Monday, January 26, 2009

Signs of something approaching life



You know, I probably should have given them a little bit more credit than I did.

These were Auburn's four SEC outings heading into last Saturday's game at Arkansas, a game that wound up being the worst Hogs loss ever at Bud Walton Arena:

1. South Carolina: a not-particularly-competitive loss and the sort of game Auburn would have to win to actually make the NCAA tournament, but it did come on the road and the 'Cocks are well-coached (finally) and a bit underrated, as Florida found out.

2. Florida: A one-possession loss to the second-best team in the league

3. Alabama: A dominant blowout win

4. Kentucky: A competitive loss at the strongest team in the league.

Put that all together and ... well, after the loss at Carolina, which isn't entirely inexplicable, that's three straight decent-to-very-good performances. And Saturday was pretty obviously the topper: the Hogs are reeling, but a 22-point road win? 40 percent three-point shooting? Seven field goals allowed in the second half? Against the same team that beat Oklahoma? Well ... holy crap, guys. Sure, Auburn's 2-3 in the SEC, but only two of those games came against the weak sisters of the SEC West ... and both of those were total routs.

Consider also that Auburn's overall record doesn't look quite as bad as it used to. There's no excusing the Mercer loss, but Dayton and Xavier are a combined 35-2 and Northern Iowa is running away with the Missouri Valley. At the moment, all three are NCAA Tournament teams, and Auburn lost to them by a combined 14 points.

Your bottom line: This team is better than their record. Check out the Pomeroy ratings: Auburn is now 59th in the country, the fifth-best mark in the SEC. (South Carolina is one step behind.) Those same ratings project a final 9-7 SEC record and a 20-11 overall mark heading into the SEC tournament. Yep. A 20-win season is a possibility. Still not likely. But the evidence-to-date suggests this team might, um, actually be capable of it. I mean, look at the remaining schedule: Tennessee's the only likely tournament team left on it, and they come to Beard-Eaves.

More fun with Pomeroy: according to his measure of "luck," the witches' brew of scoring margin and schedule strength that indicates how far off a team's actual performance is from their record, Auburn ranks as the 326th-luckiest team in the country out of 344. That makes the Tigers not just the unluckiest team in the SEC, it makes them the unluckiest team in any BCS conference. That's definitely bad news in terms of the Tigers' season-to-date--turn the one-point loss to Dayton and three-point losses to the Gators and Mercer into wins, and Auburn's squarely on the bubble--but it does mean that Auburn should, hypothetically, regress back to the mean and win a few of the close games they've dropped to date.

For all of this good news, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. This team's not going to the NCAA Tournament unless they take the SEC tourney. (Or go 10-1 in the league down the stretch. That's not happening.) They're still the same team that lost to Mercer and could very, very well lose to Vandy at home this Saturday. They rely heavily on three seniors and aren't necessarily laying the foundation for bigger things in the future.

But I can admit this: they're better than I've been giving them credit for. They're sort of the same old Lebo Auburn teams--close calls, no big wins--and it's fair to say that the old Lebo Auburn teams could have also snuck out of Bud Walton with a win Saturday. But the old Lebo Auburn teams would not have smashed their way out with a 22-point beatstick. This is new. This is different. I don't know if it's different enough for Lebo to save his job, but if Auburn continues to play the way they did Saturday, it'll at least be worth discussing.

And that's a discussion, I'll be honest, I never expected to have.

3 comments:

Iggy said...

Jerry-

As a mid-major devotee, I would think you could develop a soft spot in your heart for this AU men's hoop team. They have mid-major size and play a style that many smaller teams from more obscure conferences use to advantage in the NCAA tourney. If they could shoot a little bit, they'd be dangerous. Of course, the lack of shooting ability speaks to Lebo's chief weakness -- he has not recruited well. Look at the SEC team stats and move AU a couple of rungs up the FT % or FG % rankings and do the math. It is surprising. In fact, if AU shot FTs as well as Kentucky, they would probably have a better record than Kentucky.

Of course, if I were younger, better looking and had musical ability, I might be a rock star.

jd said...

Pomeroy's "projected record" at the bottom of the schedule says 20-11 (9-7), but if you look at the portion of the schedule which hasn't been played, he predicts us to win all but two of those games (@LSU, @MSU). That would move us to 22-9 (11-5(!)) and with a couple of SEC tourney wins, we'd have to at least be in the minds of the committee.

That having been said, there's no way that's gonna happen. We may have an NIT bid coming our way, though!

Jerry Hinnen said...

jd, thanks for the clarification--you're right. I honestly think that 11-5 mark isn't completely out of the question--as I said, there's no one left on the schedule Auburn would even be a substantial underdog to.

Iggy, I might have expected that comment after the post-Kentucky post, but I thought this post DID have something of a soft spot for the team. I apologized, sort of, for not giving them enough credit after that game; I acknowledged that they've improved over last season and that Lebo might actually save himself; I pointed out all the reasons this team is better than their record, or, frankly, that I've been saying they've been. I suppose I could be more rah-rah about it, but otherwise, I thought it was a positive approach.

In any case, you're right that AU's FT % hurts them tremendously, and no one but Barber can finish at the rim at all, but the 3-point % is on the up-and-up ... that's two games in a row they've shot pretty well on the road. Anything remotely like that against Florida, and they beat the Gators by double digits. Sigh.