Basketball

Has Basketball No. 5 Auburn unlocked anything special with a new 3-guard fence formation?

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Bruce Pearl searched for answers as his team’s opportunity to win an SEC title dwindled at Humphrey Coliseum late Wednesday night.

The eighth-year Auburn coach saw his team’s lead, which reached 19 points in the first half, vanish overnight. What initially looked like an extended crowning glory for the Tigers as the SEC regular-season champions turned into a siege; Auburn was battling to avoid a fourth straight road loss and another golden opportunity to clinch, while Mississippi State clung to its NCAA Tournament hopes, leading by two in the final minutes of regulation.

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Both teams were desperately trying to take control late. It turns out that desperation can inspire innovation. That was the case, at least, for Pearl following a Mississippi State turnover with 1:57 left in the second half.

With his team down two and in need of a fix, Pearl made a change. He replaced Devan Cambridge and slotted KD Johnson into the game, fielding a five-man unit that had yet to play a minute together all season – let alone close out a game together. Johnson joined fellow Zep guards Jasper and Wendell Green Jr. on the field, as well as a front line of Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler.

It was a roster that included Auburn’s top five players — all five new to the roster last offseason — but had yet to be implemented in a game. Now Pearl was turning to that unit in one of the Tigers’ most crucial regular-season situations.

“Well, when you lose a 19-point lead, I guess as a coach you start throwing stuff to the wind and seeing what sails or what floats,” Pearl said. “I just felt we had to shake things up.”

This range did more than float; it flew away.

The five-man unit – which included four starters and the Tigers’ sixth man in green – played the game’s final 6:57 and was huge as Auburn passed Mississippi State at the end of regulation and throughout overtime. The three-guard roster beat the Bulldogs, 22-7, in that final streak, starting with Smith’s tying jumper in the final minute of regulation time and then a 20-point outburst in overtime (which nearly tied the Tigers’ 21-point second half).

“We’re a hot team, you know,” Johnson said. “If we’re hot, we’re on. If we leave, we leave. We decided to catch fire at the right time and get the W.”

This range of new looks made it to both ends of the floor. Offensively, he shot 6 of 9 from the field and 9 of 10 from the free throw line while committing just two turnovers. Defensively, that group forced five turnovers at Mississippi State — all in overtime — and held the Bulldogs to 1-for-7 shooting in the final seven minutes of action.

In a game in which Auburn were 18 out on the night, this three-guard lineup came out even on the boards — 6-6 down the stretch.

“It worked out pretty well,” Pearl said. “We had turned the ball too much in the second half, and therefore put our three best ball handlers in the game with our two big ones, just I thought that maybe we could reduce some turnovers and get some more speed and quickness in the game.”

This formation propelled Auburn to an 81-68 victory and guaranteed the team at least a share of the SEC regular season title. The Tigers can win the league championship on Saturday at home against South Carolina and solidify the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament next week.

Although Auburn’s main goal this week is to get that seed — and position themselves for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — Pearl’s innovative wrinkle could be crucial for the Tigers going forward. approaching the playoffs. It’s unlikely to be a formation Auburn uses throughout games, as it features the three best ball handlers on the roster on the court at once, but Pearl may have unlocked something that could propel the team until March.

Jasper has rarely closed games this season, with Pearl opting instead for Green to score a point late in the contests. But the three-guard formation – which still includes the best frontcourt in the country and the biggest of Pearl’s career – could give the team a new fencing unit that has two benefits: the group has shown it can be effective on both sides. off the floor, and there’s minimal tape for opponents to dissect with those five on the floor together at this late stage in the season.

It also gives Auburn an option to ease some of the pressure on Allen Flanigan, who is still trying to regain his form after his preseason Achilles injury but is usually on the team’s closing unit. .

“When you have the starting five that we have, and you put Wendell in the game at the end because Wendell was our end playmaker, and that takes Zep out, that’s hard to do, because Zep doesn’t hasn’t closed a lot of games for us this year,” Pearl said. “…And yet he’s our starting point guard. And what’s Zep going to do? He’s going to defend. He’s not going to put it back. open shot. I trust him. So that’s a good thing to have at the end of the game.

Maybe even good enough to give Auburn an extra playoff advantage.

Tom Green is an Auburn Beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.