As students begin returning to campus this weekend, the focus on sports will pivot to Auburn Arena and the basketball team. The Tigers (6-4, 0-2 SEC) have been up and down as they’ve tried to balance youth against a tough schedule.
After a rocky 1-2 start, Auburn ripped off five consecutive wins to close out non-conference play, highlighted by a thrilling 74-71 win over Memphis. Although dropping their first two conference games has been jarring, the improvements of certain players have been clear.
Allen Flanigan has emerged as a constant scoring threat, averaging a team-leading 14.5 points per game. Freshman Justin Powell has fit nicely into the starting point guard spot, averaging 11.7 points per game and putting up two separate 26-point performances in non-conference play. Both are shooting over 41% from 3-point range.
Big men JT Thor, Dylan Cardwell, and Babatunde Akingbola have provided size and strength in the frontcourt. Akingbola has tallied 12 blocks on the season.
As the SEC gauntlet approaches, Tiger fans are hoping that the team will be able to return to full strength. Auburn’s top recruit, Sharife Cooper, has been barred from appearing on the court this season due to an NCAA investigation. #FreeSharife has made the rounds on social media, but as it stands today, Auburn has yet to receive a decision—although Cooper has been granted permission to practice with the team. Meanwhile, the next two Saturdays will see the Tigers face Alabama and Kentucky, games they’d surely prefer to play with all hands on deck.
As for improvement, the Tigers will need to do better from the free throw and 3-point lines. Outside of Powell and Flanigan, no Auburn player is shooting better than 35.4% from the 3-point line, a mark held by junior Jamal Johnson. From the charity stripe, no player outside those same two is shooting better than 70%.
Bruce Pearl’s teams have routinely struggled at converting free throws, and being able to make them down the stretch is often enough to swing the outcomes of games. One way or another, the Tigers must develop an inside game that generates points to avoid being left behind. If Auburn’s young players can consistently score no matter the situation over the next two months, Tiger fans will be in for another thrilling season in the SEC.
Auburn travels to Ole Miss to play the Rebels on January 6th.