Saturday, January 29, 2022

Court Report: Auburn regains Final Four DNA, ACC trending toward worst season, WCC eyeing four bids

Auburn basketball is again a top-10 outfit. The Tigers moved up yet again in this week’s AP Top 25 poll, to No. 9, marking the fourth time in five seasons Bruce Pearl’s team has been ranked in the top 10. 

College hoops traditionalists aren’t used to seeing this; Auburn made it into the top 10 of the AP poll only seven times in its history before Pearl arrived. The paradigm of possibility has shifted on the Plains, and like the 2018-19 team that made it to Minneapolis, this year’s group can be a Final Four squad. 

The 13-1 Tigers have one of the best teams in men’s college basketball, and following Tuesday night’s 81-66 win at South Carolina, Auburn is also pacing itself to top-contender status in a quality SEC. This was the team picked to finish fifth in the league. It’s currently the best. 

Pearl, however, is still reticent to declare his team is worthy of its current ranking. 

“It was supposed to be Kentucky, then it was going to be Arkansas, then Alabama after they beat Gonzaga, then it was going to be Tennessee but they got beat by Texas Tech,” Pearl told me of the rotating cast of SEC favorites. “We’re one of the only ones that haven’t stubbed our toe yet. Don’t make too much of where we are right now. We’re on track.” 

Auburn is sixth in the NET with a 6-1 mark in Quad 1 and 2 games. It ranks 19th in offensive efficiency at KenPom, but the defense is the story. The Tigers are giving up an adjusted 88.1 points per 100 possessions — fourth-best nationally while pacing to be the best defensive team Pearl has coached in his 27 seasons. Jabari Smith, a 6-foot-10, 220-pound freshman who could be the No. 1 pick in June, has been a reliable booster on D alongside one of the most improved players in the country, center Walker Kessler. The UNC transfer is averaging 10.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.2 blocks. He recently logged the second triple-double in program history with 16 points, 11 blocks and 10 rebounds vs. No. 21 LSU. And, according to STATS, Inc., Kessler became the only player to record a triple-double vs. a team that was 10-0 or better.

“Walker Kessler goes from being a stereotypical big, slow white guy out of high school to now being as mobile and athletic and strong rim protector as there is in college basketball,” Pearl said. “In high school or at UNC he wasn’t known as defensive player.”

Pearl has known Kessler since he was a sophomore; the Kessler family lives an hour away from Auburn’s campus. His whole selling point to Kessler’s transfer was defensive upside.

“My biggest thing with Walker is, ‘Dude, you’re an athlete. You’re fast. Play lower. You’re quicker than that,”http://www.cbssports.com/” Pearl said. “He’s been a huge impact defensively, which is a big part of why we are where we are.”

Watching Kessler now, he’s been overhauled. He’s impacting ball-screen defense, blitzing on guards and, as Pearl calls it, “playing 6-7 instead of 7-1” when he’s 20 feet from the hoop. Auburn is the best at-the-rim defensive team in the country. The Tigers block 25.9% of shots at the rip, according to Hoop-Math, which ranks No. 1. Teams shoot 41.8% vs. the Tigers inside the 3-point arc, with that percentage dipping to 31.6% on jump shots. 

“With ball pressure we force people to get to the rim and drive the opponent into our shot-blockers,” Pearl said. “And when we come over late. It gives you problems with backside rebounding and spoon feeds. Many teams play defense from the inside out. We play defense form the outside in. When people are driving, we don’t step up to block their shot, we wait for them to get to us.” 

Without Kessler, Auburn is probably closer to 30th-or-so — where it was projected in the preseason — rather than the top 10. The player that can keep Auburn near the top of the sport is Smith. He averages 15.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and looks the part of smooth operator. 

“Jabari is as good as advertised,” Pearl said. “He’s probably the best jump shooter at his size in college basketball. But he’s also a freshman, still 18 years old, still going to be going up against men in this league. Will he hit the freshman [wall]?”

There’s an inner confidence and humility to Smith that Pearl said is fairly uncommon with projected top-five picks.

