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Auburn hasn’t suffered any drop-off from last season

Vanderbilt has its hands full tonight in the SEC opener.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Mississippi State Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Per Ken Pomeroy, Auburn finished the 2018-19 season ranked 11th in the country.

As of this writing, Ken Pomeroy has Auburn ranked... 11th in the country. Considering that Auburn lost its top three scorers off last year’s team (Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, and Chuma Okeke), that’s an impressive feat. How did this happen?

Well, Auburn is one of the most experienced teams in the country. The Tigers have six players averaging at least 19.9 minutes per game, and five of them are seniors — and the sixth is five-star freshman Isaac Okoro. This is an old-school setup, with talented freshmen Devan Cambridge and Allen Flanigan averaging, respectively, 11.1 and 12.3 minutes per game while they wait their turn behind upperclassmen.

In fairness, some of this happened essentially by accident. Danjel Purifoy averaged 11.5 ppg as a redshirt freshman in 2016-17 and Austin Wiley started as a freshman in the same season; both missed the 2017-18 season due to NCAA violations. And both, somehow, are still at Auburn, albeit playing smaller roles than you’d expect: they’re Auburn’s fourth- and fifth-leading scorers.

Instead, Auburn is paced by Okoro and senior Samir Doughty, who’s increased his scoring average from 7.3 to 16.3 ppg. Okoro is averaging 12.9 ppg and 4.8 rpg as a freshman; senior point guard J’Von McCormick is coming off a 28-point outing at Mississippi State on Saturday. Wiley and fellow senior Anfernee McLemore both average right at 20 minutes per game and both average 1.8 blocks per game.

Now, this is a different Auburn team in one sense: it’s not as three-point heavy. The Tigers have dropped from 21st to 207th nationally in three-point percentage; where they’ve made that up is by being better inside the arc. Auburn is converting 56.8 percent of its two-pointers, good for fourth in the country, and they also rank 12th in free throw rate. (Making free throws is a different matter: Auburn is shooting just 65.7 percent at the charity stripe.)

On the defensive end, too, things are different: Auburn has dropped from 2nd to 116th in turnover percentage, but that’s made up for by improving from 219th to 30th in effective FG percentage; the Tigers have also been a lot less foul-prone early on. All of that has meant that Auburn is actually better defensively than last year’s Final Four team.

Effectively, Bruce Pearl has adjusted very well to the talent on the roster, shifting from a guard-oriented team to a more frontcourt-oriented one, and this all sounds like a bad matchup for an undersized Vanderbilt team. Auburn is 13-0 this season and Vanderbilt has lost 20 straight against SEC teams, and it’s easy to see why Vegas and Pomeroy think both streaks will continue tonight.