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Bruce Pearl tries to ride the wave of Auburn’s first Final Four

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Previewing the #7 team in the SEC, the Auburn Tigers

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Virginia vs Auburn Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Is the rebuild complete when your season ends with the first Final Four in school history?

That was the case for the Auburn Tigers last year, who capped a tumultuous stretch for the program with a deep run in March. Let’s review: Quietly, Auburn self-imposed recruiting sanctions stemming from the involvement of former assistant coach Chuck Person, who was indicted for his role in a pay-for-play scandal. This all unfolded at a program led by Bruce Pearl, a coach fresh of a show-cause penalty from his time at Tennessee.

So yeah, it’s been an interesting time on the Plains.

On the court, it was a marquee season. Off the court, it was wild.


Previous SEC Previews

Auburn Preview

#7 Auburn Tigers

Last Season: 30-10 (11-7 in conference) No. 11 KenPom

My Prediction: 20-11 (9-9, 7th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 10.7-7.3 (4th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 4th in conference

KenPom Projection: 20-10 (10-8 in conference) No. 22

New Mexico State v Auburn Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl | Sixth Season, 100-72

Bruce Pearl is electric.

Maybe it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. But it’s never dull. Pearl has reignited the Auburn basketball program, and the level of excitement for basketball in and around the school is palpable. Before Pearl’s arrival, the Tigers’ NCAA tournament drought reached back to 2003, a period where they only reached 20 wins once.

It took Pearl three seasons of bumps before the Tigers broke through. His fourth season at the helm was a revelation, followed by a quick descent. After cracking the KenPom top 10 two years ago, it appeared everything was rolling, until Anfernee McLemore went down late in the season and the defense subsequently tanked. Ultimately, a promising season flamed out with blowout loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The mojo was seemingly lost as the Tigers struggled early last season, but then Pearl caught the lightning needed and they blistered down the stretch. Now, provided the NCAA keeps at bay, Pearl seems to have cemented Auburn as a program that expects to finish near the top of the SEC. With rosier projections comes loftier expectations, but making the Final Four should at least give Pearl a little more slack.

Seat Temp: COOL

auburn 10 year look 2019

Emerging from the abyss that stretched from 2004 until 2016, the program is on a little bit of a roll. Almost all of that credit belongs to Pearl. Putting Auburn as a potential top-15 to top-20 program just a few years ago would’ve seemed crazy. Now I’m one of the few people who think the Tigers might fight to make the NCAA tournament this year.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Bryce Brown graduation 40 79.32% 19.98% 16.91% 15.86%
Jared Harper professional 40 81.61% 19.23% 18.77% 16.32%
Chuma Okeke professional 38 68.42% 14.30% 18.01% 13.68%
Horace Spencer graduation 39 38.58% 8.12% 7.35% 8.68%
Malik Dunbar graduation 40 43.41% 5.30% 6.10% 7.72%
Cole Blackstock graduation 12 1.36% 0.13% 0.11% 0.27%
62.54% 67.06% 67.25% 62.53%

So far, we’ve given a lot of credit in this space to Pearl, but you can’t talk about the success of the Tigers program in the last few years without talking about a few specific players. Unfortunately for Pearl, the guards who helped spur Auburn’s resurgence — Bryce Brown and Jared Harper — have made their exits.

Harper, a speedy point guard, was the engine behind the Auburn offense, posting a 116.0 offensive rating and a 32.7 assist rate, according to KenPom. He was an efficient scorer and passer who bolted early to start collecting a paycheck, leaving a massive hole to fill on the offensive end. That’s not to undersell Brown’s importance. While Harper attacked out of pick-and-rolls and on the break, Brown knocked down 41 percent of his 3-point attempts. The duo played off each other, with Brown’s shooting stretching defenses and widening gaps for Harper to drive. Now that explosive duo needs replacing.

As if that wasn’t enough, combo forward Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL and bounced to the NBA, is also gone. Okeke’s explosiveness and versatility on offense was the key to setting Auburn apart from the rest.

Losing a trio of critical starters is already daunting, but key reserves Horace Spencer and Malik Dunbar also graduated. Dunbar was an incredibly versatile defender and consistent enough offensively to make an impact. Spencer was a hyper-athletic mess of a basketball player who was so all-over the court he actually made a lot of good things happen.

What I’m trying to say is Auburn lost a lot.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Samir Doughty SR CG 40 60.00% 9.16% 60.20% 9.83%
Austin Wiley SR POST 29 23.34% 6.27% 58.50% 6.12%
Anfernee McLemore SR POST 40 47.18% 8.41% 55.00% 7.87%
J'Von McCormick SR PG 39 29.35% 5.02% 58.30% 5.47%
Danjel Purifoy SR CF 28 21.30% 3.23% 53.20% 3.38%
Myles Parker SO CF 14 1.67% 0.35% 34.90% -0.09%
Preston Cook SO WING 8 0.62% 0.13% 40.00% 0.20%
Devontae Williams SR WING 7 0.62% 0.09% 75.00% 0.02%
Will Macoy SR WING 12 1.42% 0.16% 34.70% 0.17%
Chase Maasdorp SO PG 10 1.11% 0.13% 25.80% -0.15
Thomas Collier SR POST 8 0.68% 0.00% 0.00% 0.08
37.46% 32.95% 25.97%
NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Semifinals-Virginia vs Auburn Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Samir Doughty | SENIOR | COMBO GUARD

The memory of Doughty landing underneath Kyle Guy in the national semi-final isn’t something easily forgotten by college basketball fans, much less the Auburn faithful. But reducing Doughty to one of the most memorable plays from last season undersells the role he played for the Tigers.

