Auburn Basketball Faces First True Road Test

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Auburn Basketball Faces First True Road Test

Bruce Pearl’s 2019–2020 squad has opened the season 2–0 after victories over Georgia Southern and Davidson. The Tigers opened with a nine-point win over GSU and a ten-point win over Davidson. The latter game was part of the Veteran’s Classic, and the Tigers weren’t playing at home. However, Auburn’s fans traveled well to the Naval Academy and it wouldn’t be fair to label this game as a road test. The Tigers saw freshman Isaac Okoro explode for 17 points, getting the starting nod over Anfernee McLemore, whose versatility makes him a great sub for almost anyone on the team, but he’s not quite as good as Auburn’s starters. In this case, it was freshman Okoro, who has been a standout thus far in his young career. He has scored in double digits in both games as a Tiger while shooting over 73%. 

Auburn is essentially breaking in three starters as Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick take over as guards for Auburn legends, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown. Both Doughty and McCormick played meaningful minutes in Auburn’s run to the Final Four, with both of them shining at times and giving hope to the Auburn faithful as replacements for Auburn’s best guard tandem. Big man Austin Wiley is finally healthy and ready to play a whole season for the Tigers. Meanwhile, Danjel Purify has made his return to being a full-time starter after one of the strangest careers anyone has seen. Purifoy was held up by the NCAA clearinghouse for an entire season, became a starter in his first season, missed the entirety of the 2017–2018 season, and then became a role player much of last season. Auburn’s upper-class depth held Purifoy back, as did the coaches, as part of what seemed like an ongoing struggle with effort from No. 3. Thus far, Purifoy is averaging more minutes (32 a game) this year than anyone, and that number also eclipses his minutes in his freshman year, when he averaged 11 PPG. 

Bruce Pearl’s squad looked like almost every other blue blood squad in ita opener: sloppy and slow but obviously talented. The win against Georgia Southern was ugly, at best. The Tigers turned the rock over 21 times, a number that should have spelled doom had they not been the more talented team. McCormick turned the ball over five times, and while it might be expected that the point man, who handles the ball more than anyone, might lead in turnovers, your center should not. Austin Wiley had five turnovers with Doughty and Okoru kicking in three apiece. Auburn was able to keep pace by forcing 18 turnovers, many of which led to transition points.

Auburn’s offense, like any program that annually loses talent to the NBA, must grow on the court in game situations. Actual games are simply faster than practice; while the offensive design was obvious, the execution was just quite there. Still, the Tigers won and then substantially cleaned up their game against Davidson. 

Auburn travels to Mobile this evening to take on South Alabama. The Jaguars are also 2–0 with wins over the Pikeville Bears and Southern Mississippi. Pikeville stood no chance against the Jags, but USM had the contest knotted at 38-all at halftime before busting it open midway through the second half. The Jags are led by forward Josh Ajayi, whose 30 points lifted them to victory over the Golden Eagles. He is averaging 21 points and ten boards a game. However, the 6′ 6″ forward will face a difficult task being matched up with either Purifoy or Okuro with McLemore coming off the bench. Even if he beats his man, he will have a difficult task to beat Wiley to the hoop. 

The Jags are an interesting team because they don’t run a pass-and-shoot oriented offense. They get the ball to Ajayi and use him to either drive or kick it out. Ajayi leads the team in assists. Auburn will also have to watch out for Trhae Mitchell, who is averaging 2.5 blocks per game. He also kicks in 13.5 points per contest and will likely be up against whoever isn’t on Ajayi. 

At the guard position, the Jags rotate several men off the bench, all of whom can contribute, but almost twice as much damage is done with Andre Fox and Chad Lott on the floor. The guard tandem scores twice as many points as the other guards, although they only play a few minutes difference. Expect Auburn to hammer on the Jags when Fox and Lott are taking breaks. 

Auburn is a 7.5-point favorite on the road, and the ESPN Matchup Predictor gives Auburn a 66.4% chance of beating the Jaguars in Mobile. For USA to win, Ajayi would have to have another 30-point effort, which is unlikely to happen. However, with USA’s ability to spread the ball around and score (four of five starters average double-digit points), expect USA to make a play to cover the spread. The over/under is set at 145 points, but both teams have scored at least 75 points in their first two contests. 

Watch the game tonight at 7: PM on ESPN+.

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