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Auburn won big last year and expectations have been raised

Previewing the No. 3 team in the SEC, the Auburn Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Auburn Preview

#3 Auburn Tigers

Last Season: 26-8 (13-5 in SEC) No. 23 KenPom

My Prediction: 23-7 (13 - 5, 3rd in SEC)

The Masses Prediction: 14.2-3.8 (2nd in SEC) No. 17 KenPom

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Auburn vs Clemson Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl | Fifth season, 70-62

It’s been a few months since Auburn basketball has been in the news, and you have to consider that a giant win. A year ago, I had our preview set to publish when the FBI announced at a press conference that Chuck Person, who was Bruce Pearl’s top assistant coach, had been ensnared in a pay-for-play scheme where coaches acted as middlemen in steering players to agents. That revelation got the seat under Pearl white hot.

There were reports the Auburn brass were close to firing Pearl, who’d already run afoul of the NCAA and earned a one-year show-cause penalty from the boys in Indianapolis. Then something else entirely different happened.

Pearl’s Tigers won. And they won some more. After a 2-1 start, Pearl steered his Tigers to a 14-game win streak, turning down the temperature on Pearl’s derriere. There’s still room for the floor to fall out from under Pearl, but at least now he’s built some sustainable momentum.

Seat Temp: WARM

sec basketball previews auburn 10 year look

In March, Auburn enjoyed its first tournament appearance since 2003 and landed a protected seed in the process. Pearl laid all the groundwork over the previous few years in recruiting. Still, getting the Tigers back was a big deal, and one thing is clear: expectations have been raised on the Plains.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Desean Murray transfer 32 59.71% 12.29% 11.71% 10.76%
Mustapha Heron transfer 34 67.36% 18.90% 11.04% 29.14%
Davion Mitchell transfer 34 42.80% 4.53% 8.87% 5.85%
33.97% 35.72% 31.62% 45.75%

No players graduated, but Auburn suffered attrition in the form of three transfers. None of them were end-of-the-bench players, either. Leading scorer Mustapha Heron landed at St. John’s. Leading rebounder Desean Murray also went north, wind up at Western Kentucky. Finally, Davion Mitchell, the Tigers’ backup point guard and a solid defender, opted to join Baylor.

Heron bolting came as a surprise to me, but not for the reason you’d expect. I thought the more likely destination was the NBA draft or an overseas league. While he took his 16.4 points per game to Big East, Heron was a high-usage player whose game lacked efficiency at times. Losing his production hurts, but it might offset if Pearl can spread it over the rest of his more than capable roster.

Murray bailing also came as a surprise. At 6-foot-3, he was an undersized jack of all trades but entrenched himself in the rotation by doing dirty work. Lastly, losing Mitchell makes certain sense, given that Jared Harper is locked in as a starter, but his exit dents depth and subtracts a capable lead guard.

AND, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Bryce Brown SR CG 33 75.82% 18.83% 61.18% 15.90%
Jared Harper JR PG 34 76.33% 16.13% 71.16% 31.29%
Chuma Okeke SO CF 34 53.98% 9.16% 61.16% 8.65%
Anfernee McLemore JR POST 27 38.61% 7.22% 69.34% 4.41%
Malik Dunbar SR WING 34 35.37.% 6.65% 53.01% 3.16%
Horace Spencer SR POST 34 43.17% 5.75% 67.52% 4.94%
Thomas Collier* JR POST 5 0.74% 0.07% 32.26% 0.00%
Cole Blackstock* SR POST 13 1.40% 0.14% 69.93% 0.07%
Brett Easterling* SO CG 8 1.10.% 0.07% 26.60% 0.00%
Will Macoy* JR WING 10 1.25% 0.07% 13.89% 0.04%
Devontae Williams* JR CG 8 0.81% 0.04% 18.12% 0.05%
Danjel Purifoy JR CF SUSPENDED
Austin Wiley JR POST SUSPENDED
Samir Doughty SO CG TRANSFER
64.13% 63.31% 68.49%
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Jared Harper | JUNIOR | POINT GUARD

When Person was indicted last fall, it threw into the eligibility of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy — subtracting critical cogs in the post and on the wing. Pearl needed someone to keep things plugging along. Harper stepped to the forefront, taking a big step forward last season as so much of the success of the season rested on his 5-foot-10 frame.

