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Did Auburn unlock something special with new 3-guard closing lineup?


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Did Auburn unlock something special with new 3-guard closing lineup?

By Tom Green | tgreen@al.com
6-7 minutes

K.D. Johnson, Garrison Brooks, Iverson Molinar

 

Bruce Pearl was searching for answers as his team’s opportunity to capture an SEC title dwindled in Humphrey Coliseum late Wednesday night.

The eighth-year Auburn coach watched as his team’s lead—which reached 19 points in the first half—vanished into the night. What felt early on like an extended coronation of the Tigers as SEC regular-season champs turned into a siege; Auburn was fighting to avoid a fourth straight road loss and another golden opportunity to clinch, while Mississippi State was clinging to its NCAA Tournament hopes, leading by two inside the final minutes of regulation.

Read more Auburn hoops: Walker Kessler “working through” left shoulder injury

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K.D. Johnson takes over in OT as Auburn clinches share of SEC title

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

With his team down by two and needing a solution, Pearl made a change. He subbed out Devan Cambridge and inserted K.D. Johnson into the game, putting on the court a five-man unit that had yet to play a minute together all season — let alone close out a game together. Johnson joined fellow guards Zep Jasper and Wendell Green Jr. on the court, along with a frontline of Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler.

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

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

That lineup did more than float; it soared.

The five-man unit — which included four starters and the Tigers’ sixth man in Green — played the final 6:57 of the game and came up huge as Auburn surged past Mississippi State at the end of regulation and throughout overtime. The three-guard lineup outscored the Bulldogs, 22-7, during that closing stretch—starting with Smith’s game-tying jumper in the final minute of regulation and then a 20-point outburst in the overtime period (which nearly matched the Tigers’ 21-point second half offense).

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

That new-look lineup got it done on both ends of the floor. Offensively, it 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 Mississippi State turnovers — all of them in overtime — and held the Bulldogs to 1-of-7 shooting over the final seven minutes of action.

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

“It wound up working out pretty well,” Pearl said. “We had turned the ball over too much in the second half, and so putting our three best ball-handlers in the game together with our two bigs, just I thought allowed us to maybe cut down on some turnovers and get a little bit more speed and quickness into the game.”

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

While getting that top seed — and positioning itself for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — is Auburn’s main objective this week, Pearl’s innovative lineup wrinkle could be pivotal for the Tigers as the postseason nears. It’s not likely to be a lineup that Auburn uses throughout games, because it does feature the top-three ball-handlers on the roster on the court at once, but Pearl may have unlocked something that could propel the team through March.

Jasper has rarely closed out games this season, with Pearl instead opting for Green to run point late in contests. But the three-guard lineup — which still features the best frontcourt in the country and the biggest of Pearl’s career —could give the team a new closing unit that has two things going for it: The group has shown it can be efficient on both ends of the floor, and there is minimal tape for opponents to dissect with those five on the floor together at this late juncture of the season.

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

“When you’ve got the starting five that we have, and then you put Wendell in the game at the end because Wendell’s been our closing point guard, and it takes Zep out, that’s hard to do, because Zep hasn’t closed a lot of games for us this year,” Pearl said. “…And yet he’s our starting point guard. And what is Zep going to do? He’s going to defend. He’s not going to turn it over. He’s going to make an 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 added edge in the postseason.

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I posted on this in a different thread but will add a little more content.

It was clear that the plan was for Flan to carry a bigger load as he came back from his injury given what he was able to do last year.  I think the numbers show he was coming along in January until the month of February.  Then, for some reason, Flan's point production dropped off.  Zep was getting a little less time; his defensive and low TO rate were desired, but I think his point production was undervalued.  I think the coaching staff was trying to work through it but the loss of Zep points AND Flan points was enough for us to have a lot of close games with us loosing games on the road during the month of February.  

The OM and MSU game clearly showed Zep can score more points.  In fact his 3 point production, when he shot, was impressive.  I believe Zep's body of work this season indicate he is capable of consistently scoring more if his role is expanded a bit.  So I think what we saw in the MSU game IS a sign of the way we will play going forward.  We will use Zep for more time (30+ min) and we will change how we sub to help eliminate scoring flat spots.  

