10 things you should know about Auburn basketball ahead of the Final Four
If you showed up late to the party, no worries. I’ve got you covered.
Auburn is going to the Final Four for the first time and you want to sound smart at whatever water cooler/watch party/thing where you’ll be asked about the Tigers. That’s totally fine.
Here are 10 things to know for you, and even some things that the diehards might not realize:
1. It’s the program’s first Final Four and it’s also …
… the first time in program history that Auburn won 30 games in a season. That easily makes this the best season in Auburn history, just in case there was any doubt about that.
The interesting thing about that there have been teams that should have made Final Four runs and won 30 games. Take the 1998-99 Auburn team, which was a No. 1 seed but lost in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State. How many games did that squad win? Twenty nine, of course.
A year later, Auburn was Sports Illustrated’s preseason pick to win the national title. But leading scorer Chris Porter was suspended for the final 8 games for accepting money from an agent and Auburn fell in the second round.
Just by reaching the Final Four, perhaps Auburn already heeled some of those wounds.
2. Bruce Pearl should have been here by now, too
The fifth time that Pearl reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament finally resulted in his first Final Four berth. Auburn is the third program that Pearl took to the Sweet 16, but it’s somewhat amazing that the Final Four eluded Pearl this long. Obviously it didn’t end well at Tennessee, but 5 of the 6 seasons that Pearl was in Knoxville, the Vols reached the top 8 of the Associated Press poll.
That 2007-08 team with Chris Lofton will always be the one that got away from Pearl. Tennessee was ranked No. 1 in America in March, but ultimately got demolished by Louisville in the Sweet 16. And in 2009-10, Pearl’s Tennessee team fouled Raymar Morgan in a tie game with 2 seconds left in the Elite Eight. He sank a free throw and Michigan State ultimately sank Pearl’s last contender at Tennessee. How ironic it would be if Pearl faced MSU in a national championship.
3. Bryce Brown has been efficient and effective in the postseason
Since the start of the SEC Tournament, Brown’s numbers are pretty solid:
- 8 consecutive games scoring in double figures
- 17.4 points per game
- 44 percent from 3-point range
- Multiple made 3-pointers in every game
- 1 turnover per game
Brown hasn’t had that dud game during the postseason, which certainly helped Auburn get to this point. It’s usually a good thing when your leading scorer plays well. But even in the games when he hasn’t been at his best (UNC, New Mexico State, Florida), he didn’t shoot Auburn out of the game and he avoided foul trouble.
It hasn’t just been Brown or bust, either. Against UNC, Auburn had 85 points by the time he made his second shot. Against New Mexico State, J’Von McCormick had a career-high 16 points. Against Florida, Jared Harper knocked down the dagger 3 with 13 seconds left.
Speaking of Harper …
4. You take the good with the bad with Jared Harper
The most decorated point guard in the Final Four is Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston. The Michigan State junior is methodical, crafty and ultimately successful with his Le’Veon Bell-like patience.
Harper is the exact opposite of that. The Auburn point guard plays the game like it’s a race and he’s constantly in a final sprint. More times than not, that yields a pace that defenses can’t keep up with. Oh, and don’t let that 5-10 frame fool you. Dude can throw down.
— Power of Dixieland (@PwrofDixieland) March 24, 2019
But there will be moments when Harper goes too fast and you’ll wonder what on Earth he’s doing (I realize Auburn fans already know this). In a game in which Harper figures to have the adrenaline pumping, it wouldn’t be surprising if a few of those moments happened against Virginia, which will do everything possible to slow Harper down.
Pearl always has and always will take the good with the bad when it comes to Harper running the offense. The Midwest Regional MVP still had a 26-11 assist-to-turnover ratio on top of his 17.5 points per game in the tournament. That’s exactly what you’d want from your floor general.
5. The post-Chuma Okeke injury numbers are impressive
If you didn’t see the sophomore’s knee buckle at the end of the UNC game, good. Don’t watch it. It’s not for the faint of heart. Okeke’s torn ACL was brutal news in the midst of his career day and emergence in the NCAA Tournament. While Okeke would obviously help Auburn’s chances, the Tigers played inspired without him so far.
