AUBURN — What stood out most to Georgia coach Tom Crean on Saturday was how nothing that happened to Auburn on offense had any effect on the way it played on the defensive end of the court.
He could sense his young Bulldogs taking the frustration that comes with missing 31 shots, 16 free throws and turning the ball over 14 times down the court with them, which resulted in things like Anfernee McLemore, Isaac Okoro and Danjel Purifoy knifing through their defense for a run of explosive second-half dunks in an 82-60 win.
The Tigers played a much more efficient game on offense, shooting 53.2 percent from the floor. But it’s not as if they were perfect — they made only 9 of 24 attempts from beyond the arc and missed more than half of their free throw attempts. It just never affected their defense.
That, Crean said, is "the difference in going against a highly-mature Final Four team that plays with tremendous spirit and energy versus a team that’s got to find some collective leadership."
And that defense is perhaps the biggest reason why Auburn is 15-0 (3-0 SEC) and ranked No. 4 in both major polls going into yet another rivalry game Wednesday night at Alabama (8-7, 1-2) in Tuscaloosa (8 p.m., ESPN2).
“I feel like we’re probably the best defensive team in the country,” Okoro said Tuesday. “We just work on it day in and day out in practice. (Head coach Bruce Pearl) instills that in us, so I feel like we’re one of the best teams at it.”
Auburn came into this season knowing that it couldn’t rely solely on its offensive ability to win games at a high level. Not after losing top three scorers Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke to the professional ranks and returning zero players who averaged more than 7.3 points per game last year,
“Nobody in our program could replace those three guys offensively,” Pearl said.
A balanced offense led by four starters (Okoro, J’Von McCormick, Samir Doughty and Austin Wiley) averaging between 10.7 and 15.7 points a game is still good, but Auburn's offense isn’t quite as lethal as last season’s, specifically from beyond the arc, where it ranks 220th nationally shooting 32.1 percent (after ranking 21st shooting 38.1 percent last season).
But, the defense has been dominant. KenPom rates it as the 33rd-best nationally in terms of efficiency. Whereas last season’s team relied on wreaking havoc — it ranked second nationally in both turnover and steal percentage — this one simply grinds opposing offenses into dust with its length and physicality.
“J'Von can defend like Jared,” Pearl said. “Samir is actually a stronger defender than Bryce, even though Bryce was tremendous on the ball and was a really good defensive force. Samir is a better overall defender. And then you add Isaac Okoro, who can be one of the better defensive guards in the country. And then Austin Wiley has improved his mobility and his defense. Anfernee's always been a factor defensively. Danjel has taken pride in the fact that he can guard multiple positions.”
It should be fascinating to see how that style of play travels to Coleman Coliseum on Wednesday. Alabama may be only one game above .500, but no team in the SEC has been more prolific on offense — the Crimson Tide lead the league scoring 83.2 points a game and rank second behind only Vanderbilt shooting 36.4 percent from beyond the arc. Guards Kira Lewis Jr. and John Petty Jr. are both averaging more than 16 points a game.
As a team, Alabama has attempted 440 3-pointers. That’s 54 more than the Tigers, who rank second in that category. First-year coach Nate Oats’ team is also one of the fastest in the entire country, ranking third in KenPom’s adjusted tempo measurement (to compare, Auburn ranks 113th).
That hasn’t translated to many wins, but the Crimson Tide is 6-3 over it last nine games, and in those three losses, Alabama played Penn State within two points, took Florida to double overtime and trailed No. 12 Kentucky by only three points with fewer than three minutes to play, all on the road.
“I’ve probably said the same things over and over again. We have to play a little better this week to beat this team,” Pearl said. “They’re getting it and going. They’re playing with great freedom. They’re (one of) the best 3-point shooting team in our league. They’re hard to guard because of it.”
The Tigers know they will go into that game with a target on their back. It’s a rivalry game, and they’re the road team with the 15-0 record. They’re also coming off a 66-60 win there last season, and they haven’t won two straight games in Tuscaloosa since they won three straight from 1969-71.
Oats was reminded Tuesday that, before the season, McLemore called Coleman Coliseum one of his favorite places to play because “I like seeing all the fans disappointed when we win.”