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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Auburn

The Hogs open SEC play with a tricky road game

NCAA Basketball: Troy at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

By now you’ve probably heard the sad news that the Texas Bowl is off, so it’s officially basketball season. As in, basketball now dominates Razorback sports headlines until baseball begins late-winter practices.

Arkansas is off to an 8-0 start against a schedule that our model ranks 245th of out 329 teams. Still, the Hogs have mostly dominated, but now the competition steps up as SEC play begins. Arkansas opens with Auburn. The Tigers are 6-2, having beaten mostly cupcakes and lost to top-ranked Gonzaga and a decent UCF team on the road. Auburn is young and this is supposed to be a rebuilding year, so they don’t project as an NCAA Tournament team. This would be a nice road win, but not a killer road loss. However, with Mizzou and Tennessee coming up after this one, a loss could put the Hogs staring at an 0-3 start in SEC play.

Meet the Tigers

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)

Scouting report

  • Auburn isn’t good at anything, but they aren’t terrible at anything either, except turning it over, and it’s not clear the Razorbacks can do much to take advantage of that.
  • The Tiger offense is typical Bruce Pearl: lots of three-point attempts. Those don’t fall at a good rate, but Auburn is good at finishing at the rim, drawing fouls, and crashing the offensive glass. Very physical.
  • Auburn’s offensive depth is a major problem. The Tigers have two excellent scorers and two solid scorers, but the rest of the players on the roster are a major liability, either because they cannot shoot or because they turn the ball over at a ghastly rate.
  • Auburn’s defense doesn’t really do anything well, though it’s not terrible overall. The Hogs should be able to avoid turnovers, crash the offensive boards, and get open looks around the basket.

All rankings are out of 329 Division I teams that have played a game so far this year.

The glossary covers these terms in case you’ve forgotten them, but the adjusted efficiencies at the top are points per 100 possessions against a perfectly average Division I offense and defense. So if Arkansas played a 100-possession game against an average D-I team, the final score would be 111-88. Adjusted Scoring Margin is the difference, and is the definitive predictive ranking of teams, similar to the Adjusted Scoring Margin figure we use in the EV+ system for football. Baylor, Tennessee, and Illinois are the current top 3 in this stat.

The bottom stats take actual game results into account (the top stats don’t). Strength of schedule, strength of wins, and strength of losses and give points based on the Adjusted Scoring Margin of the team you played (SoS), beat (SoW), or lost to (SoL). After the loss value is subtracted from the win value, the final result is Resume Margin, also known as Strength of Record. This value can be used to seed teams in the tournament: last year’s final result looked almost identical to Joe Lunardi’s final Bracketology.

Clear as mud? Okay, now we can read the chart. Arkansas has played a weak schedule (245th) but been impressive enough against it to still look good (13th in Adjusted Scoring Margin). Auburn’s schedule has been pretty average (139th). They don’t look like a top-100 team (109th), but thanks to a couple of close wins (Saint Joe’s and Memphis), they have the 68th-best resume.

Now we can pick the game. For basketball, we have two models. The first is traditional, similar to the EV+ one for football. It has Arkansas 79, Auburn 66. The second model uses a complicated methodology derived from this Ken Pomeroy study on offense vs. defense “control” of key stats. It actually builds out the entire game using this information, meaning that it projects the entire box score, not just the game score:

I’m shocked how often this thing ends up nailing the exact final score, and even some of the box score elements.

When Auburn has the rock

Auburn’s off to a rocky start offensively, as the three-point shots (and the free throws) aren’t falling, and the Tigers turn the ball over way too much.

Again you can consult the glossary for more details, but the key here is that there are two main stats in basketball: ability to convert possessions into shot opportunities (Effective Possession Ratio, or EPR), and the ability to convert shot opportunities into points (True Shooting, or TS). EPR deals with stats that aren’t directly worth points (rebounds, turnovers) because the point of them is to create chances to score. TS deals with what happens when you shoot. It’s just points divided by scoring opportunities (scoring opportunities include field goal attempts and trips to the free throw line). You can win a game by making the most of your shots (high TS) or you can win a game by simply taking way more shots (high EPR). Make sense?

More than half of Auburn’s field goal attempts are three-pointers, so expect a lot of misses when Auburn is shooting. That means the rebounding battle will be key. Auburn’s offense is fueled by offensive boards and putbacks, so it’s often not the first shot that matters.

