Seven thoughts on Auburn men’s basketball 2023-2024

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Seven thoughts on Auburn men’s basketball 2023-2024

1. I’m not sure when I realized the 2023-2024 Tigers were my favorite Auburn men’s basketball team ever. Maybe about the time Johni Broome — with his team clinging to a 3-point lead on the road and less than 7 minutes to play in a must-win game — threw a laser-guided one-handed dime out of the post to Denver Jones in the opposite corner, and rather than scrap for offensive rebounding position, began walking upcourt with three fingers in the air.

From the opening tip of the season — and Aden Holloway’s barrage against Baylor — this team has shown outrageous levels of skill, smarts, selflessness and (usually) shooting. It has also shown thrillingly reckless levels of swagger. Combine the two, and you get Broome casually spectating as Jones’s three splashes through on Auburn’s way to another double-digit rout. You get four months’ worth of plays like this one, four months of games like this one, four months of basketball joy, God bless them.

So whether it was Broome’s dime or some other moment between Feb. 3 and now, I don’t know. But I knew this bunch of absolute maniacs were my favorites long before they headed to Nashville. They won all their games there to claim a fourth SEC banner in seven seasons, a sentence whose accuracy I still can’t fully believe. But they also continued to do things like “Chaney Johnson spikes one off the backboard like prime Karch Kiraly, and also for some reason KD Johnson flies at the rim too because why not”

And once the winning was done, they celebrated. I have watched this clip a dozen times.

This one almost as often.

But this one made me too emotional to watch more than a couple of times.

There’s a vein of thinking — and not just from those in Tuscaloosa who’ve chosen to wear not celebrating as the world’s silliest hairshirt — that even a conference tournament isn’t worth this kind of emotion. “We didn’t cut down these nets because we have even bigger nets to cut,” that sort of thing.

This team has been my favorite in part because they’ve spent all season showing us they were good enough to hang a banner. But they’ve been my favorite even more because they’ve spent all season showing us how much hanging a banner would mean to them. It’s not just about how much heart Dyl, KD, Chad Baker, Johni, Jaylin and all of them have — it’s that they wear that giant heart squarely on their sleeve, right where us Auburn fans can see, and feel.

I’ve never rooted for a team like them before. I doubt I ever will again.

2. This shouldn’t have worked. KD spent the previous two seasons starting and taking approximately any shot he wanted. Holloway’s a five-star hamburger All-American who arrived with a reputation as a lights-out scorer and, surely, NBA aspirations. Jones had one of D1’s highest usage rates at FIU and averaged 20 a game. Williams could’ve — should’ve — been a go-to option years ago, and after years of waiting deserved all the shots he could take. Broome’s the team’s best player. Baker-Mazara has the size and stroke to fire away at any time. Hell, even Chaney Johnson averaged nearly 17 a game as his conference’s Player of the Year at UAH. How the hell was Bruce Pearl going to find enough minutes for everyone? How the hell would he find enough shots?

It was only going to work if they won. But they were only going to win if they decided they would find out if it worked, together. They did.

3. Won’t begrudge Tennessee their regular-season SEC title. The schedule giving Auburn a trip to Knoxville with no return date still feels less than wholly just, but the Vols gave that game back by losing to South Carolina. Both Auburn and the Vols lost at home to Kentucky, both lost in Starkville, and both lost a road game to another tournament team. But the Vols won in Coleman. Auburn didn’t. So it goes.

But these Tigers establishing themselves as

a) one of the top-5 teams in the country b) quite possibly the best team Pearl’s ever coached c) a big ol’ ball of night-in night-out fun

and still finishing the season without a banner could not be borne. They deserved it too badly. Which is why they had to win Sunday — as the Committee’s blindfolded bracketing process showed us again, relying on the NCAA Tournament to give you a shot at your *cough* one shining moment is like relying on your local Popeye’s to correctly fill an order for your entire church van.

