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Kentucky Wildcats
Once every UK fan had chewed their nails sufficiently to the quick, PJ Washington and Tyler Herro rescued the Wildcats to send them into the Elite Eight. The Auburn Tigers await, winners of 11 in a row since being humbled by Kentucky in Rupp Arena on February 23rd. While it might seem comforting for UK to draw an opponent who they've beaten twice, this Auburn team has racked up several impressive wins and is playing their best basketball in recent weeks. In this special edition of Hoops Insight, I'm going to give the Auburn Tigers my deep dive treatment in order to preview this clash.

First, let's take a look at Auburn's stats profile. I've sliced it three ways:

First, the full season...

...Then, just their games against NCAA tournament-quality teams...

...and finally, just their recent 11 game win streak

For the full season, Auburn has been a very strong team. They currently rank 11th in KenPom's ratings with an adjusted margin of +26 points per 100 possessions, just a bit behind Kentucky. Auburn is a team with some clear strengths and weaknesses. They have weaponized the three point shot, shooting it frequently and effectively. Auburn is the best team at the nation at forcing turnovers, and 5th best in blocking shots. They are a pretty poor rebounding team, and are downright poor defensively when not forcing a turnover. While Auburn blocks a lot of shots at the rim, they let opponents score from the three-point line and the free throw line.

Against NCAA tournament-quality teams this year, Auburn was a bit worse, even by my opponent-adjusted metric of adjusted margin per possession. The Tigers were 26 points per 100 possessions better than average for the season, but only 21 pts/100 better when playing stronger teams. This indicates that their rating was a bit inflated by blowouts over lesser teams, but they weren't as effective against better competition. Kentucky, on the other hand, had virtually the same adjusted margin in both cases. Against these stronger teams, Auburn's weaknesses were magnified and their strengths were tempered a bit. Auburn allowed NCAA tournament-level teams an even better effective FG%, and the Tigers were even worse rebounding. Auburn's better opponents turned the ball over a bit less, although Auburn shot just as well.

In the last 11 games, Auburn has managed to turn it up a notch, however. Their adjusted margin is 30 pts/100 in that stretch. While opponents are still shooting very well, and Auburn is still rebounding poorly, the Tigers have been shooting even better and forcing turnovers a bit more. Auburn also has been sending opponents to the free throw line a little less often. These little things add up to a team that is playing at their highest level of the season right now.

What's Changed in the last 11 games?

First, Auburn appears to have leaned even further into three point shooting. For the season Auburn is 8th nationally, with half of their shots coming from behind the arc. In the last 11 games, this has jumped to 55.5%. Only 2017 and 2019 Savannah State have ever exceeded that mark for a full season. Even the NBA's Houston Rockets, with their reputation as remorseless gunners from three, only take 51.5% of their shots from deep. Auburn is taking more threes than any major conference team in NCAA history!

Auburn has also made an adjustment in their rotation to force more turnovers. They have slashed the playing time for Austin Wiley, who has the lowest steal rate on the team. During Auburn's first 27 games, Wiley played about 12 minutes per game. He then missed 5 games in a row, and has played 45 minutes in their last 6 games (7.5 per). Auburn has forced turnovers on about 26% of opponent possessions this year when Wiley sits, and only 22% when he plays. During the last 11 games, Auburn is still forcing turnovers on 26% of the possessions when he sits, but because he's sitting more they've forced more turnovers overall. More minutes have gone to backup bigs Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy, who happen to have 2 of the top 5 steal rates on the team. 

But now Okeke's hurt...what does that mean?

I'll be honest, before I looked at the stats I assumed that missing Okeke would hurt Auburn significantly. He plays the most minutes of any of their bigs, and is the team's best NBA prospect. The data doesn't tell that story, however. Over the full season, Auburn has been worse with Okeke on the bench. This seems to be driven mostly by giving up more free throws and forcing fewer turnovers.


In the last 11 games, Auburn has played at their season average when Okeke is in. They've been much better when he's out, however, as they've been shooting the lights out when he sits:


This shooting display isn't just the result of 1 or 2 hot games, or games against poor teams, or a couple games early in the streak. In 4 of the last 5 games, Auburn has an effective Fg% of 70% or better when Okeke sits (all except Kansas). Against Florida, Tennessee, New Mexico St., and UNC, Auburn played 70 possessions without Okeke and shot 68% from 2 and 59% from 3. 

