It wouldn’t have sounded silly in the slightest, since it could easily have been Duke. The Blue Devils went 13-11, never got more than three games above .500, bowed out of the ACC tournament because of a positive coronavirus test and are now enjoying the “one” in likely one-and-done Paolo Banchero.
To suggest it could be Auburn, though, might have felt like a stretch. At least at the start of the season, anyway.
Not any longer. After Tuesday’s 81-77 victory at Alabama, the Tigers (15-1) have won 12 in a row since a double-overtime setback against Connecticut to open their stay at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November. They are the only team to defeat LSU to date, and they own a collection of other potentially useful victories (at home against Central Florida and Florida, on a neutral court against Loyola Chicago).
All this after going 13-14 last season, which turned out to be a good year to self-impose a postseason ban. Auburn didn’t play in the SEC tournament, and its brightest spot — point guard Sharife Cooper — turned pro after playing in 12 college games.
Freshman Jabari Smith is the biggest reason for the Tigers’ rapid return to eminence in the SEC and nationally, but hardly the only one. Coach Bruce Pearl’s remade roster has restored much of the on-court identity that helped Auburn reach the Final Four in 2019.
A look at four elements the Tigers have used to get in position to dream big at the midpoint of the season.
The impact freshman: Smith, who scored a career-high 25 points Tuesday against Alabama, has done exactly what was expected of him when he arrived as a consensus top-five recruit. He leads Auburn in scoring (16.1 points per game), ranks second in rebounds (6.4) and steals (1.5) and is shooting 45.1 percent from three-point range.
He also averages a team-high 27 minutes, a reminder of how much Pearl wants to use the Tigers’ depth (coupled with athleticism) as a weapon.
Deft transfer portal management: Auburn attracted established college players from both a blue blood and mid-majors. It brought in a guy who was a first team all-conference pick as a freshman, as well as a couple who sought new homes after coaching changes. It even poached a player from within the SEC.
North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler, who played a more prominent role for the Tar Heels late last season, is tied for third nationally with four blocks per game. Former Georgia wing K.D. Johnson is averaging 12.8 points. Graduate transfer Zep Jasper is a stable presence with more than three times as many assists as turnovers after ranking eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association in scoring last season at College of Charleston.
Then there’s Wendell Green Jr., who averaged 15.8 points at Eastern Kentucky as a freshman and is now Auburn’s top perimeter scorer at 13.1 points a game while largely coming off the bench. It’s easy to add transfers, but blending them together is no sure thing. The Tigers, though, have pulled it off.
Back to business on defense: Auburn wasn’t an elite defensive team in 2019 when it made its Final Four run, but it was plenty effective. The same can’t be said for last season, when it simply wasn’t a strength outside of blocked shots (a consistent defensive trait in Pearl’s tenure).
This team has no such problems. Kessler’s shot-swatting gets attention, and rightfully so since he’s helped Auburn lead the country with 8.3 blocks a game. But Green, Johnson and Smith have all made an impact on defense. Auburn ranks seventh in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency rankings and 19th in field goal percentage defense.
Valuing the ball: Whatever the preferred metric, this is Auburn’s biggest stylistic change. Last season, the Tigers were 324th nationally with 16.3 turnovers per game. It’s been slashed by a quarter to 12.1 a game, good for 91st nationally. They’ve gone from turning it over 22 percent of the time (315th on KenPom) to 16.6 percent (49th).
Auburn’s margin for error has been larger this season; only four of its victories have come by single digits. Still, protecting possession has only added to the Tigers’ cohesiveness.
Not to be forgotten is how well Pearl has utilized holdovers. Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams both average 7.1 points, and Allen Flanigan’s return from Achilles surgery has already made a difference (he scored 10 points against both LSU and Alabama). It also somehow made the Tigers deeper, a strength which makes them a team to pay attention to over the next couple months.
Michigan sinks toward .500
While Auburn’s play can only count as so much of a surprise — it checked in at No. 22 in the Associated Press preseason poll — Michigan’s struggles were completely unexpected.
The Wolverines (7-6) had games against Michigan State and Purdue postponed due to a lack of scholarship players available because of covid protocols, which means they’re on track to play for the first time since Jan. 4 when they visit Illinois on Friday.
Michigan went 23-5 last season and reached the Elite Eight, and the return of center Hunter Dickinson was supposed to cement the Wolverines as a Big Ten contender. Instead, they haven’t won more than two games in a row at any point, and four of their six losses have come by double figures.
Three things stand out. Michigan isn’t as strong a three-point shooting team as it was a year ago with the likes of Chaundee Brown, Isaiah Livers and Mike Smith creating headaches on the perimeter. And it isn’t nearly as tight on defense.
Both are at least partially tied to the third variable: Experience. According to KenPom.com, Michigan was the 12th most experienced team in Division I last season. This year, the Wolverines are 292nd. It’s shown at some inconvenient times, and it’s left Juwan Howard’s team with a lot of work to simply get back to the postseason.
Six to watch this (holiday) weekend
Virginia Commonwealth at St. Bonaventure (Friday, 7:30, ESPN2): The visiting Rams went 3-4 in November and struggled to put the ball anywhere near the bucket, but a seven-game winning streak has put them on the periphery of at-large contention. The return of point guard Ace Baldwin from injury helped a bunch. They visit the Bonnies (9-3, 1-0 Atlantic 10), which needed overtime to beat La Salle on Tuesday in their first game in 25 days.
No. 22 Tennessee at No. 18 Kentucky (Saturday, 1, ESPN): The Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 SEC) are undefeated at Rupp Arena this season. Then again, the best team they’ve played at home is … Ohio? Western Kentucky? It definitely isn’t either Georgia or Missouri, the two league foes who have come to Lexington. Tennessee (11-4, 2-2) should be a sterner test.
No. 21 Texas at No. 15 Iowa State (Saturday, 2): Even at 1-3 in the Big 12, it’s getting easier to say the Cyclones (13-3) are for real. They played Baylor tough at home, and dropped a one-point decision at Kansas on Tuesday. Plus, there’s the batch of useful nonconference victories (Xavier, Memphis, Creighton and Iowa) and a rock fight defeat of Texas Tech. This should not be a high-scoring game; both the Longhorns (13-3, 3-1) and Cyclones rank in the top 10 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metrics.
BYU at San Francisco (Saturday, 11, CBS Sports Network): It’s a challenging weekend for the visiting Cougars, who lost at Gonzaga on Thursday and now must visit the Dons on short rest. Both teams are among the West Coast Conference’s best, and the winner will bolster their already solid postseason resumes with a triumph at the Sobrato Center.
Oregon at No. 5 Southern California (Saturday, 11, Fox Sports 1): This is the cap to a busy week for both teams. The Trojans suffered their first loss Tuesday at Stanford before returning home to play the Pac-12’s Oregon schools. The Ducks returned from a nine-day pause to beat Oregon State on Monday, but must deal with USC just 48 hours after an overtime win at UCLA.
No. 7 Purdue at No. 25 Illinois (Monday, Noon, Fox): The host Illini (12-3, 5-0 Big Ten) have won five in a row entering Friday’s game against Michigan, while Purdue (13-2, 2-2) bounced back from a rare home loss to Wisconsin by scraping together a 74-67 victory at Penn State last weekend. It’s hard not to notice the obvious matchup: Illinois center Kofi Cockburn against Purdue’s interior tag team of Trevion Williams and Zach Edey.