AUBURN — On March 23 of last year, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Bryce Brown went supernova. He hit his first six shots and scored 17 points in the first 14 minutes of the game, helping Auburn build a 20-point lead in an eventual rout of Kansas.
A little more than a week later on March 31, in the Elite Eight, Jared Harper delivered in a win over Kentucky. he tied the game in the final seconds to send it to overtime, then scored 12 of his team’s 17 points in the extra period.
That’s what this year’s Auburn team seemed to be missing this week during back-to-back losses at Alabama (by 19 points) and Florida (by 22). It turned a 15-0 team with a top-five ranking into a 15-2 one that suddenly looks quite vulnerable without a player who can create offense when nothing seems to be working, whether that be early in a game or late.
Auburn went into Wednesday’s game in Tuscaloosa ranked second in the SEC scoring 82.1 points per game and shooting 46.6 percent from the floor. Against the Crimson Tide, they scored 64 points on 31.7 percent shooting. Against the Gators, 47 on 25.5 percent.
The latter totals mark the program’s worst since a 71-45 loss at Tennessee on Feb. 9, 2016, when it shot just 23.7 percent.
"When I get asked the question, 'What can this team do to really take that next step?’” head coach Bruce Pearl told the Auburn Sports Network after the game, “it's to, you know, shoot the ball better.”
Over their previous eight games going into Wednesday’s rivalry bout, the Tigers shot just 36.9 percent through the first 10 minutes. They just always managed to flip the switch about midway through the first half — the Tigers shot 47.2 percent over the remainder of those contests.
But as Pearl said Tuesday, the more games you play, the more you put on tape. Eventually, one of those opponents is going to find something that works, and other teams are going to try it.
Auburn went into Wednesday’s game ranked fourth nationally making 57.1% of its two-point attempts. So Alabama packed the paint to make those shots more difficult, and Florida followed suit. After making 32 of 54 dunk and layup attempts in wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia (59.3 percent), the Tigers made just 18 of 49 over the two losses (42.9 percent).
The Tigers are now shooting just 30.9 percent from beyond the arc, which ranks 269th out of 353 Division I programs.
“The scouting report is out. It’s out,” Pearl said.
“We reinvented ourselves this year to become a better two-point shooting team,” he added later. “Getting the ball inside better, driving better, because that is our strength. But when teams are sinking, building walls, and using verticality, that is what we are seeing now so we have to make that adjustment.”
Samir Doughty, the team’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, made just 5 of 23 shots against Alabama and Florida and is shooting just 32.7 percent from the floor (21.6 percent from beyond the arc) over Auburn’s last 10 games dating back to the start of December. Isaac Okoro, the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game, is shooting an efficient 53.3 percent this season but is still not a threat from the outside, having made only 9 of 36 3-point attempts all season.
J’Von McCormick, who took over for Harper as the team’s starting point guard, ranks third on the team averaging 10.9 points per game, but he’s shooting 38.6 percent from the floor and 29.6 percent from beyond the arc for the season and has been held to single digits in six of the Tigers’ last eight games.
"I think the biggest thing that we can do offensively is find ways to have more than seven assists," Pearl said. "Our playmaking guards can do a better job of making plays for others. I thought we got the ball inside to Austin a lot. We could have gotten it in there a little more."
The last two games have raised the question: Who does Auburn go to when things aren’t clicking on offense? Okoro, the leading scorer with 13 points against Alabama, scored only one of those after halftime. Purifoy was the only player in double figures against Florida, and he finished with just 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting.
Doughty tried to be the guy late Saturday. After making only 2 of 11 shots against the Crimson Tide and not scoring until early in the second half against the Gators, he hit back-to-back 3-pointers with just less than 10 minutes to play in the second half to cut the Tigers’ deficit down to six points.
From there, though, Auburn missed nine straight shots over the final eight minutes. Florida closed the game on a 20-4 run.
"It was a big game," Pearl said, "and we weren’t able to finish."