Auburn basketball needs some space

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 06: The Auburn Tigers huddle prior to the 2019 NCAA Final Four semifinal against the Virginia Cavaliers at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 6, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 06: The Auburn Tigers huddle prior to the 2019 NCAA Final Four semifinal against the Virginia Cavaliers at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 6, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) /

Auburn basketball has been going through a rough patch.

Game results and final scores aside, Auburn basketball has seen their leading scorer hit a dry spell, free throws and open shots bounce in and out and their layup percentages drop. The team has hit just about every checkpoint for a troubled offense.

There are still reasons to believe Auburn can get back on track, based on the last two seasons and the potential that the Tigers have already shown.

Identifying the problem is easy: Auburn needs to score more points, particularly in their half court offense.

Identifying the solution is a lot harder, and I’m sure Bruce Pearl and Auburn’s coaching staff are already miles ahead of me, but here’s what I hope to see happen…

Auburn has been at their best under Pearl when the Tigers can knock down shots and space defenses out.

Auburn’s stats before and after Anfernee McLemore’s injury prove that point as much as anything else.

On top of that, Chuma Okeke shot 38.7 percent from three (a great percentage) last season. That skyrocketed to 44.4 percent in games that McLemore shot over 33.3 percent from three.

This season, McLemore is shooting 31.9 percent from three and only 23.1 percent from three in conference play.

When McLemore shoots well, he draws opposing centers away from the basket and creates:

1) more space for Austin Wiley
2) more lanes for Auburn’s guards to drive
3) more points for Auburn.

On top of that, the boost McLemore gave Okeke last season could have a similar impact on Danjel Purifoy.

Regardless of whether or not McLemore can help get Purifoy going, Purifoy needs to come back around, because he creates many of the same problems for defenses that McLemore and Okeke have.

Take this season’s small sample size for example:

In games that Purifoy scores more than 10 points in, Auburn is 8-0, averaging 86.8 points per game and winning by an average of 18.9 points per game.

In the nine games where Purifoy has scored 10 or less, Auburn averaged 72 points per game, and the Tigers didn’t score more than 84 points in any of those games. Both of Auburn’s losses also fall in that category.

Auburn’s SEC schedule has even bigger stat differences, but the Tigers have suffered their two losses on the road and their three wins have come at home, which always skews the numbers a bit.

The Tigers are averaging 81.7 points in those three home games and 55.5 points in their two losses.

That’s a massive drop off.

Compare it to Vanderbilt, who lost their best player and best shooter before their game against Texas A&M. With Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt was averaging 79.2 points per game. Without Nesmith, Vanderbilt has averaged 50 points per game. The difference being that Auburn didn’t lose its best player and has still seen a similar drop.

In Auburn’s three conference wins, Purifoy is averaging 10 points per game while shooting 66.7 from two, 28.6 percent from three and 100 percent from the line. He’s also averaging 1.7 assists to 0.7 turnovers, 6.3 rebounds and one steal per game in those three wins.

In Auburn’s two losses, Purifoy is averaging 9 points per game while shooting 33.3 percent from two and 27.3 percent from three. He’s also averaging 1.0 assists to 0.5 turnovers, 3.5 rebounds and 0.5 steals.

Like McLemore, Purifoy has the ability to stretch opposing defenses. This is important for Auburn, considering that drawing an opponent’s power forward away from the basket gives Wiley a lot more room to work and helps him avoid double teams.

Purifoy can also take advantage of slower defenders on the perimeter with his quick first step, handles and shooting.

Purifoy and McLemore are not the only reasons Auburn has hit a dry spell. It has been a team effort, and it’ll have to be a team effort for the Tigers to get out of it.

Will running more offense geared towards getting McLemore, Purifoy and Doughty open looks help? Probably. Are Auburn’s coaches multiple steps ahead of me, and likely already doing this/moving on to the next step? Even more likely.

Either way, if I was the coach I would probably run some of Auburn’s “Bryce Brown” plays for Doughty and Purifoy. I’d move them around, set screens for them and have them run around without the ball, to find them isolation matchups and open three pointers that work in their favor early on.

Samir Doughty seemed to score both of his back-to-back threes on these types of plays, compared to initiating the offense with the ball in his hand, as we have seen him do a lot of. (Which is something he’s good at and will still have to do, no matter what.)

If Auburn can get Doughty and Purifoy scoring 12-15 points per game, with McLemore effectively spreading the defense, Auburn should be able to get back into the top 10-15 range and could be a real problem for opponents with the defense the Tigers have been playing.

Auburn has other scoring threats like Jamal Johnson and J’Von McCormick, but like the rest of the team, the Tigers have to find ways to get them good shots in order to take full advantage of the defense Auburn is playing.