No. 7 Auburn hopes to improve offense against Murray State

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Auburn's halfcourt offense needs a lot of work. The seventh-ranked Tigers are aware of what they need to fix as they prepare to host Murray State on Saturday afternoon at Auburn Arena.

Auburn (9-2) is coming off a very poor offensive performance on Wednesday night in a 78-71 loss to the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Auburn committed a staggering 25 turnovers and made only 5 of 25 3-point shots.

The profound struggles from the perimeter are one thing. Some nights, shots simply don't fall. However, the 25 giveaways represent preventable errors the Tigers need to minimize as the season goes along. Auburn has quick and agile guards who should never become turnover machines. Ballhandling should never be a concern for the Tigers, but it certainly was against N.C. State. Auburn played 30 minutes of poor basketball against the Wolfpack but still had chance to win at the 9:15 mark of the second half. Auburn trailed 50-49 and had not been punished for its many mistakes.

Then, however, North Carolina State played its best 10 minutes of the night to pull away. Markell Johnson caught fire, hitting two threes and a free throw to immediately push the Wolfpack's lead to eight at 57-49. North Carolina State later expanded its lead to 12. Auburn couldn't clean up its offense until it was much too late.

"We had an advantage on the front line," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said after the game. "We did not take advantage of our advantage. We turned the ball over way too much, we took too many ill-advised shots."

This was not much different from Auburn's game on Dec. 15 against UAB in Birmingham. The Blazers roped Auburn into a slow halfcourt game. Auburn's wing shooters didn't perform well, and the Tigers didn't establish their big men at the offensive end of the floor.

Auburn's lack of cohesion on offense is connected to the ability of opponents to slow the game down and force Auburn to execute halfcourt sets. Auburn is lethal in transition but noticeably vulnerable when opposing teams drag the Tigers into the mud. Auburn has to find ways to be efficient and polished in halfcourt situations. Finding the right formula with its offense will give Auburn the boost it needs before SEC games arrive in January.

Murray State (8-1) was down by seven points to Evansville with 4:43 left in regulation this past Tuesday. Undaunted, the Racers rallied to win 66-64 on a bucket by star player Ja Morant with 0.6 seconds left. Morant had 27 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in that game. Morant, a sophomore guard, is averaging 22.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 9.6 assists per game.

Murray State coach Matt McMahon, like many head coaches, enjoys an early-season game in which his team struggles yet manages to win. McMahon didn't pay the steep price of a defeat against Evansville, but he knew that after an uneven performance by his team, he could get after his players in practice and gain their full attention as the Racers try to evolve this season.

"We needed a game like this -- we had won seven games all by double figures, going away," McMahon said. "We needed to face some adversity," and found it when trailing late.

"I was proud of our guys' response," McMahon declared. "That's what good players and good teams do."

We will see just how good Murray State is, especially on defense, when facing Auburn's underperforming offense on Saturday.

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