The VCU transfer fit nicely into a secondary role, playing the fourth-most minutes on the team and providing defense and spot shooting. Yet his usage rate was relatively modest, and the question remains whether he can fill a larger role. With his shooting, he’ll be a threat, but he’ll also draw the attention that was focused on the trio of Harper, Brown and Okeke.

There are a lot of bodies returning, but Pearl lacks an obvious alpha among the group. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy were early cornerstones of the rebuild, but each was connected to the FBI’s investigation and sat out a year. When they returned last season, their limited production curbed their minutes. On top of the eligibility issue, Wiley’s battled nagging injuries, which have limited him to just 18 minutes a night. Still, the expectation is he’ll be a focal point this season. We’ll see.

Purifoy, on the other hand, played even less of a role last year, turning into a 3-and-D wing. McLemore is underrated for his defense and energy, but he’s still raw offensively and undersized for a center. J’von McCormick was excellent at times backing up Harper, if only a little inconsistent. Of all the guys coming back, McCormick might have the best opportunity to step into a primary scoring role — and that might be indicative of the issues confronting the Tigers.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Isaac Okoro 6'6 215 ★★★★ 35 WING
Fr Tyrell Jones 6'1 170 ★★★★ 113 CG
Fr Jaylin Williams 6'7 215 ★★★★ 118 POST
Fr Babatunde Akingbola 6'8 220 ★★★ 286 POST
Fr Allen Flanigan 6'5 200 ★★★ 301 WING
Fr Devan Cambridge 6’6 190
R-So Javon Franklin 6'7 218 - - WING
City Of Palms Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Isaac Okoro | FRESHMAN | WING

At season’s end, how much will we be talking about Okoro’s impact on Auburn? Without a doubt, Okoro’s versatility and athleticism give him the tools to make an early impact, but his game still needs polish. However, Okoro could become a menace defensively, which doesn’t always generate a ton of chatter when talking about high-impact freshmen. If all goes well, he could have an impact similar to that of Matisse Thybulle at Washington. Considering Thybulle became an NBA draft pick despite his average offensive numbers, there’s a path for Okoro to follow.

If Okoro can round out his offense, Auburn could have an All-SEC player on its roster. For now, though, he’ll generate offense as a slasher and sprinting the floor in transition.

Spend time watching Tyrell Jones and you see shades of Harper. He’s a tad undersized, but he possesses a natural sense of pace and how to control it. What helps is his frame can accommodate some more mass, which will help him as a finisher down the line. It also helps that he wants to push the tempo and get in the open floor.

Jaylin Williams profiles as a promising long-term post prospect. In the short term, he can supply some energy, but we’ll have to see where his ceiling is. Ultimately, I think he’ll grow into a reliable role guy for the Tigers. Meanwhile, Babatunde Akingbola is a prospect who I think has a higher ceiling. He’ll likely struggle with inconsistency issues, but he could be pressed into action early and often. He was also high school and EYBL teammates with Okoro, playing at McEachern High in the Atlanta area and for Athletes of Tomorrow in Nike’s EYBL.

It was probably a foregone conclusion Allen Flanigan was going to Auburn, considering his dad is a current assistant and former player. The younger Flanigan isn’t a highly rated prospect, but Pearl has mined gems from the lower end of the recruiting rankings. Devan Cambridge played at Hillcrest Prep and also played grassroots for AOT. He reclassified into the 2019 class after a breakout season. Javon Franklin fits the template Pearl frequently uses: an elite athlete whose skill set needs refining. He also has three years to play after sitting out last season with a broken bone in his leg.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard J'Von McCormick Tyrell Jones
(2) Combo Guard Samir Doughty Jamal Johnson Allen Flanigan
(3) Wing Isaac Okoro Danjel Purifoy Devan Cambridge
(4) Combo Forward Anfernee McLemore Jaylin Williams Javon Franklin
(5) Post Austin Wiley Babatunde Akingbola

The mix of players Pearl assembled in this class is interesting and fits what he’s done since returning to the SEC. What they lack in size is offset by oodles of athleticism and range. The trade off is refined skill. That’s going to take a year of seasoning. However, you can also see the makings of another productive core — one that plays at a breakneck pace.

However, the returners are all slightly miscast. Doughty and McCormick strike me as complementary players on a proven roster. Instead, they’ll be asked to handle the bulk of Auburn’s offensive production. Wiley and Purifoy are up against the clock to make good on their potential. Can they do it? They’re not precisely ideal fits for the speed at which Auburn operates.

