Second Scouting Report: Auburn
If it can get the No. 10 seed at the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt will have to play only three games, not four, in order to meet (top-seeded) Florida in a possible championship game on Sunday, March 17. Are the odds of such a run particularly favorable? No, but they're better than they would be if VU slips to a No. 11 seed and is relegated to the first round on Wednesday, March 13.
Let's project a little bit. Right now, if Vanderbilt holds off Texas A&M in the race for the 10 seed, it would play the No. 7 seed in Thursday's second round. At the present moment, that opponent would likely be Arkansas, since the Hogs have two home games (i.e., likely wins) left on their schedule, while LSU has to go to Missouri this Saturday, a likely loss. Ask yourself, then: Would you take your chances against Arkansas in a game played outside the state of Arkansas? Two words: HECK. YES.
If VU could get by the Razorbacks, the quarterfinals and semifinals would pit the Commodores against the second and third or sixth seeds. Friday's quarterfinal would likely be a clash with Kentucky, the current occupant of the No. 2 slot. Vanderbilt has played Kentucky on very even terms this season and would have a very legitimate chance of beating a Nerlens Noel-less Big Blue bunch away from Rupp Arena. If coach Kevin Stallings's team could knock off the Wildcats, it would face a semifinal against the third or sixth seeds. The third seed would either be Alabama or Ole Miss (the winner of the meeting between the two teams next week in Oxford). The sixth seed is likely to be Missouri, especially if the Tigers lose at Tennessee on March 9 in the regular season finale. Missouri, much like Arkansas, is very wobbly away from home, so even though the Tigers would be a nasty matchup for VU, the Dores could compete with them on a neutral floor. All in all, the idea that Vanderbilt could meet Florida in the SEC Tournament final – while not likely – is hardly an absurd thought. Not in this year's SEC.
Enough projections – back to the present moment. After Wednesday's onion-rich comeback against Georgia, which was then coupled with Texas A&M's loss at Ole Miss, Vanderbilt has set its table well. With Texas A&M having to go to Arkansas in the regular season finale (a probable loss for the sinking Aggies), VU should be able to beat out the Aggies for the 10 seed and the first-round bye if it can win two of its final three contests. The game at Florida on March 5 is a likely loss, but this game at Auburn is the probable pivot point. If Vanderbilt captures this contest, it will only have to win at home against lowly South Carolina on March 9 in order to secure the first-round bye. This is not a time to lose focus; Vanderbilt must take Auburn seriously and make sure it gives itself a chance to make a deep SEC Tournament run.
The Tigers are 1-9 since losing in Memorial Gym on Jan. 23. In their only win, they scored 49 points; Alabama tallied just 37. In those nine most recent losses, Auburn came close to winning only once, at home against Ole Miss on Jan. 26. The Tigers fell to the Rebels, 63-61. The month of February was simply awful for head coach Tony Barbee, who has nothing to show for three seasons of work. The John Calipari disciple must know that if he doesn't do anything of consequence next season, he'll probably get his walking papers.
How bad was February? As the Tigers enter March, they have not scored more than 56 points in a game since Feb. 13. Auburn was never a good shooting team to begin with, but they're becoming even less accurate as time rolls on. The Tigers' inability to improve their offense is dragging them – and their morale – to the bottom of the SEC, with only Mississippi State preventing them from being the No. 14 seed at the SEC Tournament. There's a palpable and undeniable sense that this team has lost its competitive will. The deflated, dejected quality that infects a losing team late in a season – fueling a desire not to compete, but to reach the finish line and be done with the journey – is written all over these players. Auburn basketball doesn't have to be this way – this was a Sweet 16 program as recently as 2003 – but it is.
AUBURN STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 45. Change: -2 percent (47 on Jan. 23, the last time these teams met).
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 31.9. Change: -2.5 percent (34.4 on Jan. 23).
Free throw shooting percentage: 69.5. Change: +2.3 percent (67.2 on Jan. 23).
Turnovers per game: 13.5. Change: -0.9 turnovers (14.4 on Jan. 23).
Turnovers per game forced on defense: 13.6. Change: -1.6 turnovers (15.2 on Jan. 23).
Blocked shots per game: 3.6. Change: -0.3 blocked shots (3.9 on Jan. 23).
