Bruce Pearl said back-to-back games against ranked opponents would be a barometer of Auburn’s progress. A home win over No. 12 Missouri on Tuesday showed that a young team has made plenty of it since Sharife Cooper joined the lineup Jan. 9.
An 84-72 loss at No. 2 Baylor — which Pearl said might be "the best team I’ve played against" — in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday in Waco, Texas, showed that the Tigers are still a step below the nation's elite teams.
"Missed opportunity." Pearl said. "I thought we had a good game plan, thought we executed it really well for the first 15 minutes, like the Arkansas game. Had some breakdowns at the end of the first half, and didn't start the second half with any effort and energy."
Here are three things we learned:
1. Starting halves better is key
This was one of the things Pearl harped on this week after watching Baylor (16-0) sprint out to a 41-7 lead in a convincing win over Kansas State on Wednesday. Auburn (11-7) avoided that embarrassment, but not the same fate.
The Tigers struggled to begin both halves in different ways. In the first half, it was the turnovers that had plagued them throughout the early part of the season. They committed 10 of their 13 in the first 14 minutes of the game. Baylor rode those to 11 of its first 21 points.
In the second half, it was defense. The Bears boast one of the highest-scoring and most efficient offenses in the country, and they flexed their muscle during a 31-15 run covering the first 10 minutes after halftime.
"I felt like we had the energy coming out of the second half, just not enough," sophomore forward Jaylin Williams said. "You know, we were playing the No. 2 team in the country. They're not really used to having close games, so we just thought, like, 'OK, we've still got them.' But they're a great team, and we're a young team trying to build."
2. Auburn's defense has improved; just not enough
Baylor made 12 of 21 shots during that torrid second-half stretch, which is a big reason why it won the game. But Auburn's defense actually played pretty well for the most part — much better than it did when it let No. 1 Gonzaga shoot nearly 53 percent in a Nov. 27 loss.
The Bears shot only 43.1 percent. That's their second-worst shooting mark of the season. The Tigers trailed only 35-30 at halftime in part because they held the nation's best 3-point-shooting team to a 3-for-14 mark from beyond the arc.
That was the biggest difference in the second half — Baylor made 5 of 9 3s in those first 10 minutes alone.
"We told the team the only chance we had to beat Baylor was to not let them beat us from the three. That was the only chance," Pearl said. "We held them to four in the first half. Let's say we hold them to four in the second half; that's 12 points. We lost by 12."
3. Sharife Cooper can be slowed down
Cooper still scored 15 points, but he made only 6 of 17 shots and got to the free throw line only once. Baylor has the most efficient defense in the country, per KenPom, and it used it to bother the five-star freshman point guard, sending frequent double teams at him.
That led to him recording fewer assists (just five) than the 8.7 he was averaging coming into the game. He committed three of those first 10 turnovers and four overall.
Auburn's best offensive weapons Saturday were forwards Williams, who scored 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting (3-for-6 from 3), and J.T. Thor, who scored 13 on 6-for-9 shooting. Allen Flanigan recorded a game-high six assists but shot just 3 of 14 from the floor.a