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Auburn is the SEC’s lone remaining undefeated team in conference play. How did this happen?

Bruce Pearl’s team was tabbed to finish ninth in the preseason and two key players haven’t played this year.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Mississippi State Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Where college football is static, college basketball can be wild and unpredictable at times, and that’s one of the most fun features of the sport. Every now and then, an unheralded squad will come along and do great things.

This year, that’s the Auburn Tigers. Auburn finished last season 18-14, 7-11 in the SEC, and the Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the SEC’s preseason media poll. And that was before we learned that Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two returning starters from last year’s team, would not play at all. (The NCAA hasn’t issued an official ruling on Purifoy, but it’s commonly believed that he will not play for Auburn this season.) Assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and placed on indefinite leave from his position as a result of an FBI investigation.

None of this suggested a team that would be 16-1 in the middle of January or ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2003, yet here we are. Auburn is good at basketball again and will likely play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years — and there’s a real chance they will when the SEC for just the third time in their history. How did we get here?

Free Throws!

Auburn’s improvement at the foul line has been simply staggering. Last year, the Tigers ranked 281st nationally, shooting 67.2 percent at the line. This year, they’re shooting 77.9 percent -- good for 13th in the country.

For a team that averages around 25 free throw attempts per game, that jump means 2.5 extra points per game on offense. This is one place where not having Wiley honestly helps them — Wiley shot 49.1 percent at the line last year and also averaged five attempts per game. So, too, does losing T.J. Dunans, who graduated. Dunans was the second-least efficient offensive player in the SEC last year and also shot 54.7 percent at the foul line. This year, though, no Auburn regular is shooting worse than 68 percent at the line; and the four players with over 50 attempts — Mustapha Heron, DeSean Murray, Bryce Brown, and Jared Harper -- are all shooting north of 80 percent.

Defense and Rebounding

The Tigers have improved from 136th in the country in offensive rebound rate to 14th -- and that’s even with the loss of Wiley.

It turns out that Auburn’s replacements for Wiley and Purifoy are actually pretty good, though none of them play enough minutes to put up the kind of numbers that make national writers take notice. Anfernee McLemore has actually posted the second-best block rate in the country — but since he averages 19.6 minutes a game, he’s averaging “only” 3.1 blocks per game (which, well, still leads the SEC and ranks 8th in the country.) Add in Horace Spencer’s 1.2 blocks per game, DeSean Murray’s 0.7 blocks per game, and Chuma Okeke’s 0.5 a game, and suddenly Auburn has a fierce interior defense.

That’s fueled an improvement from 147th to 45th nationally in defensive efficiency. Last year, Auburn could score quite a bit but they couldn’t stop anybody; this year, the Tigers have a legitimately tough defense. What’s more, McLemore, Spencer, Okeke, and Murray are all good rebounders as well, which limits second chances for Auburn’s opponents and also generates a ton of second chances for the Tigers. That’s part of how Auburn has gone from 54th in offensive efficiency to 16th, though the defensive improvement is a bigger reason.


Lastly, this isn’t the kind of thing that can be quantified in the stat sheet, but Auburn seems to have better chemistry as a team than they’ve had in recent years. Bruce Pearl openly admitted that he had some players last year who were unhappy with their minutes and/or usage, and that was a big reason that Auburn finished 18-14 after an 11-2 start.

This year, though, that doesn’t appear to be an issue. Auburn is playing a nine-man rotation, and nobody seems to be playing a bigger role than they’re suited for -- but equally important, the players seem to like playing with one another and everybody seems to be accepting their role on the team. All of this is adding up to a team that’s vastly exceeded preseason expectations and will likely continue to do so.