So how is Pearl going to build out his starting five and bench unit?

He has talked in the offseason about slowing the pace down and going to Wiley more. I’m sure that would please the big man, but the team around is one that wants to be revved up and run.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 20-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 20-10

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 21 Miami at NC State Photo by Michael Berg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 5 Home Georgia Southern 126 W
Nov 8 Neutral Davidson 61 W
Nov 12 Home* South Alabama 120 W
Nov 15 Home Cal St - Northridge 175 W
Nov 18 Home Colgate 115 W
Nov 25 Neutral New Mexico 91 W
Nov 26 Neutral Richmond/Wisconsin 92 / 45 L
Dec 5 Home Furman 105 W
Dec 14 Home* Saint Louis 141 W
Dec 19 Home North Carolina State 28 W
Dec 21 Home Lehigh 227 W
Dec 29 Home Lipscomb 182 W
Jan 25 Home Iowa State 47 L
avg 118.17 11-2

The Tigers have not lined up a demanding schedule, and that might be for the best in a transition year. There are zero true road games, three neutral-site games, and a couple of off-campus home games. If Auburn doesn’t get off to a great start, I’ll be astonished. There’s only one game against a power conference team: a visit from North Carolina State. Saint Louis in a semi-home game could be tough, but another game the Tigers should win.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 4 Away Mississippi State 53 L
Jan 8 Home Vanderbilt 148 W
Jan 11 Home Georgia 55 W
Jan 15 Away Alabama 70 L
Jan 18 Away Florida 12 L
Jan 22 Home South Carolina 69 W
Jan 28 Away Ole Miss 60 L
Feb 1 Home Kentucky 2 L
Feb 4 Away Arkansas 44 W
Feb 8 Home LSU 38 L
Feb 12 Home Alabama 70 W
Feb 15 Away Missouri 39 L
Feb 19 Away Georgia 55 W
Feb 22 Home Tennessee 19 W
Feb 25 Home Ole Miss 60 W
Feb 29 Away Kentucky 2 L
Mar 3 Home Texas A&M 58 W
Mar 7 Away Tennessee 19 L
avg 48.50 9-9

Getting home-and-homes against Kentucky and Tennessee isn’t exactly a gift. I’m sure coach John Calipari will have the Wildcats primed and ready. But Auburn’s remaining home schedule features Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Texas A&M. Not all of those are easy wins, but they provide a slight buffer. I also think it’s unlikely Ole Miss and Alabama pull off sweeps this season.

The road schedule, however, could be rocky. Aside from trips to Lexington and Knoxville, Auburn travels to Florida and also faces three teams — Mississippi State, Arkansas and Missouri — that harbor NCAA tournament aspirations. There’s also a potential swing game when LSU comes to the Plains.

OVERVIEW

As I said earlier, this looks like a year where Pearl resets the program. Wiley might be the Tigers’ best player, but Auburn’s offense isn’t constructed around playing through the post. It relies on spacing, shooting and having a point guard adept at creating out of pick-and-rolls. Case in point: When Auburn used Wiley in post-ups, he averaged just 0.88 points per possession — well off the 1.15 PPP when the ball didn’t go inside.

Auburn Returners Shot Chart
Auburn Returners Shot Chart

More than 50 percent of Auburn’s half-court possessions ended with a finish by Harper, Brown or Okeke. That trio combined to average 1.02 PPP. With all three gone, the answer to filling the glaring hole they left isn’t dumping the ball to Wiley and letting him go to work.

And to be clear, Wiley is a good player. He’s a good roller out of ball screens, runs the floor hard, and is a stout defender. Yet his best offense is dependent on his teammates creating for him. It’s not a matter of whether Wiley is good. Instead, it’s a question of whether Auburn’s plan might create more headaches than we care to admit.

Auburn v Kentucky Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

There’s also a lack of experienced playmakers coming back. To be sure, Doughty and McCormick showed flashes of promise, but it seems overly optimistic to think they’ll pick up where Brown and Harper left off. Meanwhile, their supporting cast is filled with freshmen or veterans who haven’t quite lived up to their promise.

Some of this depends on how Bruce Pearl wants to approach this season. Is this the final send-off for his two most prized early recruits who’ve been good role players during their time? Or is it the first step in rebuilding back up after a Final Four run?

If it’s the latter, Pearl would be wise to sink minutes into his younger players, letting them develop and play through growing pains. Doing so might produce some near-term groans, but it’ll tee the Tigers up for success once a player like Sharife Cooper, a five-star point guard in the 2020 class, arrives on campus.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m skeptical of the lofty early expectations for Auburn because of these question marks.

I’m not alone, either. The Tigers landed at fourth in the SEC preseason poll, No. 22 in KenPom and 74th in Bart Torvik’s projections. One feels way too low, and the other two feel too high.

To me, Auburn looks like an NCAA bubble team, depending on an outcome or two to decide where they land on the cut line. The last at-large selections tend to be in the mid-40s for KenPom, and that feels about what we can expect this season. Then again, maybe Pearl can steal the momentum of last season’s Final Four run and find the right recipe to turn this team into a good one.


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.