Even after Okeke went down in the Sweet 16, Auburn outscored UNC by 3. Beating Kentucky, who had a healthy P.J. Washington, without Okeke was an even better sign. Here are those post-Okeke injury numbers for Auburn:
- 44 percent shooting
- 42 percent from 3-point range
- +4 in 3-pointers made
- +5 turnover advantage
And I actually think it’s a positive that Auburn is only -4 in total rebounds since Okeke’s injury. Considering UNC and Kentucky both had the size advantage, that’s a testament to how well the Tigers got after it on the glass. Auburn played like it was on a mission without Okeke against Kentucky. Let’s see if that can happen a couple more times.
6. Okeke’s injury put Danjel Purifoy back into a huge role
Go figure that Okeke’s replacement was a former starter who once was a double-figure scorer for Auburn. Pearl praised how well Purifoy performed in Okeke’s absence and how it would have been easy for him to transfer before this season. Purifoy hadn’t played more than 20 minutes all season, but against Kentucky, he played 32.
As Purifoy said even before the Kentucky game, he shows up in big moments.
— Simone Eli (@SimoneEli_TV) March 30, 2019
His post presence and inside-out ability has been huge. It was fitting that he knocked down the first bucket after Okeke left the UNC game. Purifoy nailed a combined 6 3-pointers in the past 2 games alone (he hit 4 in just 12 minutes of action vs. UNC). But even if shots aren’t falling, Purifoy will be the guy getting the offensive rebounds/back-taps to keep possessions alive. That could be the difference in Auburn getting past that stout Virginia defense.
7. Auburn can earn another impressive multi-sport feat
Since the start of the decade (2010), no school has won a national title in football and basketball. In fact, of the 9 BCS/Playoff winners since 2010, Auburn and Ohio State are the only schools with a Final Four appearance during that stretch.
Auburn can stand alone with a couple more wins.
8. The last time Auburn lost …
Twitter wasn’t a thing. Just kidding. But it’s starting to feel like it. The Tigers were perfect in March, which was been well-documented. Before they started their 12-game winning streak, they were 7-7 in SEC play. That 27-point beatdown against Kentucky on Feb. 23 marked the last time that Auburn:
- A) Failed to score 65 points
- B) Got 6 points or less from Brown
- C) Got 11 points or less from the bench
- D) All the above
The answer is “D.” It’s always “D.”
The increased reliance on bench points trend is pretty significant. Auburn still rolls 9 deep without Okeke, which was evident against UNC when the bench dropped 40 and again vs. Kentucky when the bench scored the Tigers’ first 9 points. Auburn went to the under-12 timeout in the first half without a point from a starter. Without that depth, Kentucky easily could’ve made it an insurmountable hole early (it was 17-9 at that point).
When breaking down the bigger picture question — what did Auburn figure out since that Kentucky loss — an improvement like that matters. A lot has changed for Auburn since Feb. 23.
In Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology after the Kentucky loss, Auburn was a No. 8 seed. Who was the No. 1 seed in that region? Virginia.
9. There’s history between Auburn and Virginia … but not really
Tony Bennett has been at Virginia since 2009. The first game he coached against a Power 5 team on the road was against, ironically enough, Auburn. Brendon Knox had a tip-in with 1.4 seconds left to give the Tigers the win that night. Both teams finished under .500 and didn’t come anywhere near the NCAA Tournament.
That was the last time both teams met. As for Pearl and Bennett, they’ve never faced off, and obviously their styles are polar opposites. So what do they have in common? Like, besides the fact that both of their teams wear blue and orange?
Both will coach in their first Final Four.
10. This Auburn team is making Charles Barkley emotional
You already knew this. I just wanted an excuse to show Chuck’s Auburn-filled setup during the NCAA Tournament:
Enjoy it, Charles. pic.twitter.com/ZyNq4Lpbcm
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 31, 2019
If we don’t have a channel devoted to Barkley watching the Final Four, what are we really doing here?