Guards

  • Justin Powell, 6’6, 126.7 offensive rating, 1.33 TS, 63% EFG, 33% assist rate, 18% turnover rate
  • Allen Flanigan, 6’6, 122.6 offensive rating, 1.32 TS, 63% EFG, 18% assist rate, 16% turnover rate
  • Jamal Johnson, 6’4, 109.4 offensive rating, 0.99 TS, 47% EFG, 9% assist rate, 7% turnover rate
  • Devan Cambridge, 6’6, 77.3 offensive rating, 0.73 TS, 36% EFG, 6% assist rate, 14% turnover rate
  • Tyrell Jones, 6’1, 66.8 offensive rating, 0.79 TS, 31% EFG, 18% assist rate, 32% turnover rate

Powell and Flanigan are averaging around 14 points per game. About 50-60% of their field goal attempts are three-pointers. Powell is hitting 51 percent but he’s streaky (1 of 7 against UCF then 7 of 9 against South Alabama the next game). Flanigan, the Little Rock native and son of Auburn assistant and former UALR coach Wes Flanigan, is 39 percent and is more consistent. Both also get free throws each game because of their ability to penetrate off the dribble.

The “big two” for Auburn are extremely productive, but Auburn’s big issue is the dropoff. Johnson is struggling to shoot (29 percent from three), but at least he doesn’t turn it over. Cambridge and Jones have been horrifyingly unproductive with their minutes this year. That’s a big issue for Auburn’s offense if the top three guys get into foul trouble or go cold.

Forwards

  • Jaylin Williams, 6’8, 110.7 offensive rating, 1.16 TS, 59% EFG, 5% OR rate, 17% turnover rate
  • JT Thor, 6’10, 97.9 offensive rating, 1.10 TS, 48% EFG, 6% OR rate, 22% turnover rate
  • Chris Moore, 6’6, 100.5 offensive rating, 1.26 TS, 63% EFG, 15% OR rate, 28% turnover rate
  • Babatunde Akingbola, 6’10, 106.0 offensive rating, 1.07 TS, 53% EFG, 11% OR rate, 19% turnover rate
  • Dylan Cardwell, 6’11, 97.2 offensive rating, 1.36 TS, 71% EFG, 16% OR rate, 41% turnover rate

Williams (11 points, 6 boards per game) is the big scoring threat here. He got bullied by Gonzaga (zero points and two rebounds in 20 minutes) but has otherwise been consistent as a face-up 4. The Hogs brought in Justin Smith to shut down guys like Williams, so it’ll be an interesting matchup.

Thor brings a ton of athleticism, but he turns it over too often and is a poor rebounder for his size. If Thor is out and Auburn tries to play Williams at the 5, the Hogs can respond with a four-guard lineup and not cede a major size advantage.

Auburn’s forwards have the same issue as the guards: the backups turn the ball over like crazy. Moore, the West Memphis native and one-time Arkansas target, shoots at a nice clip and is a monster on the offensive glass, but he gives it away on a staggering 28% of his offensive possessions. Akingbola doesn’t turn it over like crazy, but he’s not a good scorer. And Cardwell is most extreme of them all: excellent shooter, excellent offensive rebounder, and undoes it all with turnovers.

Switching gears and looking back at the stats, it’s amazing how quickly Eric Musselman built a team that looks like he wants it to. He inherited a Mike Anderson team that forced a lot of turnovers at the expense of fouls and defensive boards, so he went with that last year and the Hogs were top-20 nationally in forcing turnovers. But now he’s turned the roster over and has a team that plays defense his way: excellent field goal defense, no fouls, and solid defensive rebounding, but at the expense of fewer turnovers. The Hogs’ inability to force turnovers means they see a lot of field goal attempts, which is not ideal in a game like this. However, a lot of Auburn’s mistakes are unforced.

When Arkansas has the rock

Auburn’s defense is perfectly average: elite at nothing, terrible at nothing. The Hogs will have ample chances to score but the Tigers won’t hand it to them.

The main thing that jumps out from Auburn’s numbers is that the Tigers do have some defensive issues around the rim (186th in two-point defense). That’s an area the Hogs can attack.

Williams is the top defender on the team (106.8 defensive rating). He’s at least top-3 on the roster in defensive rebound rate, steal rate, and block rate. While Powell grades out well due to his 22% defensive rebound rate, the rest of the guards grade out as poor defenders. Unlike some other Pearl teams, this one does not commit fouls at a high rate.

Keys to the Game

  1. Neutralize rebounds. Auburn’s strategy requires success crashing the offensive glass, as they are simply not good enough on the first shot. The Hogs don’t have to shut them down, but they need to keep the Tigers from having a free reign on missed shots.
  2. Grad Transfer Madness. This is the kind of game you go get Jalen Tate and Justin Smith for. Tate will likely match up with Powell, and Smith will likely take Williams. Flanigan is the only other real weapon if those two are locked up. Overall, this feels like a big Smith game all around, as he could also help attack Auburn’s weak two-point defense.