Flan's time will decrease, but he will still play an important role because of his defensive abilities.  I will say this about Flan even though his point production fell off - he can still score points even when he gets less time.  Wen, KD and Zep numbers suggest when they have low minutes playing time, they don't really score much.  Flan could still give us 2-4 pts per game with only ~20 min playing time.  That may not seem like a lot, but how and when the guards are used can eliminate the scoring droughts and increase our overall scoring numbers.  I expect to see them experiment a bit, from the MSU game to fine tuning how they will make substitutions going forward.

I think one of the unexpected benefits of this playing out in February was Jabari's more aggressive play emerging during this time - he is also scoring a lot more.  If Kess can get over his shoulder issue in the next 10 days, I think we will field a more potent offensive team while retaining our defensive play as we play on neutral courts for the SEC and NCAA tournaments.  

zep and flan points.jpg

Zep and Flan minutes.jpg

zep and Flan points per minute.jpg

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I would also love to see a situational big lineup with Jabari at the 3.   Don't think this is something we can use a lot, but situationally would be fun to watch.   

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I'm always a fan of a coach playing a new lineup to show new things and experiment when we hit flat spots, but I don't think this 3 guard lineup with Zep, KD, and Green is a long term solution to our issues. We got dominated on the glass by UT and Miss State. Every offensive rebound is basically equivalent to a turnover, gives them an extra possession. We can't allow that to continue. 

We need a shooter at that 3 spot. One reason we have struggled recently is team are shading over on the pick and roll and starting to send doubles at Jabari and the guy they are leaving to send that extra defender is our 3 man. That is why Cambridge had 5 wide open 3pt attempts and Jabari kicked it out to Flan a few times, even though he didn't take the shot. 

I don't know Lior's status or who our next best shooting option would be, so in light of that, we need CBP to design something for Cambridge instead of a spot up corner three. For instance when Jabari posts at the extended elbow, have Cambridge cut baseline for a lob. Just the threat will help keep them honest and maintain floor spacing. 

To help protect Kessler, we need to move Smith around on the pick and roll, to make it harder for the other team to help off of our three and force them to either leave Kessler to roll or leave Smith to help on Kessler. These are adjustments that will have to be made in game as we see what other teams are doing to cover our sets. 

 

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3 hours ago, JwgreDeux said:

We need a shooter at that 3 spot. One reason we have struggled recently is team are shading over on the pick and roll and starting to send doubles at Jabari and the guy they are leaving to send that extra defender is our 3 man. That is why Cambridge had 5 wide open 3pt attempts and Jabari kicked it out to Flan a few times, even though he didn't take the shot. 

 

If we play the 3 small guard line up with Zep as #3 or some kind of rotation of the 3 guards, don't you think Zep can produce the points we need?  Here is what he did in his last year before transferring to Auburn: https://cofcsports.com/sports/mens-basketball/roster/zep-jasper/4631

In his last 2 games he really produced well over his average of 15.6 pts/game (38 and 27).  You could tell in the OM and MSU games when he hit those multiple 3's, he's a shooter.  I'd bet he can easily produce 15 points each game if we play him 30 min a game.  But it isn't the points alone that would help us as you noted Cambridge was wide open for 3 pt shots because of how other teams were defending us.  If we throw another shooter that can hit from 3pt range, they will have to alter their defense which should help the other players get better looks. Our whole offensive production should get better.

In the end, it will not matter too much what we think, it only matters what the coaches think.  I think we will see this line up on Sat and I predict we will love the offensive production.

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It is painful to watch Devan shoot those 3's from corner.  I would like to see him take it to the hole more. Hopefully a shooting coach can work on his shot before next season. We're going to need his offense more than just highlight reel put back dunks.

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Depending on the situation, do it only during the end of each half. Why? You have extended rest periods afterwards. There's your boost of energy, ball handling, and playmaking. Obviously fatigue becomes a concern if overtime comes into play.

Rebounding? When you switch everything on D, there's your mismatches. Secondly, in practice, we need to do a refresher course on finding and putting a body on someone when the ball goes up. And that goes for everyone. Guards included.

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9 hours ago, casatiger said:

I would also love to see a situational big lineup with Jabari at the 3.   Don't think this is something we can use a lot, but situationally would be fun to watch.   

I'd like to see Jabari at the 3 with Jaylin at the 4, but I have doubts we'll ever see that lineup.

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In the absence of getting shredded on defense or turning the ball over, it’s a look that should definitely increase the tempo. The guard stable and bigs on this team should be (just athletically) playing at a frenetic pace, and hopefully this allows for a piece of that 

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21 hours ago, casatiger said:

I would also love to see a situational big lineup with Jabari at the 3.   Don't think this is something we can use a lot, but situationally would be fun to watch.   

