullivan does lead the team in scoring, and moreover, he's almost five points better than he was last season (12.6 points per game) with roughly the same amount of playing time (33.8 minutes per game, up from 31.8 in 2011-2012). However, Sullivan averages almost seven three-point attempts per game (115 in 17 games), and yet he's shooting just under 30 percent. He was 5 of 16 from the field (twos and threes combined) in Saturday's loss to Kentucky. Scoring is devalued when points come from a high volume of shots. A 20-point night built on 22 field goal attempts is not good offense; such a performance points to many empty trips. If the rest of Auburn's backcourt can give Sullivan enough support, Sullivan won't think he has to hoist as many shots as he does. The Tigers can become a more effective offensive team.
In a 10-player rotation, here are Auburn's five primary reserves: seven-foot center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and four guards, Chris Denson, Brian Greene, Jr., Shaquille Johnson, and Jordan Price. Denson is second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.9 points per game. He does not shoot many threes (3 of 8 for the season). Price averages 6.6 points per game, and Shaquille Johnson 4.6. Since Auburn goes so deep into its backcourt on the bench, the central priorities for the Tigers' backup guards are the same as those of AU's starting guards. Barbee and his coaching staff need to get reliable shooting from non-Sullivan sources so that the Tigers can get better floor spacing and force all five defenders to guard their own man instead of sagging off to help on certain players.
Keys to the Game
1) Make Sullivan take bad shots. Sullivan is a capable scorer, but to reiterate the theme mentioned above, the central point about his game is that he is not an efficient offensive player. If Sullivan scores 22 points in this game on 25 shots with only two assists, Vanderbilt will be happy with that. If Sullivan scores 22 on 16 shots or fewer, that's a big problem. Auburn is not a strong offensive team, and Vanderbilt should be able to lock down the Tigers for 40 minutes.
2) Outwork Chubb and Dixon-Tatum on the boards. Auburn, unlike many other teams VU will face this season, offers legitimate size and beef in the middle of the paint. Vanderbilt is not used to playing pure power in the post; making this adjustment will allow the Commodores to limit Auburn's second-chance points, a key ingredient in a complete defensive performance.
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