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'Winning time' still unkind to Auburn

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Posted: Thursday, December 6, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 8:00 pm, Mon May 19, 2014.

While slightly cliche, it's also logical. One way or the other, something takes place that pushes the outcome toward its final destination in winning time.

Whether the eventual outcome needs almost every last second to take its final shape, or is simply the end result of a game already in hand by the time the buzzer sounds, pivotal events take place because they have to.

Being in a position where winning time actually becomes significant is one step, but as the Auburn Tigers men's basketball team has shown through seven games so far this season, it's another dance altogether to kick in the door that stands between late-game victory and defeat.

It's one crucial component, for sure, but it has also been the build-up occurring before winning time that has led to Auburn's 2-5 start.

Last Friday night against DePaul painted a pretty well-encapsulating picture of what has ailed the Tigers to this point. In what was a frenetic, seesawing tussle, the Tigers lost their ability to defend without fouling and had good, consistent looks on the offensive end evaporate too often in the second half.

As the Blue Demons drilled clutch shots from the outside when they had to, Auburn, down 78-76 with less than a minute to go, couldn't manage to get a potential game-tying shot off.

A looping pass from center Rob Chubb, who acted as a safety valve for Josh Wallace, who was trapped between Blue Demons and the sideline, was picked by DePaul's Cleveland Melvin, who raced down the floor before being fouled, then nailing both free throws to seal the 80-76 win.

Of course, that play itself looms large in the loss, and it's the easiest scapegoat for another narrow defeat, but other factors that played a role against DePaul have shown up more than once already this season, and have hurt Auburn just as bad.

Auburn's two wins have come against the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne Mastodons (yes, that's a real place) in their season-opener and the College of Charleston Cougars in the Charleston Classic.

While the win over Charleston, who recently upset Baylor, maybe looks better now, neither of those victories can carry much weight for long as the team enters a stretch of winnable games, beginning against Grambling State at home on Dec. 11, before Christmas. It's a span made more important because it is a prelude to contests with Illinois, Florida State, and the beginning of the Southeastern Conference schedule.

Briefly mentioned above, a major issue so far for the Tigers has been fouling. After Auburn got past the Cougars, they faced the Dayton Flyers in the fifth place game of the Charleston Classic. Trailing by 10 at the break meant that although Auburn played even in the second half, the end result was still a 73-63 loss. Auburn was out-rebounded as a team by seven, but the real damage came at the foul line, where the Flyers shot 27-of-36 compared to Auburn's 13-of-17. That's 14 points in a game that was back-and-forth in the first half before Dayton pushed their deciding lead to double-digits, scoring nine of their last 16 points in the half at the charity stripe.

In personal fouls, Auburn's average of 19.0 a game,133 fouls in seven contests,ranks 220th in the nation. Against Boston College on Nov. 21, Frankie Sullivan's game-tying four-point play was negated by a foul on the Eagles' next possession, as they split the pair of free throws and won, 50-49.

In the second half of Friday's game against DePaul, the Blue Demons made a concerted effort to push the ball in transition,even more-so than their track meet-style in the first half ,on Auburn misses, and as a result were able to draw fouls on run-outs and chip away at the Tigers' lead, eventually building one of their own.

And, ironically enough, it was the Tigers' inability to foul in their double overtime loss to Rhode Island on Nov. 25 that cost them dearly, as the Rams' Xavier Munford drilled a tying three-pointer to send the contest into the second extra session, which Rhode Island controlled en route to winning, 78-72.

Three-pointers as a whole have been hurting the Tigers this season as well. Auburn is allowing opponents to shoot 39.7 percent from behind the arc, a rate that checks in at 330th in Division I basketball.

The tendency to leave shooters open on the perimeter may not have hurt them against Dayton ,that time, it was the fouling,but it certainly did in their first loss of the season against the Murray State Racers, who canned 11 three-pointers in a 79-59 romp.

In their contest against Boston College, a relatively even tooth-and-nail grind throughout, the Eagles made eight three's to Auburn's four,a 12-point difference in a one-point outcome.

The Tigers knocked in 11 of their own against Rhode Island, but the Rams made 13 themselves, mitigating an impressive shooting night for Auburn, which is only making an average of 5.1 three-pointers per 15.7 attempts as a team per game. That 32.7 percent clip ranks 187th in the country.

The DePaul game had both of these corrosive defensive elements, as the Blue Demons went to the free-throw line 34 times (making 19) and connected on 9-of-17 triples. For what it's worth, it made head coach Tony Barbee's decision in the second half to employ a 2-3 zone, known for giving up clear outside looks, all the more curious.

It could, though, have been an attempt at alleviating their other concern, fouling, as players wouldn't have to play man-to-man for a spell.

In the end, it speaks to one issue dripping into another. And while there's something to be said for a team simply finding an outside shooting touch for a night, four of Auburn's five losses have seen an opponent make eight or more three-pointers.

As for fouling, they've surrendered 30 or more free-throw attempts twice, and only one of their losses has featured less than double-digit free-throw makes by an opponent; in short, if it hasn't been one thing, it seems, it's been another for the Tigers.

And, at this juncture, Barbee appears to still be looking for the best way to curb these early season trends.

"Like I told my guys, this is a long season," Barbee said. "Our veteran guys understand it; our young guys don't. So while we're on a five or six game win streak and their heads are in the clouds and you've got to bring them down or we've lost a few in a row now and you've got to pick their heads up off the floor, that's part of youth and that's our job as veteran players and coaches to lead those guys and help them in that way."

So sure, although they haven't seized chances late in games, although they've made critical errors at the worst times, there are reasons why they find themselves in these positions to begin with. It hasn't been one play, or even one statistical category, that has haunted Auburn to this point.

And yet, in spite of these numbers, the Tigers have still made it to winning time in three of their five losses. However, as being in that moment lessens the memory of actually getting there, the smaller bumps along the way get offset by the larger, more visible bruise.

To be certain, making smart choices or simply being better than the other team in a game's closing minutes is essential for success. It hasn't been a question of tenacity or effort with this Auburn team, though.

For the season, its overall scoring margin is minus-3.7 points, which speaks to what we know about Auburn basketball so far: The Tigers are close. But within that tiny margin lies problems that pile up, making it so when the time comes for contests to be decided late, the tightest moments lose whatever margin for error they might have had left.

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