Since the Tigers’ tournament triumph didn’t move the needle on their NCAA seed at all, there’s since been an undercurrent of “I guess the SEC Tournament doesn’t mean that much anymore” commentary. But watching Auburn’s celebrations, it’s obvious the opposite is true — when the Tournament is as crapshooty as ever, chances to experience what Auburn experienced are as important as they’ve always been. The SEC Tournament doesn’t have to be anything more than the SEC Tournament. That’s plenty. Just ask the Neville Arena rafters this time next year.

4. Three days have passed and I keep waiting to be less irritated by Auburn’s draw. I keep telling myself that being annoyed by the NCAA Tournament Committee is like being annoyed by the weather. It’s always raining somewhere; the only question is if you’re the one who needs the umbrella.

But it hasn’t worked. I’m still irritated. Because despite the year-in year-out consistency of the Committee’s struggles, it’s not actually like the weather. It’s a group of human beings, making human decisions, and making them badly.

But let me first make clear what I’m not irritated by, draw-wise:

That Auburn’s a 4-seed. One of my dearest-held sports beliefs is that the Committee should drastically reduce its reliance on the arbitrary quad system of résumé-measurement and drastically increase its emphasis on résumé metrics that do the measuring for them. Doing so would give the Auburns (and Indiana States) of the world their just reward for excellence throughout the season instead of hyperfocusing on a small sample of Q1 games.

But by the standards the Committee has laid out since the advent of the NET and quads, Auburn’s 2-7 Q1 record entering Selection Sunday was always going to be a problem. The Bracket Matrix had Auburn as the final 3-seed but only by a hair over Duke, and Kansas had a valid argument as well despite their mediocre power metrics. A 4’s defensible.

That Auburn wasn’t rewarded for winning the SEC Tournament. In days of old the Committee might give a team that won its high-major league tournament a seed line bonus. But not always, and in recent seasons they’ve been more likely to just treat a tournament triumph as just another set of victories on the team sheet — if they’ve paid them any attention at all.

Auburn deserves every ounce of credit it’s gotten for winning in Nashville …

… but nonetheless, beating NET Nos. 51, 31 and 29 isn’t going to force the Committee’s inert hand.

That Auburn was sent to Spokane. The trip west is the symptom, not the disease. Every year, the last couple of 4 seeds/first couple of 5 seeds are shipped off because the NCAA insists on designating more opening-weekend sites in the West than it can find qualified Western teams to play in them. Bruce gets it:

Auburn keeps going West because it keeps landing 4- and 5-seeds. That’s a problem. But it’s not the Committee’s fault.

So let’s talk about what is the Committee’s fault. Every one of its members understands what the NET ranking is designed to measure — after all, the NCAA itself is who designed it, and it’s the NCAA that organizes every line of every team sheet around it. The NET includes a résumé element that sets it slightly apart from pure-power metrics like Kenpom, Torvik, etc., but ultimately it’s doing the same thing — telling you how good a team is.

The NET told the Committee Auburn was the 5th-best team in the country. Because the Committee is (theoretically) selecting and seeding according to résumé rather than strength, Auburn (theoretically) had to stay on the 4 line — and automatically make whichever region it landed in dramatically tougher, especially for the region’s 1-seed. The Committee members knew this. Anyone who follows college basketball in the year of our Lord 2024 — and thus has some grasp of what power metrics do and mean — knew this.

The Committee behaved as if it didn’t know this at all. By slotting NET No. 6 Iowa St. and No. 13 Illinois into the same region as No. 1 overall seed UConn, the Committee had already made things tougher for the Huskies than they arguably deserved. But at least the Committee’s own seed list made things easy from there: after slotting Kansas into the only region without a Big 12 team, you put Duke into the South to avoid any SEC conflict with Kentucky, and then you put your lowest-rung 4-seed — Alabama — where the seed list says it belongs, below UConn.

And instead the Committee just … didn’t. They did the opposite. Instead of putting their weakest 4-seed in the strongest region, they went out of their way to put their strongest 4-seed in the strongest region. They went out of their way to make the No. 1 overall seed’s path tougher, not easier.