“One of the things about Jabari, he’s not trying to be something he isn’t,” Pearl said. “Not worrying if he’s No. 1 or 5 and doesn’t play like he’s trying to get drafted. He’s trying to win, wants to compete, doesn’t force the issue. As a result, his stats across the board are efficient. That’s because he’s a winner. He’s not trying to do too much.”

Smith’s offensive rating at KenPom is a quality 113.9. He shoots 43.8% from 3 and is an 84% foul shooter. 

While Smith and Kessler are the headline-grabbers, it’s Pearl’s trademark depth that has led this team to national relevance again. Against South Carolina it was Wendell Green’s career-high 22 points that led AU. The Tigers have four players averaging double figures in scoring and 11 players averaging 11.5 minutes or more. No one plays more than 27 minutes (Smith). Auburn is one of the most efficient second-half teams, Pearl said, because “it’s our 11 vs. their eight.”

Most coaches aren’t comfortable playing more than nine players consistently. Pearl has traditionally used at least 10. The bench showed again in Tuesday’s game, tallying 40 points. 

“I’ve always believed it’s a combination of the chemistry in your locker room and you want them to play unselfishly and as a team,” Pearl said. “But if you’re playing a guy 35 minutes and not playing your bench, then you’re speaking out of both sides of your mouth.”

Schematically, not much has changed with how Pearl runs his defense and offense. But, guarding-wise, Auburn is scout-specific and a very adaptable defense. You will not see strict similarities from game No. 3 vs. game No. 7 and game No. 22. The things that don’t change are pressing for 94 feet, which is something of a lost hustle in modern basketball. Pearl also continues scout and tape-scour like a third assistant.

“I trust my staff but I also am pretty on it,” he said.

The team’s also had a pressure release as of late. The NCAA Committee on Infractions decided to not give Auburn a postseason ban in light of the program instituting one in the middle of last season. Pearl served a two-game suspension, and there are some lingering minor sanctions that will stay with the school in the year or two ahead.

“For my coaching staff and our families it’s good to have it behind us and I am grateful to the panel that heard our case and accepted the fact that we penalized ourselves perhaps more than any team in the history of the NCAA,” Pearl said. “We basically had a six-month death penalty. We didn’t play players when we suspected they could be ineligible. We took a postseason ban when I had two one-and-dones a year ago.”

While that’s true, Auburn of a year ago wasn’t expected to amount to much — and it didn’t. This season’s team is much different. Auburn has morphed from dark-horse to top tiger in a league that will probably have the most compelling race of any major conference this season. 

Thursday’s huge head-to-head: Keegan vs. Johnny

The two most surprising All-American candidates play in the Big Ten, which was the one league already overly populated with top-end talent heading into the season. Still, let’s take a minute to acknowledge the stellar seasons from Iowa’s Keegan Murray and Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis. Two of the nation’s top three leaders in scoring average will square off Thursday night in Madison when the 23rd-ranked Badgers (11-) host the Hawkeyes (11-3) at 9 p.m. ET on FS1. 

Davis, a sophomore, is coming off the apex performance of his career, scorching No. 3 Purdue for 37 points and grabbing 14 rebounds (both career highs) in addition to three assists, two blocks and two steals. The only players since 2010-11 to have that stat line (or better) in a game are Ben Simmons (LSU) and Mike Daum (South Dakota State). Neither did it a) on the road and b) against a power-conference team that was also ranked. 

For Davis to do what he did at Mackey Arena against a national title contender in a conference game, even if it’s just January, it still amounts to one of the best regular-season performances in recent history. Bucky’s bust-up of Purdue pushed Davis to the front of the conversation for National Player of the Year. (He did this while the alleged best guard in the league, Jaden Ivey, had a pedestrian 14 points on 3-of-9 shooting.) Davis averages 22.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists. A year ago, Davis averaged 7.0 points and 4.1 rebounds as an off-the-bench guy. He is the breakout player in America. 