I agree, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. I'm surprised we haven't done it occasionally. We just aren't getting production out of the 3 spot.  Obviously, the three guard lineup worked well in this game, but there are limitations with it. Rebounding is already a problem.

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13 hours ago, slyinsocal said:

 Secondly, in practice, we need to do a refresher course on finding and putting a body on someone when the ball goes up. And that goes for everyone. Guards included.

This has been a problem for years that seems like an easy fix - We have two or three guys all go up for the initial block at once, then the opponent gets an easy back-door layup off the miss because no one stayed home and boxed out. I guess it comes with the territory of leading the league in blocks, but there are a bunch of times when the 5 has position and the other defenders just need to back off and block out. 

Edited by Sani-Freeze
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On 3/4/2022 at 9:23 AM, 81spacetiger said:

I posted on this in a different thread but will add a little more content.

It was clear that the plan was for Flan to carry a bigger load as he came back from his injury given what he was able to do last year.  I think the numbers show he was coming along in January until the month of February.  Then, for some reason, Flan's point production dropped off.  Zep was getting a little less time; his defensive and low TO rate were desired, but I think his point production was undervalued.  I think the coaching staff was trying to work through it but the loss of Zep points AND Flan points was enough for us to have a lot of close games with us loosing games on the road during the month of February.  

The OM and MSU game clearly showed Zep can score more points.  In fact his 3 point production, when he shot, was impressive.  I believe Zep's body of work this season indicate he is capable of consistently scoring more if his role is expanded a bit.  So I think what we saw in the MSU game IS a sign of the way we will play going forward.  We will use Zep for more time (30+ min) and we will change how we sub to help eliminate scoring flat spots.  

Flan's time will decrease, but he will still play an important role because of his defensive abilities.  I will say this about Flan even though his point production fell off - he can still score points even when he gets less time.  Wen, KD and Zep numbers suggest when they have low minutes playing time, they don't really score much.  Flan could still give us 2-4 pts per game with only ~20 min playing time.  That may not seem like a lot, but how and when the guards are used can eliminate the scoring droughts and increase our overall scoring numbers.  I expect to see them experiment a bit, from the MSU game to fine tuning how they will make substitutions going forward.

I think one of the unexpected benefits of this playing out in February was Jabari's more aggressive play emerging during this time - he is also scoring a lot more.  If Kess can get over his shoulder issue in the next 10 days, I think we will field a more potent offensive team while retaining our defensive play as we play on neutral courts for the SEC and NCAA tournaments.  

zep and flan points.jpg

Zep and Flan minutes.jpg

zep and Flan points per minute.jpg

my apologies i did not see it posted earlier......

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2 hours ago, Mikey said:

Three guards or not, had Johnson not single handedly taken over that game, we lose.

That's true, but that lineup created the opportunities for him to go nuts.  We had tremendous speed and caused 7 turnovers with that lineup.  I think with 3 guards, it allowed each of them to be more free IMO.  

Edited by AUBwins
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10 hours ago, AUBwins said:

That's true, but that lineup created the opportunities for him to go nuts.  We had tremendous speed and caused 7 turnovers with that lineup.  I think with 3 guards, it allowed each of them to be more free IMO.  

Johnson did the same thing to win the game against UGA. I think Mizzou as well. There was no three guard lineup in those games, just a guy playing great in clutch time.

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IDK if there's anything to extrapolate from its use today, other than CBP views having those three in as safer than Wendell + KD/Zep + Flanigan. He threw it in like two possessions after Flanigan had a TO (I believe an offensive foul).

Florida (if we play them) is a team that technically runs a three guard lineup; Fleming is like 6'5 210. He seems to play bigger than that on D (defended Jabari alot as I remember), but if they can reduce him to a three point shooter and really get in his chest on close outs, maybe you can survive with having a KD that's prob gonna give up around 4 inches. 

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Well, you need Zep to handle the ball late bc Wendell doesn't have great clock and situational awareness.

And you might as well put in KD vs wasting the slot on Flan. You are trading the O and energy of KD vs. the rebounding of Devan

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4 hours ago, BigBlueWDE said:

Well, you need Zep to handle the ball late bc Wendell doesn't have great clock and situational awareness.

