After three games in three days, the Auburn men's basketball team finished the 2018 Maui Invitational in third place out of eight teams.
The team's expectations were high coming into the tournament. With all the preseason hype surrounding the team, paired with a 3-0 start to the season, the Tigers were looking for the opportunity to prove themselves on the national stage. The opportunity to do so was definitely there. The 34-year-old Maui Invitational is considered to be the tournament to watch at the beginning of the season. For the first time in the tournament's history, it featured only Division I teams. This included great programs such as Xavier, Arizona, number three ranked Gonzaga and number one ranked Duke, who is one of the best teams to be put together in recent memory.
Auburn responded to the challenge well. The team won their quarterfinal game against Xavier and the third place game against Arizona, while taking a loss to Duke in the semifinal game. Here are a few takeaways from Auburn's performance over the Thanksgiving holiday.
1. Jared Harper proved he is one of the best point guards in the country
Earning all-tournament team honors for his performance, the junior point guard captured national attention on more than one occasion last week.
In the first game against Xavier, Harper went off to the tune of 25 points and 8 assists. Whenever the Musketeers threatened to take the lead during the second half, Harper responded, halting their momentum every time and showing off his ability to make clutch shots. He then took that ability to another level in the overtime period, dunking over Xavier player Naji Marshall (a play that ranked number one on Sportscenter's Top 10 play) and hitting a tough floater in traffic to seal the game.
Against the Blue Devils, Jared Harper did not disappoint, leading both teams in scoring with 22 points. He also paired the performance with six three's and six assists. Throughout the game, Harper showed that he wasn't scared of the best team in the country. At the end of the first half, Harper attempted to dunk over Duke's Zion Williamson, who is arguably the best athlete in college basketball. Though the attempt was not successful, he showed how fearless he truly is. Towards the end of the game, Harper hit a couple of deep, contested three-pointers to keep the game interesting. Though his efforts proved to be futile, Harper showed out against some of the best talent in the country.
While he did not perform as well in the third-place game against Arizona, he was still able to contribute in the team's 16 point win over the Wildcats.
With his performance in the Maui Invitational, Jared Harper can expect to have a huge year for the Tigers and continue to prove that he is one the best players the college game has to offer.
2. Austin Wiley shows us what we've been missing
Austin Wiley, welcome back.
After being ruled ineligible last year and battling a left foot injury, Wiley has slowly but surely worked his way back into form for the Tigers. Ever since his return, he has gotten better in each game he has played in and has shown why he is an NBA draft prospect.
In just 19 minutes against Xavier, he poured in 11 points on an efficient 66.6% shooting from the field. He was a huge spark off the bench and helped tremendously on defense while he was in the game, collecting three blocks and using his frame to make shots at the rim difficult for the Musketeers.
In the Duke game, Wiley took it to another level. In just under 20 minutes, he contributed 17 points along with nine rebounds and was a big reason Auburn was able to keep up with the Blue Devils. When Auburn was struggling early in the second half, the 6'11" center provided a much-needed energy and scoring boost to keep the team in the game. While already impressive enough, this was against one of the best teams in college basketball, so this hints at huge things to come for him.
Versus Arizona, Wiley turned in an average performance. Even though he did not play as much as the previous two games due to some foul trouble, he scored five points paired with three rebounds and a block.
While he struggled from the free throw line throughout the tournament, Wiley flashed a lot of potential for what is to come from him this season. He is a very talented player and has the skill set to be one of Auburn's best this year. Expect to see big games out of him as his minutes increase and becomes more comfortable playing after a season-long hiatus last year.
3. Foul trouble was an issue in all three games
While there are so many positives to take away from Auburn's time in Maui, one of the negatives was the number of fouls the team committed and the bad situations it put them in as a result.
In the game against Xavier, Auburn had many chances to close them out and run away with it, but one of the things that kept Xavier in the game was their free throw shooting and Auburn's foul trouble. Auburn put the Musketeers in the bonus nine minutes into the second half and in the double bonus soon after that, giving Xavier many chances to go to the free throw line, converting 21 of the 24 they were given. This kept the opposing team in striking distance throughout the second half and made it a harder victory than it should've been. Also, Austin Wiley and Anfernee Mclemore, Auburn's two best big men, both fouled out. This would have been a huge blow to the team had it not been for Horace Spencer's performance in overtime.
Against Arizona, the team committed 19 personal fouls, many of those being offensive fouls in the first half, but it didn't prove to be too big of an issue in comparison to the Duke and Xavier game.
If you didn't notice this foul trouble against Xavier and Arizona, you likely noticed it against Duke. In the first half, Auburn sent the Blue Devils to the line 18 times, while the Tigers didn't go there at all. Samir Doughty was out most of the game due to foul trouble and eventually fouled out late in the second half. Malik Dunbar also fouled out. At the end of the game, Auburn committed 24 fouls as a team compared to Duke's 13 personal fouls. While you cannot blame the referees, this wound up being a huge blow to Auburn's upset bid. Auburn had many key players in foul trouble and could never truly maintain any sort of momentum. In a game against a team of Duke's caliber, a team needs to put together a near perfect game. Despite the struggles, Auburn still came close to a victory, but the fouls wound up being a big reason the Tigers couldn't shock the world.
4. Going Forward
The main thing to take away from Auburn's performance in the Maui Invitational is that they will be a team to be reckoned with this year.
The Tigers lived up to every expectation I could've set for them for this tourney. They beat the opponents they were supposed to beat (Xavier and Arizona) and competed with Duke. That is all I could ask for this early into the season.
Auburn fans should also be proud of the way the team responded to adversity throughout the tournament. Against Xavier, shots were not falling, not much was going Auburn's way in the second half, and the opposing fans who traveled to Maui were as loud as they could be. Fortunately, Auburn found a way to win a tough game. Duke was favored by over 10 points and Auburn could've folded at any point in the game, but Auburn fought back the entire game and only lost by six. In the Arizona game the Wildcats would not go away, but Auburn eventually pulled away late in the second half and won decisively. This ability to fight through adversity in neutral site games will be huge come March.
While there are so many things that could be discussed, such as Bryce Brown's solid play throughout the tournament or Malik Dunbar's performance against Arizona, Auburn performed well on the national stage and fans can expect to see big things from them as the year progresses.
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