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A spirit that is not afraid

Auburn's shot-blocking ability making impact on more than just defense

Dec. 1, 2021; Auburn, Alabama; Walker Kessler (13) attempts to block a dunk attempt in a match between Auburn and UCF in the Auburn Arena.
Dec. 1, 2021; Auburn, Alabama; Walker Kessler (13) attempts to block a dunk attempt in a match between Auburn and UCF in the Auburn Arena.

The Tigers are continuing a trend this season under Bruce Pearl of being one of the most block-happy teams in Division I basketball, claiming the top spot for most blocks per game and most total blocks midway into the 2021-22 season. Auburn ended last season at No. 1 in blocked shots.  

Walker Kessler, a five-star center who transferred to the Plains from UNC, has accounted for over 54% of the Tigers’ 122 total-block count, rivaled only by Dylan Cardwell, who has 22 solo blocks under his belt. 

A year prior, the duo of JT Thor and Jaylin Williams each tallied 35-plus blocks as Auburn etched a nation-leading block count of six per game. 

Things look a lot different this year.  

Auburn has a steady lead of 29 more blocks than the team with the second-most blocks in the nation, UConn, which is also uncoincidentally the Tigers’ only loss of the year 15 games in.  

Auburn and the Huskies went head-to-head in the Bahamas in an early-season matchup in late November. UConn won that double-overtime matchup by a slim margin, but won the block count by a significant one, blocking eight shots to Auburn’s one. 

Since then, it’s been all Auburn as its run through its nonconference schedule and into SEC play. 

Aside from UConn, the only other game the Tigers have been out-blocked in was a 31-point win over Nebraska. 

Three games into SEC play, where teams really get put to the test by similarly talented and athletic players, Auburn is out-rebounding opponents at more than 2x a clip, with 24 Auburn blocks versus 10 by opposing teams. 

In fact, Kessler has more blocks over the last three games than all three SEC opponents combined (17-10) 

Against an undefeated LSU squad at home, Auburn’s highest block count of the season, 14, shredded LSU’s field-goal percentage to a season-low 28.6% and the team’s lowest points of any game to this date. 

The LSU Tigers have faced only one team that put up double digit blocks this season and only one team has defeated them — Auburn.

One thing that makes Auburn’s blocks so impactful is timing. 

Auburn’s blocks have been coming at game-changing times for the Tigers, purposefully or non-purposefully. In the Tigers’ biggest match up until that point against LSU, Auburn opened the game with four blocks in the first seven minutes of the game, which gave the offense a chance to sprint out to a double-digit lead that was cut into one once or twice over the next 33 minutes.

To close out against the purple and gold Tigers, Auburn stopped four shots in the final five minutes of regulation, one of which that was rebounded and sent ahead to Allen Flanigan for a dagger three that extended Auburn’s lead back to 14.

Gaining possession is a part of the blocking that changes the game. Without gaining possession off the block, the team that just took a shot is going to have a look at another and the block almost becomes meaningless except on a scoresheet. 

But by acquiring possession, defense turns into offense for the same team within a matter of seconds.  

In Auburn’s most recent win over Florida and against the second-best rebounder in the SEC in Colin Castleton, Auburn grabbed the ball four straight times off of blocks, leading to three shot attempts and a five-point swing for the Tigers. The Tigers have had success in forcing turnovers off blocks, gaining possession from five of six blocks against Loyola Chicago and four of six against South Carolina.

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Auburn will sit down for its biggest test to date on Tuesday when it faces its rival, Alabama, on the road in an SEC showdown where both teams have shown an affection for destroying shots at and around the rim. The Tide have out-blocked opponents 75-51 this season with Charles Bediako leading the team with 26. In of the most impressive showings by the Tide to date, Alabama matched then-ranked No. 3 Gonzaga block-for-block in early December at nine each as the crimson and white snuck a win out over the Bulldogs. As well as blocking at a fairly respectable rate, Alabama is the third best team in the SEC in rebounding, the Tigers are fifth. 

Tuesday’s game is a true opportunity for Auburn to prove its worth as the newest No. 4 ranked team in the country and as one of the better-blocking teams in the country against a quality opponent that isn’t afraid to get active on the glass either. 

Auburn (14-1) will face Alabama (11-4) in Coleman Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. CST. The game will be live broadcast on ESPN.

Larry Robinson | Photo Editor

Larry is a senior studying journalism with a minor in sociology. He is from Enterprise, Alabama and is in his third year with The Auburn Plainsman. 

Twitter: @ReportingLarry

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