Tennessee exposed Auburn’s Achilles heel heading into the SEC Tournament and March Madness

The Auburn Tigers are one of the deepest teams in the country and are top 20 in defensive efficiency, but Bruce Pearl's team has one glaring weakness and Dalton Knecht took advantage of it on Tuesday night.
Tennessee Volunteers guard Dalton Knecht (3)
Tennessee Volunteers guard Dalton Knecht (3) / Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

As ESPN analyst and color commentator at the Thompson-Boling Arena last night Jimmy Dykes said, Bruce Pearl goes nearly 11 deep and he doesn’t put a bad defender on the floor. That might be true, but that doesn’t mean that Pearl’s 21-7 (10-5) Auburn Tigers don’t run into bad matchups. 

Against Tennessee, Dalton Knecht wasn’t just a bad matchup, he was a nightmare for Pearl. The 6-foot-6 wing, Knecht, finished with 39 points after erupting for 27 in the second half and dragging the Vols to a 92-84 victory on their home court. In the process, he exposed Auburn’s glaring weakness right in time for the calendar to turn to the all-important month of March. 

Pearl has 10 or 11 players who belong on the floor in an SEC basketball game, but two years removed from Jabari Smith leading his team to a regular season conference title, he neglected to add an elite wing defender to his roster, which Smith certainly was. 

In Auburn’s first matchup with Tennessee, and the Tigers have to expect there will be another in the SEC Tournament, Pearl gave 6-foot-7 220-pound Chaney Johnson just his second start of the year. Johnson played 20 minutes compared to his usual 15 and finished with six points on 2-4 from the field, but didn’t attempt a three-pointer in the game and threw off Auburn’s spacing on the offensive end. 

Lior Berman was employed to chase Knecht around for nine minutes, three more than his typical six, but in crunch time Pearl had a choice: keep Johnson on the floor to slow down Knecht or close with Chad Baker-Mazara, his third-leading scorer, to help match Knecht’s offensive avalanche. 

Pearl chose the latter and Auburn scored 21 points over the last 12 minutes of the game against the No. 7 team in the country in defensive efficiency. Knecht had 25. 

The 6-foot-7 180-pound Baker-Mazara was too slight to prevent Knecht’s straight line drives to the rim, but where Tennessee really took advantage of him was with off-ball screens. Nearly every possession looked the same in crunch time, Knecht gave the ball up, went underneath the basketball with a screener to either side of him, curled, and knocked down a shot or torched a slower-footed defender in a switch. 

Now, this next sequence, more than it’s a weakness for Auburn, is just ridiculous shot-making from the best individual scorer in college basketball, not named Caitlin Clark.  

This third is a result of a switch, but not onto Jaylin Williams. Instead, Knecht started to hunt Johni Broome when he realized that Baker-Mazara was unable to navigate through screens and the physical toll left him exhausted. 

Oh, and be sure you don’t miss Baker-Mazara’s defensive indifference after Knecht blew by Broome. 

Baker-Mazara couldn’t hang on defense and the exhaustion resulted in a 3-10 night shooting from the San Diego State transfer. Yet, Pearl doesn’t have a better option. Auburn relies so heavily on Broome’s offensive playmaking both as a passer and a scorer, that Baker-Mazara needs to be on the floor. 

The silver lining is that there aren’t many players like Knecht in the entire country let alone the SEC. Auburn is still a team capable of making the Final Four, but it’s highly contingent on the opponent they draw, and that’s not a comfortable place to be heading into March. 

Pearl isn’t going to suddenly find a wing-stopper, but if he doesn’t find a better way to cover up his team’s most glaring deficiency, then they could be on an early flight back from Nashville, or wherever they end up in the NCAA Tournament. 

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