I got together with SB Nation's excellent new Auburn blog, College and Magnolia, to discuss this weekend's game. Here's what they had to say about the contest. My answers to their questions should be up soon.
1. Auburn struggled out of the gate but seems to have turned a corner over the past couple of weeks, with a close loss to Illinois and wins over FSU and LSU. What's Auburn done to get better?
I think dropping heartbreakers at home to Rhode Island and DePaul shook them up a bit. Tony Barbee has always emphasized being hungry and nasty and the small things have started to improve. I was in Chicago for the Illinois game, and what I saw was better communication and composure in the second half. Auburn is learning how to put together an entire game.
2. It seems like a ton of Auburn's offense runs through Frankie Sullivan. What can Carolina do to slow him down? Who are Auburn's other good scoring options?
The only way to slow Sullivan down is to double- or triple-team him. The guy can make things happen. He did have a few questionable passes in the game against LSU. He isn't a true point guard so I think Carolina could pressure him, but when he gets hot, he will score regardless.
As the season has progressed, we saw the return of Chris Denson from academic ineligibility to really ignite the offense. Jordan Price got hot and tied the SEC record for consecutive made three-point shots (11). Now, both are out with stress fractures. So goes Auburn basketball. Sullivan has had a few games in which he wasn't scoring the majority of the points and the offense started to come in from all over. Rob Chubb had a great game against LSU. Noel Johnson is a fantastic catch and shoot guy with a gorgeous three-point shot. Shaquille Johnson, a true freshman, is showing he can do more than dunk, and Allen Payne has really come on strong in the last few games, as well. So, Auburn finally has options.
3. With its thin front courts, Carolina has struggled against Rob Chubb in recent years. What kind of senior year is he having?
Chubb is a very capable player, but there are times when he lacks consistency. Over the past two years, he has put on good weight but hasn't always played like the big guy he is. I think the biggest change in Chubb this year is having the 7'0 JUCO transfer, Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, pushing him for playing time. Barbee always starts Chubb, and I haven't decided if he subs in ADT to keep both players fresh or because Chubb frequently gets into foul trouble. Based on the Illinois and FSU games alone, Chubb's ball-handling skills are better and that crazy little hook shot of his can be gold.
4. More generally, what are Auburn's strengths and weaknesses at this point?
When Jeff from And the Valley Shook asked me prior to the LSU game, I was brutally honest in saying that Auburn hasn't really shown what its strength is this year. Things that seem to come together in one game -- offense, free throw shooting, creating breakaways, etc. -- seem to never come together in the next game. This last three game stretch is showing improved consistency on offense in terms of players other than Sullivan making shots.
Auburn continues to struggle with two things that could quite possibly cause ulcers among our entire staff - free throw shooting and perimeter defense. They are making roughly 70% of their free throws, which isn't awful. But when one considers that more than a handful of games were lost in the final minutes when made free throws could have iced an earlier lead, it is tough to watch. The perimeter defense was ugly in the beginning (see Boston College and Rhode Island) but might be coming along after all (see Illinios, FSU and LSU).
5. What's the ceiling for Auburn this year?
That is really tough for me to answer, only because the entire SEC is down right now. If Auburn continues to play the way it has played recently, I would guesstimate coming out .500 or better on conference play.
6. Give us a prediction.
I think Auburn will pull off the win, which will be huge given how much the Tigers struggled on the road last season. They were in hostile territory in Chicago against Illinois and the crowd noise never really got to them. I think it will be close but if they can stay strong in the second half, they go home victorious.