AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn basketball is in the midst of a storybook season. The Tigers are ranked for the first time in 15 years, and their NCAA Tournament projections are improving by the day with their current 15-1 record.
The biggest key to Auburn’s drastic turnaround in the 2017-18 season under Bruce Pearl hasn’t been on offense. Even without Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, the Tigers were always going to be a team that could score, thanks to the hot shooting of Mustapha Heron, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper — along with the efficient down-low scoring of transfer Desean Murray and high-flier Anfernee McLemore.
Auburn’s defense was abysmal last season, and it torpedoed a hot start in nonconference play en route to another losing SEC record. Teams seemed to be able to score at will on Auburn, especially in the second half.
That has changed for Auburn this season, and it’s come without Pearl having a ton of success with his traditional high-pressing, turnover-heavy defense. In the halfcourt, Auburn has gone from a sloppy defense to a solid one.
|Points per game||79.6 (315th)||72.9 (165th)|
|Defensive efficiency||103.3 (147th)||96.9 (52nd)|
|Total FG%||43.7% (151st)||39.8% (28th)|
|True shooting %||109.0% (200th)||103.0% (73rd)|
|Effective FG%||50.6% (175th)||46.8% (43rd)|
|3-point FG%||35.7% (209th)||34.5% (158th)|
|2-point FG%||48.7% (144th)||43.4% (17th)|
|Block %||13.4% (22nd)||18.1% (5th)|
|Steal %||9.7% (80th)||9.5% (114th)|
|Opp. Off. Rebound %||33.3% (324th)||28.2% (134th)|
As the chart shows, Auburn has improved by a significant margin in most defensive areas except for two — steals and 3-point defense. The Tigers are turning teams over less than they did last season, and they still have issues at times defending the 3-point line.
But a lot of these improvements build on each other. Here are the three main areas that have made the difference.
Two of the biggest differences for Auburn basketball’s defense from last season to this season come in the area of field-goal percentage. Auburn is a top-30 team in total field-goal percentage and a top-20 team in 2-point field-goal percentage. Opponents are simply having a harder time scoring inside the arc.
That may be a bit of a surprise to some, considering Auburn’s starting center and power forward from last season — Wiley and Purifoy — haven’t played a single minute. They’ve been replaced in the lineup by a 6-foot-3 Murray and a 6-8 McLemore.
But McLemore’s rim protection is the anchor to this defensive resurgence. He leads the nation in block percentage at 17.7 percent. That means nearly one of every five 2-point field-goal attempts when he is on the floor is getting swatted.
McLemore’s block percentage makes a huge difference for Auburn’s defense. Last season, the Tigers had a quartet of big men who didn’t have a block percentage of more than 10 percent. Now McLemore is protecting the rim better than anyone in college basketball, and Horace Spencer ranks inside the top 70 nationally in block percentage as well.
Auburn’s block percentage as a team was strong last season. But having the nation’s best in that category means a lot. Teams aren’t getting to the rim easily on Auburn thanks to improved on-ball defense. And when they get there, McLemore usually is there to make a play.
Another area to highlight comes after Auburn has already gotten the shot it wanted from its opponents. Last season, Auburn was one of the worst in college basketball in allowing offensive rebounds, with teams grabbing them on exactly one-third of their misses. Those turn into extra possessions, which turn into extra chances to score.
Auburn has knocked that down by 5 percentage points this season. Murray has been a huge difference-maker in that category. While he stands out for grabbing offensive boards, he’s done a great job of making sure more possessions are one-and-done for opponents.
Here’s a breakdown of defensive rebounding percentages for each of Auburn’s players in the rotation compared to their counterpart in the rotation from last season:
|16-17 PLAYER||DREB%||17-18 PLAYER||DREB%|
|Jared Harper||7.2%||Jared Harper||6.7%|
|Bryce Brown||7.8%||Bryce Brown||5.0%|
|Mustapha Heron||17.0%||Mustapha Heron||16.5%|
|Danjel Purifoy||13.9%||Desean Murray||21.1%|
|Austin Wiley||14.5%||Anfernee McLemore||20.9%|
|T.J. Dunans||13.2%||Malik Dunbar||11.8%|
|Horace Spencer||14.5%||Horace Spencer||23.7%|
|Ronnie Johnson||8.4%||Davion Mitchell||5.5%|
|LaRon Smith||10.5%||Chuma Okeke||12.8%|
The difference is staggering between Auburn’s frontcourt from last season to this season. Auburn’s frontcourt has taken the responsibility to crash the glass at an effective rate, which has freed up the backcourt to contribute better in other areas. It’s the ideal split for a team.
Both Murray and McLemore are better than 20 percent on defensive rebounding, while Purifoy and Wiley were behind Heron in that category. Heron still rebounds at about the same rate, but Auburn is getting much more from its big men — Spencer has made a huge jump in that category, and Okeke has contributed off the bench.
Ideal mix of more experience and new blood
Auburn had one of the youngest teams in college basketball last season, and it still does. Its only senior is Patrick Keim, a former walk-on who isn’t part of the nine-man rotation. Two freshmen are in the mix as two star sophomores sit with eligibility issues.
But another year has served Auburn’s returning players well. Brown has developed into the unquestioned leader on the defensive end of the floor, and Heron has become much more consistent on defense after an up-and-down sophomore season. Harper has benefited from a season in the program, along with the swat-happy McLemore.
The additions to the rotation, which has surprisingly benefited from one less body on the defensive end, have also been a boost. Murray has been a better defender at power forward han what Auburn got from Purifoy — who, to be completely fair to him, hasn’t been able to showcase his freshman-to-sophomore improvement. Off the bench, Dunbar has been an obvious upgrade from T.J. Dunans defensively.
Davion Mitchell’s calling card is on defense, where he can split time at point guard and shooting guard, depending on the situation. That’s a bonus from last season when the Tigers had two shorter point guards sharing minutes. Okeke can clean up possessions with his rebounding, stay with guards and forwards due to his agility, and boasts a solid steal percentage for a reserve forward.
With the frontcourt ending possessions at a much higher rate this season and the backcourt taking that expected step forward in defensive maturation, Auburn has turned into a formidable defensive team in 2017-18. Combine that with one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, and it’s no surprise why Auburn is playing its best basketball in more than a decade.