Murray isn’t far behind. Unlike Davis, though, the fellow sophomore wing was expected to be Iowa’s No. 1 offensive contributor, to be a player who would largely determine whether Iowa would be an NCAA Tournament team. He’s been stellar both as of late and on the season. Murray’s averaging 29.8 points on 67.6% shooting in Iowa’s last four games. For the season: 24.5 points (that leads the nation), 8.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. At BartTorvik.com’s analytical POY tracker, Murray is No. 1. In KenPom’s algorithm, Murray is No. 3 and Davis No. 4.

Going into the season, the thought was the best players in the Big Ten would all be bigs. Kofi Cockburn, Trayce Jackson-Davis, E.J. Liddell, Trevion Williams, Hunter Dickinson. Most of those guys have maintained their reputations, but Davis and Murray are proving to be as vital and impressive as anyone else in that conference and nationally. They’re also looking like top-20 NBA picks. Thursday should be super.

keeganiowa.jpg

Keegan Murray has unequivocally been a top-10 player so far this season. USATSI

ACC steering toward one of its worst seasons

The fewest teams the ACC has put into the NCAA Tournament since 1985, when the field expanded, is three. Those lean years were 1999 and 2000. Two months into this season, it’s looking like 2022 could match such futility. Factor in that ’99 and ’00 were 64-team fields instead of 68, and yes, we could be witnessing the weakest ACC in modern history. 

KenPom ranks the conference fifth overall — easily — and just barely ahead of another power conference that also might not have more than three tournament-worthy teams: the Pac-12. 

It’s Duke, then maybe North Carolina, then probably Wake Forest … then everyone else. Sure, Miami is 11-3 and Louisville is 9-4. Perhaps there’s hope there. Maybe we’ll see things break in a way that enables the ACC to cleanly get four teams into the field. But for now, it’s Duke and Duke alone. In fact, Duke, ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25, was the only ACC team to receive votes in the poll this week. That had not happened to the ACC in four decades. 

The ACC’s grim reality: its teams are 10-29 in Quad 1 games and have a collective (and atrocious) 7-25 record against top-50 KenPom teams in noncon play. Virginia Tech was expected to be a tournament team. Instead, it’s 8-6 and yet to win a league game. Florida State (7-5) is bizarrely mediocre and Virginia (9-5) has its least talented team in almost a decade. More than half the conference’s teams (eight of 15) aren’t better than two games above .500. The ACC should never be this middling. 

WCC must empower its top teams

The West Coast Conference is one of four leagues yet to play a conference game; half the programs have been sidelined by COVID. It’s the only one of the four (Big South, MEAC, Southland) that will send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. There is some slate restructuring to do, and according to sources, the WCC met this week to start that conversation. 

It’s obvious that the WCC should make sure its four best teams this season (Gonzaga, BYU, San Francisco, Saint Mary’s) play each other twice in the regular season. Or at least try to, and hope COVID doesn’t wreck plans again. 

The reason for this is clear: the more times your best teams face each other, the better collective chance you have at building at-large-caliber résumés. The WCC ranks as the ninth-best conference at KenPom, narrowly behind the Mountain West, but it’s clear this is the strongest season for the league in its 66-year history. The WCC has never sent more than three teams to the NCAAs, but 2022 could mark the first time it sends four. 

The WCC has four teams in the top 40 of NET (Gonzaga fourth, BYU 29th, San Francisco 32nd, Saint Mary’s 40th). All four fall in top 34 at KenPom as well. More WCC postponements will come, but it’s imperative for the league to look out for its interests and serve its top teams. 

That also means allowing those teams to schedule in the nonconference if league games vs. lesser teams can’t be made up. That’s what BYU coach Mark Pope would like to have happen, but the WCC isn’t allowing it for now. 

“I totally appreciate the importance of the league having a complete schedule, but at the end of this week we’re going to have teams that are three or four games behind already, so we’re not going to get to an even, full schedule,” Pope told me.   

Pope also told me that BYU’s next two opponents — Pacific on Thursday and Saint Mary’s on Saturday — have assured him they’ll be able to play those games.