Harper represented 22.6 percent of the Tigers’ possessions, took 19.2 percent of their shots and posted a 31.9 percent assist rate. To say he was essential to the attack last season isn’t quite stating the level of impact on the offense he had. Harper also got to the free throw line at a good clip.

Elite rim protectors covered up Harper’s deficiencies as a defender, insurance that disappeared once Anfernee McLemore went down with a gruesome ankle injury. Shoring up his work on that end of the floor will only buoy his ability to generate offense.

The Tigers’ fortunes rely on getting back pieces that were unavailable down the stretch last season. A massive improvement on the defensive end the floor catapulted the program forward, and McLemore, who had a block rate of 16 percent, had a lot to do with it. The Tigers also get back Wiley and Purifoy. Purifoy serves as an important floor spacer and should be able to settle more into his natural position as a wing defender. As for Wiley, he was coming off a tremendous offseason when the FBI and its wiretaps torpedoed his season. Where McLemore is a defensive force, Wiley’s ample offensive arsenal should provide balance — all while easing pressure on a backcourt trying to replace Heron.

Another returner you should keep an eye on is Chuma Okeke, whose interior defense and playmaking around the rim were valuable off the bench. Horace Spencer provided defense, rebounding and an athletic body off the bench. However, he remains unpolished offensively. Malik Dunbar was another solid player off the bench but will find new competition on the wing. In essence, the Tigers swapped Heron and Murray for Purifoy and Wiley, all while adding VCU transfer Samir Doughty at combo guard. Yes, the Tigers took some hits, but their depth remains mostly unchanged.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Brown | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

Bryce Brown has quietly proven himself as of one of the SEC’s elite players. After averaging 10.1 points as a freshman stuck on a terrible team, his production slipped as a sophomore. His junior season certainly counts as a bounce back, one where he posted 15.9 points and shot 38.2 percent from the 3-point line.

Equally important was the consistency he provided as a perimeter defender in a backcourt where — at times — Heron and Harper could be a bit slipshod. For Brown, sustaining his output is crucial if Auburn is going to offset the loss of Heron and still live up to its billing as a preseason top-15 team.

THEN, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
So Jamal Johnson 6'3 178 TRANSFER MEMPHIS CG
Jr J'von McCormick 6'0 170 - - PG

With the impact of the FBI investigation hanging over their heads, Pearl and his staff struggled. E.J. Montgomery, a top-10 prospect and coveted combo forward, backed off his pledge and — painfully — wound picking Kentucky during the spring. But the younger roster and reasonable depth at critical positions act as a buffer. This class wasn’t going to be a linchpin for the Tigers, who mostly patched up depth among their reserves. They didn’t They added J’von McCormick, who is replacing Mitchell, as a backup point guard. Jamal Johnson, who at one time was committed to Memphis, should fit nicely next year as a combo guard.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Jared Harper J'von McCormick
(2) Combo Guard Bryce Brown Samir Doughty Jamal Johnson
(3) Wing Danjel Purifoy Malik Dunbar
(4) Combo Forward Anfernee McLemore Chuma Okeke
(5) Post Austin Wiley Horace Spencer

With Purifoy and Wiley back in the fold, the Tigers’ starting lineup could undergo a bit of a shakeup. Only two returners — Harper and Brown — seem like locks. Up front, McLemore is going to have to fight off Chuma Okeke, Horace Spencer and, notably, Wiley. Wiley is an Auburn legacy, an NBA prospect, and started 22 of the 23 games he played in for 2017. Purifoy could inherit Heron’s spot, but the four spot is interesting to me. I like what Okeke brought on both sides of the ball for Auburn last season, but if Wiley bumps McLemore his value defensively could give him the nod. It’s a tough call.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 23-7 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-8

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home South Alabama 174 W
Nov 9 Home Washington 46 W
Nov 14 Home Mississippi College - W
Nov 19 Neutral Xavier 55 W
Nov 20 Neutral Duke / SDSU 2 / 65 L
Nov 21 Neutral - - -
Nov 28 Home Saint Peters 196 W
Dec 4 Home UNC-Asheville 270 W
Dec 8 Home Dayton 100 W
Dec 15 Home* UAB 162 W
Dec 19 Away North Carolina State 36 L
Dec 22 Home Murray State 130 W
Dec 29 Home North Florida 228 W
avg 139.7