Center – Rob Chubb – Senior, 6-10, 250 2012-13: 8.9 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game
Chubb's scoring is down 1.2 points (10.1 on Jan. 23), and his rebounds are down 1.1 boards (7.8 on Jan. 23). Auburn's perimeter shooting is so acutely deficient that you might think Chubb would benefit from such a dynamic, but that has plainly not been the case. It could well be that opponents are devoting even more attention to Chubb precisely because they want to take him away, thereby forcing the Tigers to route the ball more through their guards, who just can't put the ball in the bucket with any consistency.
Forward – Allen Payne – Junior, 6-6, 215; 2012-13: 8 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.3 steals per game
Payne's scoring is down 0.6 points (from 8.6 on Jan. 23). His rebounding is slightly down as well (from 4.9 on Jan. 23), and his steals are almost unchanged (down 0.1 thefts from 1.4 per game on Jan. 23). What's worth pointing out about Payne is that his tweener size should enable him to get to the basket and earn foul shots, something Auburn (like any other poor field-goal percentage team) could sorely use. Yet, Payne has attempted 13 free throws all season. Yes – all season. That's a waste in basketball terms. Payne has to use his body (and his skill set) much more effectively at the offensive end of the floor.
Guard – Shaquille Johnson – Senior, 6-5, 210; 2012-13: 5.7 ppg, 3 rpg
On Jan. 23, Noel Johnson was starting for Auburn. This time around, the other Johnson on this roster – Shaquille – will likely get the starting nod. Shaquille Johnson's body is not that different from Payne's. Does he get to the foul line with any more regularity than Payne? Yes, but not quite enough to transform the competitive calculus for Auburn. Shaquille Johnson has attempted 65 free throws this season; over 28 games, that's not much. He's earned more than four foul shots in only two SEC contests this season. He can do better.
Guard – Josh Wallace – Senior, 5-10, 170; 2012-13: 3.5 ppg, 2 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.2 steals per game
Of the starters who took the court for Auburn against Vanderbilt on Jan. 23, four remain. The only change is the one noted above (Shaquille Johnson replacing Noel Johnson in the starting five). You will notice that these four everyday starters have all produced less, not more, as the season has unfolded. Wallace's scoring is unchanged from Jan. 23. His rebounds are down 0.4 (2.4 on Jan. 23). Wallace is handing out fewer assists per game (down by 0.7 dimes per game from 3.6 on Jan. 23), and he's collecting 0.4 fewer steals per contest (down from 1.6 on Jan. 23). Auburn's SEC season has been the portrait of a steady downhill slide, and Wallace is very much part of that dynamic.
Guard – Frankie Sullivan – Senior, 6-1, 206; 2012-13: 14.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.8 apg
This is the player who is still – by a considerable margin – Auburn's most prolific score and the team's most insistent shot-taker. The fact that his scoring is down three whole points since Jan. 23 (17.4 per game) tells the story of the tired, trudging Tigers. The fact that Sullivan shoots just 37 percent from the floor tells you even more. Sullivan's averages in rebounding (down 0.3 from 4.4 per game) and assists (down 0.4 from 3.2 per game) have also worsened since Jan. 23.
In a 10-player rotation, Auburn's five primary reserves are seven-foot center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and four guards – Chris Denson, Brian Greene, Jr., Noel Johnson, and Jordan Price. As was the case on Jan. 23, Denson is still second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.2 points per game. That's down from 10.9 on Jan. 23. Price averages 5.3 points per game, down 1.3 per game (6.6 on Jan. 23), and Noel Johnson averages 5.1.
Keys to the Game
1) Don't give Auburn anything easy. What can lift up a sagging, flagging basketball team more than unexpectedly easy buckets? Uncontested layups, jog-to-the-basket transition scores, and putback dunks tell a bad team, "Hey, we can actually win this game if we keep getting these kinds of looks! Let's go for it!" As long as Vanderbilt doesn't give Auburn this kind of fuel, the Commodores should be in good shape.
2) Rebound. Auburn will miss lots of shots. Vanderbilt has to be ready to clean the glass at both ends of the floor. If it does, it will be hard for VU to lose. Let's not make this game any more complicated than it needs to be. Auburn doesn't shoot well, so its primary offense will often be reduced to "chasing misses" and little more. If Vanderbilt doesn't allow Auburn to track down said misses, the Tigers won't have much of a chance.
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