I struggle to explain it. It’s inexplicable enough that some Auburn folks have mistakenly assumed Auburn was in fact the lowest 4 on the seed list, because ignoring the seed list to pair UConn and Auburn makes such little sense. My best guess at an explanation: the Committee was attempting to make the “top 4 seed total” numbers on this graphic more balanced:

The problem here is that, again, not one damn soul who knows what’s going on in this sport would say those numbers are of any real consequence where balance is concerned. No one would argue these regions would be less balanced if Auburn and Alabama swapped places. No one would look at this and say the East was the weakest region.

Of course the Committee has to seed on résumé first and power metrics as a secondary consideration. NET be damned, no one’s arguing to make Auburn a 2-seed and Marquette a 4. But at some point, within the wiggle room allotted, some concession must be made to common freaking sense. Instead the Committee used that wiggle room to defy that common sense.

It’s a farce. And when you consider how few opportunities Auburn has had to make an Elite Eight, to make a Final Four, that an opportunity as golden as this year’s to make that kind of history might have been spoiled by that farce isn’t going to stop being irritating any time soon.

5. But! I would suggest those actually involved with Auburn’s program truly do their best to stop being irritated, because of course it doesn’t matter who’s waiting in the Sweet 16 if Auburn doesn’t get there.

Which brings us to Yale. I have no quarrel with anyone picking the upset — even in what projects as a down year for 13-through-16 seeds, it might be a bigger surprise to have no first-round upsets from this group than to have one somewhere. And if you’re going to pick one, it’s understandable why you’d go for the Bulldogs. Along with Samford, they rank as the best 13 seeds at Kenpom by a wide margin; unlike Samford, they play at a glacial pace that limits possessions and increases underdog-friendly variance; they represent a league with a lengthy history of Round of 64 success; that history includes Yale beating Baylor as a 12-seed in 2016 and coming within 4 points of LSU as a 14-seed in 2019, both under current coach James Jones.

And on the subject of recent NCAA Tournament history, we shouldn’t ignore that both previous times Pearl has taken a banner-toting Auburn team west, the Tigers’ Round of 64 game did not go well. In 2018 Auburn played an atrocious game and was only bailed out by facing the worst 13-seed in the field and that 13-seed playing poorly themselves. In 2019 … you know what, I’m not even going to discuss it. Suffice it to say if those specific bits of history repeat themselves, Auburn can’t count on getting fortunate again.

But I can’t bring myself to worry. Auburn has played a lot of teams about as good as Yale. Auburn has crushed all of them save Appalachian State, and this game won’t be played on the road at elevation in Boone, NC, nor is it likely Auburn shoots 3-of-27 from three. It’ll be played on a neutral court, where Auburn has been … not vulnerable.

Also, if a team about as good as Yale was going to beat Auburn, I’d expect that team to crash the offensive glass, generate lots of steals (and get out in transition ahead of Auburn’s halfcourt defense), draw lots of fouls and hit their free throws, and most of all shoot bunches of threes. Yale doesn’t usually do any of that.

It’s the NCAA Tournament, stuff happens, and I will say that Yale’s refusal to give their opponent steals could suck Auburn into more a halfcourt game than it wants to play. But suffice it to say that if Kenpom’s No. 4 team simply had a different name on their jersey, I strongly suspect a lot of people latching onto this as their upset would be latching on to something else.

6. If Auburn does get past Yale and San Diego State gets past UAB … OK, then, yes, I will bring myself to worry. You may remember cackling in delight as the Aztecs pummeled Alabama into submission last March. Unfortunately, Lamont Butler and Damion Trammell hounding Aden and Tre is a lot less fun than them hounding Jahvon Quinerly. SDSU’s defense just isn’t any fun at all, really; they block lots of shots, they grab lots of steals, they force lots of tough looks. They do foul a lot and aren’t as good either cleaning the glass or forcing dead-ball turnovers, but this still mostly profiles as Mississippi State’s Defense, But Even Better. Oh boy.