This is the sort of non-conference schedule you can see Auburn sailing through. Washington, North Carolina State, Dayton, Murray State, and a trip to Maui will all be challenging games. However, only one game is a true road game, a visit to the Wolfpack in Raleigh. On the flip side, a first-round win in Hawaii could result in a meeting with No. 4 Duke. The other side of the Maui bracket features Gonzaga, Arizona, Iowa State, and Illinois. Auburn has every reason to think they can get to 11 wins here, but I’d wager 10 is more likely.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home South Alabama 174 W
Nov 9 Home Washington 46 W
Nov 14 Home Mississippi College - W
Nov 19 Neutral Xavier 55 W
Nov 20 Neutral Duke / SDSU 2 / 65 L
Nov 21 Neutral - - -
Nov 28 Home Saint Peters 196 W
Dec 4 Home UNC-Asheville 270 W
Dec 8 Home Dayton 100 W
Dec 15 Home* UAB 162 W
Dec 19 Away North Carolina State 36 L
Dec 22 Home Murray State 130 W
Dec 29 Home North Florida 228 W
avg 139.7

The start of SEC play is soft for the Tigers, who face four teams projected to finish lower than 10th in their first five games. The outlier: a home against preseason favorite Kentucky. Sweeping home-and-homes against Ole Miss and Georgia would be the kind of insurance Pearl needs considering their remaining ones are against Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi State. If Auburn emerges with a 7-3 mark in those games, the remaining home slate — Missouri, Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas — is manageable. While Auburn can ease into league play, its overall slate is slightly tougher than a year ago, so it’s not out of the question they take a small step back. But if they pile up wins early, they could build enough of a buffer to contend for another SEC crown.

OVERVIEW

There was a time when it looked like Pearl was finished at Auburn. He lost a crucial assistant, saw his name dragged through the mud (again) and worked for an athletic director who hadn’t hired him.

Winning was his only way out. With his back against a wall and armed with good talent, Auburn shared a conference title with Tennessee. Now, he has political capital and more talent at his disposal. So, Auburn should be fine, right?

Maybe. If the Tigers again buy in on the defensive end, which has been a sore spot in Pearl’s tenure. Look at the program’s adjusted defensive metrics under Pearl:

  • 2015: 103.3 (No. 153 nationally)
  • 2016: 104.2 (No. 162)
  • 2017: 103.3 (No. 147)
  • 2018: 96.7 (No. 37)

Now, here’s where KenPom projects them to finish:

  • 2019 - 91.5 (No. 17)

KenPom’s projections are based on a sound model, but I’m still not quite ready to agree with what it spits out. For one, it expects Auburn will be better defensively despite providing more minutes to Austin Wiley, whose box plus-minus (1.6) is substantially less than one posted by McLemore (10.6) last season. Harper returns after being the weakest link last season, while Danjel Purifoy was a pretty average defender as well. Can the Auburn defense really improve when you factor in these changes?

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

So while the offensive numbers are likely to be every bit as good if not better, it’s reasonable to wonder if the defense will slip a bit, causing an overall dip in efficiency.

Maybe I’m worried about nothing. After all, it’s hard to keep McLemore off the floor. He’s a high-IQ defensive wizard around the basket, and those kinds of players are rare. When he’s hovering around the basket, offenses bog down because he’s such an intimidating shot blocker. To give you an example, here are the top shot blockers and their block rates last season:

  • Namdi Okonkwo, Pacific: 15.97
  • Sagaba Konante, West Virginia: 15.64
  • Kenny Wooten, Oregon: 15.33
  • Jaren Jackson, Michigan State: 14.33
  • Mohamed Bamba, Texas: 13.15

McLemore isn’t on this list because he got hurt, but his block rate was 16.0 percent.

The key for Auburn this season is finding balance. They found it last season with McLemore in the middle, whose rim protection freed up guards to take more chances, create more steals and juice the tempo. That experience should benefit Brown and Harper. In some ways, the fate of the Tigers might just come down to repeatable performances offensively.

A backcourt with Brown and Harper came with swagger, and it helped Auburn play with a chip on its shoulder. Even if Auburn regresses, this is still a very likely top-25 team that should — at worst — be a top-five team in the SEC. At best, they’re fighting with Kentucky and Tennessee for the top spot.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.