AUBURN, Ala. — For a team that struggled with its offensive consistency down the stretch of the regular season, Auburn basketball is focusing a lot on defense heading into the NCAA Tournament.
That’s because the College of Charleston, which the Tigers play Friday in the first round of the Big Dance, ranks inside the top 100 nationally in offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage.
The Cougars are led by guards Grant Riller and Joe Chealey, along with forward Jarrell Brantley — a group Bruce Pearl calls a “three-headed monster.” And College of Charleston coach Earl Grant unleashes that beast in a different way than what Auburn normally sees.
“It’s all about matchups with them,” Pearl said. “They’ve got three players that can, 1-on-1, go by you at any time. They’re last in their league in assists, which means they’re able to make 1-on-1 plays in great spacing. They put their guys in space and they go to work.”
The College of Charleston ranks 336th in assists to field goals made, which is in the bottom 20 nationally and the lowest among NCAA Tournament teams.
That puts added pressure on individual defensive performances, something that Pearl wanted to see improvement during an intense, full-contact Tuesday practice before the departure to San Diego.
“Our 1s and 2s, Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Davion Mitchell, are going to have to do a phenomenal job guarding their yard,” Pearl said. “And then the 4 spot, Chuma Okeke and Desean Murray, are going to be matched up with Brantley. So our ability to defend, and defend better than we’ve been defending, is going to be a real key to our ability to advance.”
Auburn allowed at least 75 points in six of its seven losses during the regular season, including the most recent two against Arkansas and Alabama. The College of Charleston has scored that many in eight of its last nine games.
Riller is the leading scorer for the Cougars at 18.7 points per game with a solid 40.3 percent clip from 3-point range. He’s scored at least 16 points in the last 10 games, which includes three 30-plus-point performances.
Brantley, who is 6-foot-7, averages 17 points and 7 rebounds per game. He’s hit 28 shots from 3-point range this season, giving the Cougars an extra stretching element to their isolation game.
Yet the biggest danger might come from Chealey. In addition to his 18.5 points per game mark, Chealey ranks in the top 100 nationally in free throw rate and fouls drawn. He gets to the line often, as he’s shot an average of 7.4 free throws per game.
“We’re going to watch a lot of film on Chealey,” Pearl said. “Chealey, he’s a flopper, but he’s smart in the sense that he kicks his legs out when he shoots the 3-ball. A little bit like Jared [Harper], he acts like he’s getting assaulted all the time. … He’s a terrific player, smart player. Fifth-year senior, been there for a long time, has gotten better.”
In the absence of Anfernee McLemore, Auburn has had a harder time with rim protection. Junior center Horace Spencer has been a solid replacement, but he’s had an issue with getting in foul trouble.
He doesn’t believe the Tigers will have that problem against Chealey and the Cougars, as he’s confident in the guards in front of him to slow down the drive-heavy attack.
“I’m not really worried about fouling him that much,” Spencer said. “Our guards can lockup when I know they really need. I know Bryce [Brown] really can play great defense.”
Teams that have beaten the College of Charleston this season have mostly done it with defense. Of the Cougars’ seven losses, five of them came when they scored fewer than 70 points. The other two losses came in overtime.
With two high-scoring guards and a post player who can attack from the perimeter, the College of Charleston will test Auburn’s ability to defend all areas of the floor for the entire shot clock. Pearl stressed the importance of that defensive execution Tuesday, and he’s calling on his star backcourt to lead the way.
“I’ve already said our guards have got to guard,” Pearl said. “Our guards are going to have their hands full, and I hope they think their guards are going to have their hands full.”