The most interesting thing to me isn't that they've had some hot shooting, however. It's that Auburn has been completely dependent on hot shooting without Okeke in the last 11 games. During that stretch, Auburn has 6 games where they had an eFG% of 50% or better when Okeke sat (Georgia, Ole Miss, Florida & Tennessee in the SEC tourney, and New Mexico St & UNC in the NCAA tourney). In those 6 games, Auburn had an eFG% of 78% while opponents were at 53%. Auburn rebounded poorly, fouled a ton, but forced turnovers, and they were +43 in 107 possessions with an adjusted margin of +62 pts/100 poss.

But in the other 5 games, Auburn was much worse when Okeke sat. They had an eFG% of 42%, while opponents were at 49%. Auburn still couldn't rebound, although they fouled a bit less. Auburn was outscored by 4 points in 75 possessions, for an adjusted margin of +7 pts/100 poss.

Another major factor with Okeke out is that he plays by far the most minutes of any Auburn big. He averages 29.1 minutes per game; the next highest for a big is 18.5 for Anfernee McLemore. That's a lot of minutes for Auburn to fill. 

My best guess is that Danjel Purifoy is about to set his season high for minutes played, for two reasons. First, he started as a freshman in 2017 over Austin Wiley, Horace Spencer, and Anfernee McLemore, who are the other options to fill in with Okeke hurt. Second, although Purifoy has not played more than 20 minutes this season, he has played 180 of the 182 possessions when Okeke has sat in the last 11 games. Auburn's coaches clearly see Purifoy as a fill-in for Okeke, and have had one of them on the court for nearly every minute of the 11 game winning streak. Compared to Okeke, Purifoy is about his equal as a shooter, but a little worse rebounder and nowhere near as good of a shotblocker. Kentucky should be able to have success inside if Purifoy fills in for Okeke.

Another option is having Austin Wiley fill in. I doubt Auburn does this, however, considering he's been basically out of their rotation lately (and may still be recovering from a back injury). Also, Auburn's success has come because of a style of play that Wiley does not fit into; he's a complete non-shooter from deep, and doesn't force turnover. He is Auburn's best shot-blocker, but it seems like they're willing to forego that in order to double down on threes and turnovers.

What about the Auburn/UK matchup?

Well, UK won twice already, but that's not the analysis you came here for. Here are the stats profiles for UK and Auburn from their 2 games

UK vs Auburn, Jan 19 and Feb 23

Auburn vs UK, Jan 19 and Feb 23

UK shot the lights out against Auburn, with a 63% eFg% in 2 games. UK's 4 most played lineups all were red-hot, and accounted for 24 points of the 29 point scoring margin. Auburn's most played lineup got throttled, with a -11 in 24 possessions. The key for Auburn was forcing turnovers; of their 5 most played lineups, the three who had positive scoring margins forced turnovers 19%, 25%, and 14% of the time. The two who had negative scoring margins forced turnovers 4% and 7% of the time. One UK lineup played 10 possessions, committed zero turnovers, and outscored Auburn by 11 points: Hagans/Herro/Johnson/Washington/Richards. They didn't just get lucky against Auburn, either. UK played 6 other teams who are in the top 50 nationally in forcing turnovers (Montmouth, UNC Greensboro, Florida, Arkansas, and Abilene Christian). This lineup committed turnovers on only 6% of possessions, when these teams normally force turnovers on over 22%. This is a group that should get some time against Auburn, since avoiding turnovers seems to be the key for UK beating Auburn.

In summary, here are a few things to remember about the UK/Auburn matchup:
  • Expect Auburn to shoot more threes than you've ever seen a college team shoot
  • UK should be able to get some threes and free throws of their own, and dominate the boards
  • Without Okeke, Auburn will likely double down on their style and play Purifoy a lot, while keeping Wiley on the bench; Auburn will likely be dependent on very hot shooting, even more than usual
  • UK has been able to pull away from Auburn this season by not committing turnovers; Hagans/Herro/Johnson/Washington/Richards have been excellent at that and should be very valuable
If you made it this far, you've probably read more about Auburn than you ever imagined you would. Congratulations, and enjoy the game.


 
I want to thank you for subscribing to my newsletter. At Hoops Insight, I hope to use data to find insights that reveal things you didn't realize about the Kentucky Wildcats. I'm using play-by-play data to track what's happening, who's doing it, and who is in the game, in order to show you things the box score can't. Check out my past newsletters in the Hoops Insight Archive, and read about the stats I like to use in my stats glossary.

If you have any questions about things I'm saying, the data behind it, or if you just want to debate a point, feel free to contact me on Twitter at @hoopsinsights or email at sean@hoopsinsight.com. I'd love your feedback on the newsletter and how I can improve. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy my work.
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