Auburn defense presents challenges, opportunities for Commodores

Auburn's half-court defense is tough to score on, but the 'Dores could find good shots in transition on Wednesday.

Riley LaChance (13) during Vanderbilt's 62-54 win against Auburn at Memorial Gym January 6, 2015.

After taking a positive first step in SEC play with a road win over LSU last Thursday, Vanderbilt will face a step up in competition Wednesday as the 10-3 Auburn Tigers visit Memorial Gymnasium.

A team filled with highly rated recruits, Auburn has finally started to see its recruiting efforts under head coach Bruce Pearl pay off. This year marks the program’s best 13-game start since 2012, and the Tigers hold an impressive neutral-site win over NCAA tournament contender Texas Tech.

Auburn’s No. 97 ranking by statistician Ken Pomeroy’s system suggests Pearl’s team won’t contend for the NCAA tournament itself, but there’s little doubt the season so far represents a step forward from the SEC’s cellar to the middle of the league.

Overall, the game presents a number of challenges for Vanderbilt as coach Bryce Drew’s squad hopes to continue building on its recent improvement in play. The Commodores will face a significant athleticism deficit, meaning it could be difficult to score in the half court against Auburn’s strong, young defenders who cover a lot of ground.

“They play at a very high tempo, and so us getting back on defense and us getting good shots on offense will be a key for us,” Drew said. “They’ve got four terrific freshmen that start and are very talented.”

Indeed, Auburn plays at the 10th-fastest pace in the country, per Pomeroy, and Synergy Sports Technology places the Tigers as the third-most prolific pressing team in the SEC at 10.7 possessions of press defense per game.

The more important part of the Tigers’ defensive fingerprint for Vanderbilt, though, comes in the half court. Auburn ranks in the 89th percentile nationally this year in half-court defense, allowing only .773 points per possession, according to Synergy. The Tigers’ three-point defense has been stellar this season, as they have allowed only 29.3 percent shooting from behind the arc this year.

Vanderbilt’s impressive long-range shooting should test that defense, but an off shooting night will lead to a loss if VU doesn’t have another plan of attack. Auburn’s defensive track record suggests the ‘Dores need to look to another route on offense Wednesday: the fast break.

Transition offense was one of Vanderbilt’s biggest bugaboos earlier this year, but it’s improving. After ranking around the 15th percentile in transition offense at one point in non-conference play, the Commodores are now up to 60th percentile as Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Nolan Cressler have all found their grooves in the open court. All three produce more than 1.25 points per possession in transition, falling between the 77th and 87th percentiles nationally.

The key here is that Auburn’s weakness on defense comes in transition. Despite all its athletes, Pearl’s team allows 1.027 points per possession in transition, placing it in the 39th percentile.

While Vanderbilt doesn’t have many explosive athletes who scare teams out in the open court, LaChance, Fisher-Davis and Cressler are all good outside shooters who can hunt threes in transition on Wednesday. Otherwise, it may be difficult for the Commodores to find much traction on offense.

Auburn’s offensive DNA sets up to help Vanderbilt in this quest for transition opportunities. The Tigers shoot more threes than any other team in the SEC, despite connecting at a mediocre 34.6 percent. Fans can expect a barrage of three-pointers Wednesday — Vanderbilt ranks second in the league in three-point attempts — and lots of missed Auburn threes mean there will be lots of long rebounds that can jump start Vanderbilt’s transition game.

Auburn’s shot selection has been a problem at times this year, and the Commodores’ success at goading the Tigers into too many jumpers will be key.

“I think going down the stretch when we have leads we need to take better shots,” Auburn freshman guard Mustapha Heron told AuburnTigers.com following the Tigers’ 96-84 loss to Georgia last Thursday. “I think my shot selection down the stretch was a little poor.”

In this way, Vanderbilt’s offensive and defensive goals in this game align well. The ‘Dores should want to force Auburn into hoisting ill-advised three-pointers due to the Tigers’ weak shooting, and the long rebounds that result can facilitate success on offense.

It’s a winning combination, and Vanderbilt should play to it if it wants to move to 2-0 in league play. Showing the ability to string together multiple good performances is a crucial part of the Commodores’ development, and a win over Auburn would be a nice second step toward doing so.

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