At least the Aztecs are only Kenpom’s No. 59 offense, which should be manageable as long as they don’t attack the Auburn defense’s two weak points: rebounding, and foul-drawing.

Dammit, Aztecs!

The good news: they don’t take a ton of threes, hit even fewer, and run huge amounts of offense through Jaedon LeDee, their 6’9″ big. LeDee’s a monster — No. 5 in Kenpom’s Player of the Year rankings, and worryingly for Broome and Cardwell’s ability to stay on the floor, 5th in all of D1 in rate of fouls drawn — but Auburn will nonetheless live with an opposing offense trying to score through the teeth of the nation’s No. 1 2-point defense than attacking the perimeter. They’re gonna grab a bunch of boards, and they’re gonna shoot a bunch of free throws. But they’re not gonna hit many shots.

It’s probably going to be a seriously rocky-ass rock fight. Auburn’s shot well enough on neutral courts to think they can give away some points at the line and on the glass and still edge ahead; both of these teams have elite-elite defenses, but the reason Auburn’s a top-5 team and the Aztecs merely No. 20 is that Auburn has enough offensive options to find something that works, even against the elite-elite.

The Tigers will be the favorite for a reason. But when Auburn’s struggled this season, those struggles have started with the point guard position not producing, and SDSU most certainly has the athletes to force another Kentucky out of Aden and Tre. Against this bunch — well-coached, tournament-savvy, mean as hell — the emphasis in “survive and advance” is definitely on “survive.” Anything else is gravy.

7. If Auburn does advance … congratulations, Tigers. You get to try slaying the giantest giant of them all.

But no, seriously, congratulations, Tigers: if you make the Sweet 16, you no longer play with any pressure on your shoulders. You have Bruce Pearl in the underdog situation in which he’s always done his best postseason work. You have an opportunity to clear your own path to a national title, one even the 2019 team arguably never had.

Favorite or not, trying to determine where this Auburn team slots into the hierarchy of the best Tiger teams in program history has been tricky. These Tigers are almost certainly better than the Jabari Smith/Walker Kessler SEC champs of two seasons ago, for instance; for all its greatness, that team tipped off as a Kenpom top-5 team four times that season. Come Friday afternoon the 2023-2024 Tigers will have done so 17 times, despite the bar for entry to that top-5 being substantially higher this season. (Auburn’s current +28.84 AdjEM would have ranked second in 2022, ahead of eventual national champion Kansas.) Look past the win-loss record, and for sheer regular-season dominance the only Auburn team in the modern era that can match them is 1999’s.

But the thing about sports is that all the Kenpom and Torvik and NET respect in the world don’t mean you can actually look past the win-loss record. Fair or not, unlucky or not, they couldn’t get over the hump in Coleman or Thompson-Boling. They couldn’t shrug off the post-Bama hangover well enough in Starkville or Gainesville. Most frustratingly, in their one meeting with Kentucky they weren’t ready for the Wildcats to play much better defense than the Wildcats usually play. And so they lost five SEC games, and didn’t claim the SEC regular-season title they were were absolutely good enough to earn.

Where Auburn men’s basketball history is concerned, that means this team still has … not something to prove, exactly, but something to claim. If they’d smoked the SEC Tournament field the way they did and hung a regular-season banner, they’d already stand alongside the 2019 team as Auburn’s greatest, regardless of how well they fare in the NCAAs. But given how much better this team performed in the regular season, SEC title or not, a similar run to that season’s — or maybe even 1986’s — would give them the right to say they stand alone — among Sonny Smith’s teams, among Cliff Ellis’s, among Bruce Pearl’s, among them all.

They’re my favorites, ever. But they can also become the best, ever. They can. They’re that good. They’re that fun. And I cannot wait to see them try.

Screenshots via @AuburnMBB video

from The War Eagle Reader

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