AUBURN — The wise choice was to dribble out the clock until Mississippi State realized it needed to foul.
Ahead by four, Arkansas had pulled down a defensive rebound with 37 seconds left, and the visiting Bulldogs didn’t seem to realize the urgency of fouling. They backed off and played defense. Just keep dribbling, right?
Not these Razorbacks. Not right now. Chris Lykes confidently drained a pull-up three to make it 61-54 to further ignite Bud Walton Arena, the imposing venue where No. 1 Auburn basketball faces its next test Tuesday (6 p.m., ESPN2).
The Tigers (22-1, 10-0 SEC) are winners of 19 straight. Since Arkansas (18-5, 7-3) lost its first three SEC games, it has won eight in a row. Here’s the scout.
Defense on a tear
The Razorbacks’ defensive numbers have been absurd during the win streak.
They’ve allowed 60.5 points per game, contained opponents to 38.1% shooting from the field (167-for-438) and 28% shooting outside the arc (44-for-157). They have forced competitors into long scoring droughts; in the second game of the streak, they trailed LSU 56-48 with nine minutes left before ending on a 17-2 run.
Arkansas is No. 57 in the country and No. 6 in the SEC in turnover margin (plus-2.5 per game), but during the streak, that number is up to plus-3.5.
The Razorbacks are averaging 8.5 steals per game in the last eight, during which five of their opponents have been held under 60 points.
“They’re going to make offense out of their defense and get in transition and extend catches and put ball pressure on you,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “They’ll know how to guard you, but they’ve just got really good athletes and really good size (to switch on screens).”
Downhill, whistles await
Arkansas’ style of attack is sort of like last-place Georgia’s, except way better. Auburn sent Georgia to the foul line 22 times in the first half Saturday, accounting for more than half the Bulldogs’ points to stay within 12.
Arkansas attempts the fourth-most free throws in the country, despite having no individual players in the top 100 for most attempts. The Razorbacks slash to the rim, and they have relied less on the 3-pointer throughout the season. In the last eight games, they’ve shot 31.5% beyond the arc, attempting just 18.25 per game. But 22.1% of their points during the streak have come at the foul line, where they’ve shot 75.7%.
Senior guard J.D. Notae is at the forefront of the Hogs’ two-way success; he’s averaging a league-leading 18.7 points per game despite just a 30.4% 3-point shooting mark. He also contributes 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.4 steals, ranking 10th in the country. He’s a likely first-team All-SEC player.
Rising star makes Hogs more complete
Throughout SEC play, 6-foot-10 Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams (not to be mistaken with 6-foot-8 Auburn forward Jaylin Williams) has emerged as one of its best players, patching the Hogs’ early-season inconsistencies in the frontcourt. He was always a reliable rebounder, averaging 8.25 in nonconference play, but during that stretch he only scored 6.7 points per game.
Since SEC play started (including a nonconference interlude against West Virginia), he has averaged 12.4 points and 10.1 rebounds, scoring in double digits the last nine games.
“He’s a really good shot blocker, and he takes more charges than anybody else in the country,” Pearl said.
Arkansas 71, Auburn 62: It feels like a loss has been in the making for a few weeks. Bud Walton Arena has filled up with 18,900 per game this season. It’ll be loud for No. 1. And Pearl said it himself Saturday: The Tigers are a bit tired.