Basketball Scouting Report: Auburn

The Vanderbilt Commodores did many things well against the Missouri Tigers on Wednesday, but as is often the case in a basketball game, the final six minutes often carry more weight than the first 20 to 30. VU wasn't able to sustain a high level for all 40 minutes, and Missouri mounted a successful comeback. The story of Vanderbilt on Wednesday is the story of its opponent throughout this season.


Vanderbilt played the way it needed to play against Missouri. The Commodores took away Jabari Brown and watched the Tigers' offense struggle for most of the night. However, when VU held a 51-48 lead with just under six minutes left, the Commodores buckled on defense. Missouri scored on seven of its next eight possessions to pull out a 67-64 win. Vanderbilt did what it needed to do… for 34 minutes, but not 40.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made it a point to emphasize during his professional career that the final few minutes of an NBA regular season game were often all you needed to see. Vanderbilt has learned in its past two games – a comeback win against Texas A&M and this loss to Missouri – that a prelude, whether good or bad, doesn't always determine how the closing act unfolds. Yet, for all that the Dores have experienced in recent weeks, their next foe has been haunted throughout the season – and the past few years, for that matter – by an inability to close the sale at crunch time.

AUBURN AT-A-GLANCE

It's true for Alabama and South Carolina. It's often true for Arkansas and Tennessee, but more especially on the road. No SEC team, though, seems to have had more of an aversion to last-minute playmaking than Auburn – this season and over the past few seasons as well. The Tigers are part of a long list of college basketball teams that would have far better records if games were 32 minutes long instead of 40. (Of course, skeptics would say that such teams would blow leads, anyway.) No game has highlighted Auburn's smallness in big moments more than this past Wednesday's game against No. 2 Florida.

You probably heard about the way in which Auburn lost a 71-66 decision to the Gators, but if you were focused on the Olympics or offseason football news, here's the simple story: The Tigers, after tying the game at 66 on a foul shot with under 21 seconds left in regulation, intentionally fouled Florida's Patric Young by mistake. The foul was intentionally given, as though Auburn was trailing by a point, but it was clear from the reaction of Auburn coach Tony Barbee that the foul was not planned. Florida was in the double bonus at the time, so the likelihood that Young would make one foul shot was considerable. However, Young – a shaky foul shooter – converted both of his tries. Auburn then threw the subsequent inbounds pass out of bounds, enabling Florida to add two more foul shots and gain a two-possession lead at 70-66. Auburn scored one point in the final 2:06, another gut punch in a season full of them. Auburn has played three games against Florida (two) and Kentucky (one), being competitive in all three. Yet, the Tigers didn't have much to offer in the closing minutes of each contest. This is not a doormat, but it is indeed a team that doesn't respond well to endgame pressure. Vanderbilt needs to make sure that identity remains in place for Auburn on Saturday evening.

Starting Lineup

Center – Asauhn Dixon-Tatum –
Senior, 7-0, 226; 2013-14: 5.3 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game, 1.9 blocked shots per game

Dixon-Tatum splits time with freshman center Matthew Atewe, who hadn't been a regular part of the rotation for the Tigers until Dec. 19 against Clemson, due to being injured. Atewe averages 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots per game for an Auburn frontcourt that is conspicuously inadequate.

Forward – Allen Payne – Senior, 6-6, 225; 2013-14: 7.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.2 steals per game

Payne is the best frontcourt scorer on this entire roster. When point guards and shooting guards are the only genuinely capable scorers on a team – and low-post, back-to-the-basket offense is virtually nonexistent – it is hard to expect above-average results for any sustained period of time. Auburn can't make substantial forward strides as a program without getting some legitimate frontcourt help.

Guard – Tahj Shamsid-Deen – Freshman, 5-10, 163; 2013-14: 9.7 ppg, 2.8 apg

Shamsid-Deen nearly toppled Florida on Wednesday, hitting 5-of-8 three-point shots for 17 points. Vanderbilt has to take him seriously as the third scoring option on the Tigers' roster. This is not just a two-man team, though the next two players on this list are obviously top-tier scorers:

Guard – Chris Denson – Senior, 6-2, 181; 2013-14: 20.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.4 apg

What makes Denson's scoring output so impressive is that opponents know he's Auburn's main source of production. The fact that Denson still posts his numbers each night should give him a lot of respect around the SEC, even more than the already-gleaming numbers would suggest.

Guard – KT Harrell – Junior, 6-4, 216; 2013-14: 19 ppg, 4 rpg, 2 apg

The one person who makes Denson's life easier is Harrell, a sidekick scorer who steadily relieves pressure from Denson to do everything on the floor. Both guards enable the other to continue to be effective. The problem for Auburn, as you can see, is that with the sole exception of Shamsid-Deen, there aren't real alternatives for the Tigers at any point in a game. The Tigers have essentially played with 2.5 players for most of the season.

Bench

Auburn, a team that desperately needs resources wherever it can find them, but especially in the frontcourt, has seen Payne, one of its starters, deal with a hamstring injury for portions of this season. Therefore, when forward Jordon Granger briefly left the team in early January and backup center Benas Griciunas got injured at roughly the same point on the calendar, the Tigers were thinned out. Atewe's return helped a little bit, but guards Dion Wade and Malcolm Canada just haven't been able to offer much support for the overworked Denson-Harrell combo. The bench is just one of many reasons why this team struggles to the extent that it does.

Keys to the Game

1) Run Auburn off the three-point line.
Making Auburn's three scorer-shooters (Shamsid-Deen included) shoot two-point shots will cut into the Tigers' production. In its two games against Florida this season, Auburn hit 17-of-32 three-pointers. That's not a typo. If the Tigers can compete with Florida due to their three-point prowess, that's the first thing Vanderbilt's offense needs to take away. The Dores contained Missouri's Jabari Brown. They can lock down the three-point shot against Auburn, too. What's more is that they'll need to.

2) Feast in the paint. Auburn's frontcourt – in words alum Charles Barkley might use – "just ain't very good." Vanderbilt needs to go to town, especially on offense, within six feet of the rim.

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