Auburn on a surprising mini run
Following a tough loss to Illinois in Chicago back on December 29, Auburn was sitting on a 5-7 record and going nowhere fast. Two key contributors, Chris Denson and Jordan Price, were on the shelf with injuries and coming to town was Florida State, which blasted Auburn by an 85-56 count a season ago.
Seemingly right on cue the Tigers fell down by 12 to the Seminoles in the first half. But Auburn stormed back to take a halftime lead and went on to notch a 78-72 win in one of this season's most unnoticed upsets.
Auburn followed that up with a home win over LSU and a road victory over South Carolina for an improbable 2-0 start to SEC play. This represents the first time in a decade that the program has started off with two wins in the league.
The fact that Auburn won in Columbia was no small feat, either. Since Tony Barbee took over the program in 2010 Auburn was a mindboggling 4-27 on the road before that win.
Where do the Tigers go from here? Up next are a road tilt with Arkansas and a home date with Kentucky, each of which will present different problems. In Arkansas, Barbee's team will have to deal with Mike Anderson's frenetic pace and then turn around and contend with Kentucky's decided height advantage.
So a 2-2 record in SEC play is highly likely for Auburn. But in a league that's not particularly tough overall, Auburn could hold serve enough to hover around the .500 mark once Denson and Price return. From there, who knows, an NIT bid is possible, but there's very little margin for error.
But first things first, Auburn needs to do all it can to keep the current momentum going. The key to that will be finding scoring punch from unexpected sources. Against LSU it was freshman Shaq Johnson coming up with the first double digit scoring effort of his career. Not to be outdone, freshman Brian Greene notched his first double digit scoring total against South Carolina.
The Curious Case of How Tubby Smith Handles His Bench
Nitpicking a coach is a cherished pasttime amongst sports fans, it ranks right up there with demanding the backup quarterback be put in and insisting that every home plate umpire is blind. And Minnesota's Tubby Smith is no stranger to being nitpicked.
After he led Minnesota to a 17-14 record following the 2010-11 campaign, which was his fourth season in Minneapolis, it wasn't hard to find a Gopher fan who wanted him run out of town. But fast forward to the present and you'll find Minnesota sitting on a 15-2 record, which is by far Smith's best stretch since he took the job.
So while the calls for him to load the contents of his house into a U-Haul have subsided, Smith is still prone to being nitpicked. Take for instance his penchant for subsituting players en masse during games. Not so long ago, when Smith was losing with much greater frequency, this approach was a great source of consternation for Gopher fans.
Basically, Smith takes a hockey approach to substituting players, bringing in an entire second unit to spell his starting five. While this isn't totally unheard of in basketball circles (think Kurt Rambis during his own stint in Minneapolis with the T-Wolves) it does make Smith somewhat unique.
I've gotta cop to thinking this is a pretty cool approach IF you've got a roster jam packed with studs who can make it work. But when you've averaged 14 losses at Minnesota coming into 2012-13 I can see how disgruntled fans might look at this as one of the catalysts for Smith's perceived failings.
If look at the games that Minnesota has played against ranked Big Ten opposition thus far, the bench contribution has been spotty at best. In a 76-63 win over Michigan State, Minnesota's non-starters combined to go 4-for-6 from the field with 11 rebounds.
The second unit's stat line against Illinois was absolutely brutal with the Gopher bench going scoreless and only collecting three rebounds. Still, Minnesota pulled away in the second half for a 17-point win.
The Gopher bench's effort against Indiana was slightly better (3-for-10 from the field and three rebounds) but the end result wasn't. Indiana ran out to a 13-point lead and eventually handed Minnesota its first Big Ten loss, 88-81.
Look at it this way, the Minnesota bench hasn't made or broken the team so far during Big Ten play. Heck, look at the opposition, Indiana's bench players didn't score a point against Minnesota. The outcome of that contest was decided by the starters, just like it was when the Gopher bench dropped a scoring goose egg against Illinois.
But if Minnesota significantly falls off its torrid early pace in comming weeks then get set for intensified groaning at the Barn whenever five Gophers check in ($1 to Nadine Babu). That's the price you pay for being unique.
Larry Drew II is enjoying his fresh start
During his time at North Carolina, point guard Larry Drew II wasn't judged by who he was but rather by who he wasn't. As in he wasn't Raymond Felton or Ty Lawson, the kinds of pedal to the metal point guards who could turn Roy Williams's system up to 11.
But that didn't mean that Drew wasn't a solid point in his own right. He's a distribute first, shoot second guy whose strengths lie in settling a team down once it gets into its halfcourt set. Given the right set of circumstances, then, Drew could make a solid contribution for someone.
And that's exactly what he's doing for UCLA after sitting out a season following his transfer. Following a dicey 5-3 start, the Bruins have reeled off nine wins in a row. During that streak Drew has handed out 68 assists against 17 turnovers while collecting 16 steals.
Drew currently leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.89) and ranks fourth nationally in assists per game (8.1). His play has been a huge factor in UCLA currently ranking 14th in the country in adjusted offense (114.2).