A win over a top 15 RPI team was probably on Auburn basketball’s Christmas list.
During one of the best starts in the last decade, Bruce Pearl’s basketball (9-1) team continued to demonstrate why opponents should be wary of the Tigers.
Auburn, after easily winning games against average or unimpressive teams in recent weeks, defeated a Middle Tennessee team on Saturday in Birmingham. The Blue Raiders have historically had success knocking off Power 5 schools and likely will be an NCAA Tournament team come March.
Heading into the evening, the Blue Raiders had burned their last five SEC opponents. Auburn refused to be the sixth team in that line, however, and instead spent most of the night bullying Middle Tennessee in a 76-70 win.
Here are the three key takeaways from Auburn basketball’s win over Middle Tennessee:
No easy fix for frustration
Imagine the worst possible morning you never hope to have. Somehow you oversleep, and from there every little thing seems to go wrong. Spill coffee, forget about a meeting — whatever it is, it goes wrong.
The same thing can happen on a basketball court, and Auburn showed Middle Tennessee just how irritating that is on Saturday.
Shots weren’t falling for the Blue Raiders, and Bruce Pearl’s team frustrated Middle Tennessee on both ends of the court. Auburn sped Middle Tennessee up, and as a result a team that averages 12 turnovers per game had turned the ball over 16 times at halftime. Eventually Auburn scored 20 points off of 24 Middle Tennessee turnovers.
Missed shots led to bad shots, which led to more silly, self-inflicted mistakes. It was deflating, whether it was a mishandled pass or an embarrassing missed dunk.
Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis used three of his four timeouts with more than eight minutes left in the first half. When a coach is calling timeouts in hopes of fixing things, it also gives the team who is rolling even more energy.
Once Auburn started bothering the guys in blue, the Tigers just had to capitalize on the mistakes of their opponents and they did. Middle Tennessee battled in the second half and cut Auburn’s lead a bit, but it never could get enough momentum.
Making a Nick King a peasant
Middle Tennessee senior forward Nick King came into the game against Auburn averaging 24.3 points per game (that ranked fifth in the nation in scoring). The Tigers knew they would have to shut down King to stop the Blue Raiders.
Pearl’s strategy to keep King in check worked, as different Auburn players took turns guarding the Blue Raiders’ top scoring threat. Limiting King forced his teammates to step up — and for the most part they couldn’t.
King finally scored his first points just as the initial half was winding down and finished with 12 points (8 rebounds). Though he found other ways to get involved, his low-scoring night made it tough for Middle Tennessee to get back in the game or take the lead when it had a chance late.
Bad shots almost hurt Auburn (again)
On the very first play of the game, Auburn ran a set play for Mustapha Heron that resulted in an easy basket.
Early in the first half the Tigers were up by double-digits and were patiently running their offense. Shots were falling and everything was going right.
As Middle Tennessee attempted a comeback, Auburn got back into its bad habit of rushing its way into bad shots. At one point it happened a few times in a row. Jared Harper took a long 3-pointer (begging for a foul) and Davion Mitchell let a shot fly after just one pass on the next offensive possession.
While seemingly insignificant, it was the timing that made this dangerous. Auburn has a tendency to let up in second halves. The Tigers go from being completely in control to being flustered. Auburn is off to one of its best starts in recent history, and being conscious of the best possible shot selection will only help matters.