Salt Lake City — If this was a different era of college basketball, the one in which Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl learned the game as an Iowa assistant, under Tom Davis, Pearl would have his Tigers applying defensive pressure all over the court, baseline to baseline.
Between rules changes over the years and the game evolving, Pearl has figured out he can’t take Auburn’s defense to the extreme without enduring the consequences — his team picking up too many foul calls.
That hasn’t stopped Auburn from becoming the most harassing defensive team in the country. Who needs full-court pressure and trapping when you can create turnovers in the half court?
“Simply put,” Pearl said during his Friday afternoon press conference inside Vivint Smart Home Arena. “We try to take a look at what you like to do and take away what you like to do and make you do something else.”
And, boy, has it worked. TeamRankings.com only includes statistical data from games involving Division I schools. According to the website, Auburn’s opponents turn the ball over on a higher percentage of possessions (24.7 percent) than any other team’s foes, heading into Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament matchup with Kansas.
The Kansas Jayhawks and Auburn Tigers met with media members on Friday before the two teams meet on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
While the Jayhawks (26-9) haven’t been atrocious with their ball security, giving it away on 16 percent of possessions this season (161st nationally), per Team Rankings, anyone who watched this team struggle on the road in Big 12 play can recall the turnover-heavy trips in which KU looked at its worst. The Jayhawks coughed the ball up 24 times at Iowa State, 18 at West Virginia and 23 at Kansas State.
“When we turn the ball over like that,” KU point guard Devon Dotson said, “we usually lose.”
KU committed few offensive mistakes in its first-round win over Northeastern on Thursday, finishing with just 12 turnovers. But Northeastern ranks 282nd in the country in opponents’ turnover percentage (16.5 percent).
The Jayhawks are about to encounter the antithesis of the Huskies’ defense, with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. In winning four games in four days at the SEC Tournament a week ago, Auburn’s victims averaged 17 turnovers a game, leading to the Tigers averaging 19.8 points a game off their opponents’ mistakes.
According to the men who make it happen, their game plan is to fly around on defense and pressure the ball.
“It’s big against any team,” Auburn junior guard Samir Doughty said, “not just Kansas. To win games we have to force a lot of turnovers and make shots. So that’s something coming into the game that we’re really going to focus on turning them over, and we know they’re going to do their best job to not turn it over.”
Four different Tigers average more than one steal a game: Chuma Okeke (1.8), Doughty (1.4), Jared Harper (1.2) and Bryce Brown (1.1). A large part of the team’s defensive success lies in the instincts of its biggest starter, Okeke, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound sophomore.
Harper explained what makes Okeke, who also averages 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds, unique.
“He’s really active defensively,” Harper said. “With him being the size he is, he’s able to guard all five positions. He’s fast, he’s strong. He’s got a lot of things going for him.”
Ask Okeke about the pride he takes in causing some havoc on the defensive side of the court and he’ll begin his answer by deflecting, and giving credit to his team.
“That’s just our identity,” Okeke said. “We’re just a real scrappy team. We’re not the biggest team ever. But we’re gonna scrap. We’re gonna be scrappy. We get after it.”
Pressed for some insight on how he makes turnovers happen, Okeke said it often comes down to anticipation.
“Sometimes I just try to take all my options,” he explained. “Like, there’s only one other thing he could do in this position and I try to take that away.”
Pearl gushed about his smart, active big.
“He is always in the right place at the right time. He is a great defender,” Pearl said of Okeke. “Great hands, great instincts. Covers up a lot of our misses and mistakes and has got a great future. He gives us terrific versatility.”
If KU is playing two bigs against Auburn, it will be up to Okeke to hound KU’s best player, junior Dedric Lawson. And the two know each other well, because they were teammates years ago, on a traveling youth basketball team called the Rim Rockers.
“He’s very unique,” Lawson said of Okeke. “When he was younger he was a very good defensive player. We used to put him on the best player. He was the youngest player on the team and he would always guard the best wing.”
With the 6-8 big giving Auburn (27-9) defensive versatility, the Tigers, winners of nine straight, are able to pounce in unique situations, even causing turnovers against ball screens.
“They’re a hyper-aggressive team,” KU junior Mitch Lightfoot assessed after studying the Tigers on video.
While it helps to have defensive-minded players, Auburn turned takeaways and forcing gaffes into a strength through preparation.
“We really lock into scouts,” Doughty said, “and we really lock into certain plays that we can make plays on. But it’s also pressuring the ball. We’ve got great defenders that pressure the ball good and got great players that anticipate where the ball is usually going. That’s how we get a lot of turnovers.”
And therein lies a major challenge in preparing for Auburn’s defense. If it was as simple as anticipating full-court pressure or traps, it would be easier to have readymade solutions.
Bill Self seemed impressed with how Auburn gets its opponents to make so many mistakes.
“They do it in different ways. They don’t do it with full-court pressure,” Self said. “And then they may run at a guy coming off a ball screen. They’ll do a lot of different things. But we need to be very strong with the ball. And we will turn it over — we’ve proven that over time, that we’re good at that. So if that’s the case, just let it not be live-ball turnovers. Make them take it out of bounds.”
Expect Self and his staff to have some counterpunches ready, though. With Auburn’s aggressiveness being a given, KU should be able to take advantage if the Tigers’ gambles go awry.
“With a team like that that likes to play free,” Dotson said, “I feel like we can take advantage of mistakes,and take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself.”
How well Dotson, Lawson and the Jayhawks handle the opportunistic Tigers will likely determine whether their season ends in Utah or they get to play in Kansas City, Mo., next week.
Pearl won’t be pressing and trapping the Jayhawks as he tries to get his Tigers to K.C. But Pearl and his staff will have have them knowledgeable on KU’s weaknesses and strengths.
“So how can we stop Kansas's inside game? How can we stop Lawson with his inside-outside game? How can we stop those guys from driving down the lane?” Pearl asked. “If we can figure out a way to do that and turn them over some in the process, we have a fighting chance to win the game.”