SAN DIEGO — The old saying is Clemson is Auburn with a lake. Auburn basketball could look down at that lake in Clemson and see a near-mirror image of itself heading into the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
No. 4 seed Auburn and No. 5 seed Clemson are incredibly tough to split. On KenPom, the two sets of Tigers are right beside each other in the overall ratings — Auburn at No. 18, Clemson at No. 19. Despite being the higher seed, Auburn is just a 1½-point favorite against Clemson.
The two teams took similar paths to get to San Diego. Auburn was picked to finish in the bottom half of the SEC again but won the league’s regular-season title wire-to-wire. Clemson was picked to finish 13th in the ACC but was one of its best teams for most of the season.
On the floor, they have a lot in common, too.
“We have our hands full with an Auburn team that is extremely talented, a lot of similarities, especially with guard play,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Saturday. “They have terrific guards. They rebound the fire out of the ball, attack the glass with three and sometimes four guys. So I think we have to do a good job in that area as well.”
Balance has been key for both teams. Auburn has three guards and one forward that score in double figures — Mustapha Heron, Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Desean Murray. Clemson has three guards and one forward that score in double figures as well — Marcquise Reed, Gabe DeVoe, Shelton Mitchell and Elijah Thomas.
“I think Clemson, their three guards are as good as any three guards in this tournament,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Saturday. “Period. Period. I think they’ve shown that all year long. And then they’ve got a pro at center in Thomas. So they’ve got four dudes out there that can really play and the other guys are real good complementary players.”
Both teams also overcame an injury to a starting forward — Anfernee McLemore for Auburn, Donte Grantham for Clemson — to make it this far. Both teams also played worse after the injury. Auburn is 3-3 since McLemore was lost for the season, while Clemson is 8-6 since Grantham went down.
Digging deeper into the statistics, Auburn and Clemson both shoot over 36 percent from 3-point range, hit over 75 percent of their free throws and have block percentages that rank among the top 25 nationally.
But while the numbers might have a lot of similarities, how they actually put them up in games is different.
Possessions in Auburn games average to be around 1.5 seconds shorter than ones in Clemson games. Auburn’s spread-it-out offense leads to more 3-point attempts and more trips to the foul line than Clemson, which uses more of a traditional attack.
“Auburn plays a little different than most ACC schools,” Brownell said. “I don’t know that they run an offense that’s the same of anybody in our league. So that part is a little bit unique.”
On defense, Clemson ranks ninth nationally in efficiency, per KenPom. Brownell’s Tigers put up those good numbers with an effective field goal percentage that ranks 33rd nationally and a 2-point field goal percentage that ranks 10th. In other words, Clemson’s defense thrives on challenging shots at or around the rim.
For Auburn, turnovers have been its hallmark on defense. Auburn forced 21 from the College of Charleston on Friday. One out of every five possessions for an Auburn opponent has ended in a turnover this season. Clemson, on the other hand, ranks 228th in defensive turnover percentage.
Auburn could have an advantage in the turnover battle, as it takes care of the ball (56th nationally) better than Clemson (128th), per KenPom, and creates more havoc on defense.
And if there is an area to exploit in Clemson’s elite defense, it’ll come from 3-point range. Clemson is 220th nationally in 3-point defense. The Tigers allowed at least 9 makes from deep in five of its last seven games. Attacking that in transition would be huge for an Auburn team that loves to run.
Unfortunately for Auburn, Clemson is coming off a much better offensive game in the first round. Clemson hit more than half of its shots against New Mexico State. It also shot 42.9 percent from deep.
Auburn struggled mightily in Viejas Arena, missing all of its first-half 3-point attempts and more than half of its free throws. If Pearl’s Tigers can’t exploit one of the few matchup differences, they’ll have a hard time getting to the Sweet 16.
“I think we will shoot better from the perimeter,” Pearl said. “We have no choice. We’ve got to be able to knock down shots, and we have to get better looks. And, believe it or not, we have to be more patient not to shoot the first one that’s open.”