“There’s got to be a breaking point pretty soon,” Pope said. “Get clearance from the conference and go get a non-league game. How great is this deal with San Francisco and Loyola? The trick with those guys (USF) is they scheduled one game under the max so they had this in their pocket, but if the WCC does change this, I’ll sure be happy. If we’re one or two in the hole we can easily make up, I get that. But if it gets to be four or five, let’s free up a game.”

Pope said the the coaches of the top four programs are all on the same page: they all want to play each other twice in order to strengthen each other’s résumés and give the league its best chance at the most NCAA bids in WCC history.

@ me

The Court Report’s mailbag! Find me on Twitter, toss a question and I’ll answer some each week.

My colleague is already starting to feel college football withdrawal setting in, so he’s going to his natural instinct in the college sports discourse: attacking AP voters who disrespect his alma mater. Please subscribe to the Cover 3 Podcast. Those fellas are tremendous and will get you amply prepared for next week’s title game.

I reached out to the NCAA, which said there were 614 confirmed canceled games from 2020-21. There were hundreds others postponed, and there’s a chance some more never got played after cancellation. Call it about 650. As of Wednesday morning we are at 151 cancellations and 168 postponements, some of which will inevitably wind up becoming cancellations. In fact, 80% of postponed games don’t have makeup dates at the moment. Approximately 80% of scheduled games last season were played. The current track has that number being higher for 2021-22. 

Oscar Tshiebwe is an All-American candidate. Safe to say he’s the easy choice.

Just like last season, the selection committee will not (because it cannot) factor in any games that were not played. I think we are headed toward some interesting dossiers, though. Could have some at-large teams with 31 games played and others barely over 20. Balancing that is difficult. 

After losing to Rutgers on Tuesday night for the first time in program history? No chance. Michigan is 7-6 and will need to be at least three games above .500 heading into the Big Ten tournament in order to have an at-large case.

This is counterproductive! The data is not definitive that fouling up three points late is an efficacious strategy to winning. I am a firm believer in fouling up three but ONLY at the 5-second-or-under mark. The 6-10 window gets trickier. 

Hey, wait a second. Who put this question in?! 

Final shots

• SMU senior Kendric Davis is the most overlooked great player in the country, and it’s not hard to discern why. He plays in relative obscurity at SMU, a program that seldom makes the NCAA Tournament and doesn’t have a star coach. But forget that. Davis is an All-American at this point. He’s averaging 21.5 points and 5.4 assists (second in the conference). SMU is 11-3, has won eight straight and can prove its viability with a win Thursday at Cincinnati.

• Omicron fallout: USC, UCLA and Stanford are the latest schools to — for the near-futureclose their games to the general public.

• Heck yes: Louisville is retiring Russ Smith’s No. 2 jersey later this month. Smith is one of the classic college hoops stars from the 2010s.

• Oklahoma gave Baylor a pretty tough fight on the road Tuesday night. The Sooners face a hellacious slate upcoming and will certainly prove their worthiness. Iowa State, Texas, at TCU, Kansas, Baylor, at West Virginia and at Auburn are their next seven games. Even three wins in that stretch will sustain the Sooners into deep February.

• The CFP semifinals drew 16.5 and 16.1 million viewers, respectively, for Georgia-Michigan and Alabama-Cincinnati. Last year’s Baylor-Gonzaga title game drew 16.92 million viewers. Gonzaga-UCLA national semi wasn’t far behind with 14.94 million.

• On Monday, Sacramento State and Oregon State made their third attempt to play a game this season, only to lose it to COVID issues less than an hour before tip. Safety first and foremost, but we simply can’t have games getting axed within two or three hours before tip. Have to be better. (This also happened with Tennessee-Memphis, among a few others.)

• Here are the longest home winning streaks: Gonzaga (59), Liberty (43), Prairie View (35), Houston (33), Loyola Chicago (28), Baylor (22), Abilene Christian (21).

Arkansas: free falling. From 9-0 to 10-4 after Tuesday night’s home loss to Vanderbilt. What is happening in Fayetteville?

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