And you might as well put in KD vs wasting the slot on Flan. You are trading the O and energy of KD vs. the rebounding of Devan

i am not arguing here as i am not a coach but i hope flan continues to play more because that light will come back on and when it does he will be valuable. i just feel like he is getting close. also i am pleased that bruce has not just thrown him under the bus. flan has been an important member of this team and unless something huge happens it looks like he might be back next year. i just believe in my heart when that light clicks back on mr flan is going to go on a tear.

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4 hours ago, aubiefifty said:

i am not arguing here as i am not a coach but i hope flan continues to play more because that light will come back on and when it does he will be valuable. i just feel like he is getting close. also i am pleased that bruce has not just thrown him under the bus. flan has been an important member of this team and unless something huge happens it looks like he might be back next year. i just believe in my heart when that light clicks back on mr flan is going to go on a tear.

At this point I think I’d rather have Flan closing games than Green, unless Green has been shooting well that day. He gives us the size and defense. They both play with the same carelessness offensively, but at least Flan can play defense and rebound. 

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5 hours ago, aubiefifty said:

i am not arguing here as i am not a coach but i hope flan continues to play more because that light will come back on and when it does he will be valuable. i just feel like he is getting close. also i am pleased that bruce has not just thrown him under the bus. flan has been an important member of this team and unless something huge happens it looks like he might be back next year. i just believe in my heart when that light clicks back on mr flan is going to go on a tear.

It's hard to have a player, any player, be on the court and not touch the ball. Flanagan's turnovers have been a disaster. Some mental block is affecting his play and I don't know if the post season is the time to "let him play through it". His offensive game has declined since February and shows no sign of changing directions. Were it not for the turnovers my thinking would be different, but it's gotten to the point that every time he touches the ball I get an "Oh crap!" feeling.

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I'm not anti-Flanigan but I think it's pretty clear to most people watching these games that he is not going to get back to his form from last year this season.  He has not been scoring much, he's turning the ball over too much, he passes on open shots because his confidence appears to be hurt, and he is not exactly lighting it up on the boards either.  He does play great defense when in man to man but otherwise I feel like there are much better options at this time that give us production at both ends of the floor, even if that means a very slight drop in defensive prowess.  I think the "new" three guard line-up that Bruce played is certainly viable, it all just comes down to match-ups and who is on the floor for the opposing team.  It reminds me of the Final 4 team that was extremely quick and used their speed to get open looks, transition baskets, and steals on defense.  I also think that you could put Moore or Williams in for Flanigan.  It may be out of position for those guys but both of them are athletic enough to make up for it.  Moore, who has not seen a lot of minutes this year, gives us a physical rebounder and paint player who is also pretty good on defense and seems to play at 100% effort all of the time when in the game.  My 1st choice would be Williams.  Williams is certainly more than adequate on defense, very athletic, and when given the opportunity has shown he not only is a willing rebounder but a pretty good offensive threat.  He has developed a stop-and-pop short-range jumper he can go to instead of an out-of-control drive that would often end up in a charge in previous years.  And if he gets hot he can hit the 3 ball as well so the defense has to stay with him regardless of where he is on the court.  I guess what I am saying is that if I was the opposing coach I am going to try and force/funnel the ball to Flanigan with my defense as I do not think he is capable of carrying the load.  I think to make the Final 4 or win the SEC Tourney Bruce HAS to find a line-up that can be put in the game that will get tough baskets when Auburn's offense hits one of these spells where they can't score.  Time after time this season Auburn gets these big leads against their opponents and are right on the cusp of breaking the opponents will or belief that they can win and then AU goes completely cold for 5 or 10 mins and the opponent gets new life and starts believing they can win.  That was one thing that the Final 4 team did well, once they had you down big they stayed on the gas and would just demoralize you.  This team is really, really good but lacks the knack for getting that done.  

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Flan's turnovers are being exaggerated but can't have that vandy performance though. Wish he had the opportunity to play with a more traditional pg to help get him in tune, but it is what it is.

I'm afraid to be a championship team we need him at least at 80% of what he normally was. Feel bad for him to be in this situation.

I was thinking of doing a write up but I don't want my posts to start any fights and stuff. I will posts my thoughts on what I'm confident about and what I may feel a type a way about right before the NCAA tourney though. I just like predicting and seeing how accurate I was and I do it every year.

I've been pretty lax just waiting for the post season personally. I didn't really talk that much this season, just the deficiencies I saw that was going to pop up that I want us to shore up. It's almost time to ramp up!

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