Beware of the Tigers: Auburn Is the Hottest Team in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 24, 2019

Auburn's Bryce Brown
Auburn's Bryce BrownJeff Swinger/Associated Press

Winning the NCAA men's college basketball tournament is all about peaking at the right time. Virtually every national champion goes through a brief cold spell in January or February but hits its stride just in time for March Madness.

On a related note, the Auburn Tigers are hotter than the bleeping sun, and they have been for about a month.

They waxed the floor with Kansas in Salt Lake City on Saturday night 89-75—a margin that doesn't do justice to the beating we witnessed. The Tigers extended their winning streak to 10 games, and they did it by canning the deep ball early and often and taking the turnover battle. Led by Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke, Auburn made 13 triples and had nine steals.

For most teams, that's a once-in-a-season type of combination of offense and defense.

It was just another day at the office for the Tigers.

In the first nine games of this run, Auburn averaged 12.1 threes and 10.4 steals, which is ridiculous. According to KenPom.com, the Tigers lead the nation in steal percentage and rank eighth in three-point rate. (They're also fifth in block percentage, for good measure.)

They aren't invincible. Thursday's close call against New Mexico State should be all the proof you need to back up that claim. Auburn is awful on the defensive glass, and it allows a disturbing amount of open three-point looks.

However, when the Tigers get into one of their patented grooveslike the 16-0 run in the first half of the SEC title game against Tennessee or the 51-25 halftime margin against Kansas—it feels like the only team that can beat Auburn is Auburn.

Chuma Okeke
Chuma OkekeJeff Swinger/Associated Press

There were flashes of this potential all year. The Tigers blew out Washington in the season's opening week. They battled Duke for 40 minutes in Maui not long after that. They almost won the home game against Kentucky and a road contest against LSU.

But at the end of February, the Tigers were 0-7 in Quadrant 1 games, punctuated by an 80-53 annihilation in Rupp Arena against Kentucky. At that point, there were serious questions about whether Auburn—which was ranked No. 11 in the preseason AP pollmight miss the NCAA tournament altogether.

Once the calendar flipped to March, though, the Tigers began churning out quality wins. They are 7-7 against Quadrant 1 opponents, including a pair of victories over Tennessee in which they scored at will against a title contender.

Pardon the blasphemy, but it feels a little bit like that Connecticut title run in 2011.

Stylistically, the teams couldn't be much different. Auburn doesn't have a singular leader like Kemba Walker, and Connecticut's two biggest weaknesses were three-point shooting and forcing turnovers. But in terms of catching fire at the right time to erase bubble concerns that lingered into early March, there's a comparison to be made.

How did Auburn flip that switch?

More specifically, how did Auburn lose a game by 27 in late February and then rally to beat the preseason No. 1 team by 26 in a single half one month later?

CBS Sports @CBSSports

Auburn with one-handed highlights on BOTH ends of the floor. https://t.co/aLYPKN4PDC

Auburn has been draining threes all season, so that isn't it. Saturday was its seventh consecutive game with at least 12 threes, but it was also the 25th time this team made at least 11 three-pointersand it had lost five of those contests.

Now that the Tigers are consistently winning the turnover battle, though, they will be a nightmare draw for any opponent.

In its nine regular-season losses, Auburn had a collective turnover margin of negative-12. In some losses, the Tigers couldn't scrounge up any steals. In others, they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot by giving the ball away. Either way, the effect was the same.

In this 10-game winning streak, their turnover margin is plus-75.

It's one thing to beat a hot-shooting team by forcing turnovers or avoiding committing many of your own. But when you can't stop a squad from shooting threes, can't force it to make careless mistakes and can't hang on to the ball against the relentless pressure, what's the blueprint for success?

For crying out loud, New Mexico State was plus-15 in rebound margin, made 20 free throws and shot 69 percent on two-point attempts, and those things still weren't enough to upset the Tigers.

Kansas ran into a buzz saw. Plain and simple. And No. 1 seed North Carolina—provided it can get past Washington on Sunday—might be next. After all, UNC's defense gives up a lot of threes, and its offense is average at best at limiting live-ball turnovers.

The Tigers are already into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. They are one win away from reaching the Elite Eight for the first time since 1986. If they have two (or more) wins left up their sleeve, it would be the program's first Final Four appearance.

After we watched Villanova win two of the past three national championships by jacking up a ton of threes and clamping down on defense to make up for an average rebounding presence, only a fool would say Auburn can't follow that same script.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.


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