It feels a bit strange to be talking about Auburn so soon. Since Bruce Pearl’s arrival, change swept across the Plains and lifted the Tigers’ fortunes. After reaching the Final Four, most observers expected the program to take a step back last season. Instead, Auburn proved that culture can offset roster attrition and carry you further than you think.
Facing a soft non-conference slate, Auburn bolted to a 15-0 start and finished at a 25-6 mark. Its personality didn’t change much either. The Tigers shot a lot of three-pointers. They pushed the pace. And they played with a ton of energy. So, how much of the culture of Auburn basketball will carry over into 2020-21?
Previous SEC Previews
- No. 10 Texas A&M Aggies
- No. 11 Ole Miss Rebels
- No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs
- No. 13 Mississippi State Bulldogs
- No. 14 Vanderbilt Commodores
#8 Auburn Tigers
Last Season: 25-6 (12-6 in conference) No. 33 KenPom
My Prediction: 14-11 (9-9, ninth in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 7th in conference
KenPom Projection: 10-12 (8-10 SEC) No. 66
HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl | Seventh Season, 125-76
Bruce Pearl is a lot of things to a lot of people. He’s been through the wringer with the NCAA but remains beloved on Rocky Top and now on the plains of Alabama. He coaches stellar basketball teams. And while his methods draw ire and the scrutiny of investigators, those teams are fun and infused with his wild personality. Personally, I think it’s great for the sport.
Regardless of your feelings, Pearl’s teams win. And I don’t know if I remember a coach completely changing the energy around a program the way Pearl has done with Auburn. Basketball was long an afterthought, and now, it’s a prime ticket.
Seat Temp: COLD
The term you might be looking for when it comes to the above graphic is LOL. Tony Barbee found life was harder outside of John Calipari’s nest, turning in erratic results during his tenure. Sure, it took Pearl several years to get a head of steam, but now Auburn is rolling, averaging 27 wins per season. Last season, they were forecasted as a likely No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Is Auburn a perennial tournament team? I’m not sure. But under Pearl it’s the closest the program will get to that status.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
Predicting a reset is obvious: Auburn’s top-six rotation players are gone. With their exits, the roster is mostly barren of guys who went on that wild ride to Minneapolis several years ago.
Samir Doughty became the primary playmaker on a really good team last year, which is something I wasn’t sure would happen. More than anyone, Doughty’s ability to become a primary cog kept Auburn from slipping last season, and his energy, leadership and production is going to be missed.
Auburn will also miss Austin Wiley. There’s a case to be made that Wiley didn’t quite live up to his potential, especially after getting ensnared in an FBI investigation into corruption in the sport, but the big man remained and elite rebounder and efficient finisher. Meanwhile, you won’t find many bigger fans of Anfernee McLemore than me. Never the star of the show, the big man was the kind of player good rosters require: an intelligent defender who guards four positions, a rim protector, and an offensive player who didn’t require actions run for him.
I remember Danjel Purifoy being Bruce Pearl’s first big recruit he landed. Purifoy was another victim of the FBI probe, and it seemed to stunt his development. Like Wiley, Purifoy found a way to fit into Pearl’s rotation on the wing.
The most important departure, however, is Isaac Okoro. While Okoro arrived as a highly touted recruit, even draftniks didn’t peg him as a one-and-done candidate, much less a top-five pick. Okoro is still a bit of a project offensively, but he quickly became one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference. Even better, he was fine deferring a scoring role to Doughty and fellow veteran J’Von McCormick.
For his part, McCormick embodies Auburn’s group last season: a lightly used reserve who stepped up and became a quality starter. Now, he wasn’t as efficient as Jared Harper, but the he gave the Tigers adequate play at lead guard.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Devan Cambridge | SOPHOMORE | WING
Auburn doesn’t have a lot of guys coming back who played major roles, but Cambridge showed hints that he’s ready to be a reliable piece. He specialized a bit last year as a spot-up shooter, hitting nearly 35 percent from behind the arc as a freshman. If he’s able to boost that number slightly, he’ll have a major role spacing the floor and keeping driving lanes open.
The remaining returnees are light on action. Look for redshirt Junior Jamal Johnson, who arrived as a transfer from Memphis last season, to mimic Doughty’s development. He’s a versatile guard capable of making plays and being a primary ball handler. Allen Flanigan is another wing option who split time with Cambridge. It’s likely Flanigan and Cambridge will share the floor this season.
Jaylin Williams didn’t play a lot last season, but blame a logjam of experienced players for scant minutes. With ample turnover, he should see his opportunities increase. The same could be said for Tyrell Jones, a former four-star recruit that bided his time behind experienced seniors. Finally, Babatunde Akingbola is a big body who should be able to provide some help in the front court, probably as a backup.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
Sharife Cooper | FRESHMAN | PG
One commodity that’s essential to Pearl’s style is finding an elite point guard and turning them loose. Sharife Cooper fits that demand. There are still currently questions regarding his eligibility, but he’s a blur in the open floor and already possess elite vision. Mistakes are inevitable, but Cooper is arguably the best point guard in his class, and Pearl has shown he’s willing to live with growing pains. Cooper’s creative ability should also ease pressure on the likes of Cambridge, Johnson and Flanagan to serve a shot creators.
In J.T. Thor, Cooper has the perfect pick-and-roll partner. At 6-foot-10, Thor is springy and and fluid when sprinting the floor, traits perfect for Auburn’s up-tempo system. Thor, a top-50 recruit, could be in line to start right away. Chris Moore is the perfect Pearl recruit: a undersized and hybrid post that is comfortable doing the little things around the rim. Dylan Cardwell is a developmental big with good size. And lastly, Justin Powell is an athletic, big guard who is crafty around the basket and has extensive shooting range.
|(1) Point Guard||Sharife Cooper||Tyrell Jones|
|(2) Combo Guard||Jamal Johnson||Justin Powell|
|(3) Wing||Devan Cambridge||Allen Flanigan|
|(4) Combo Forward||Jaylin Williams||Chris Moore||Javon Franklin|
|(5) Post||JT Thor||Babatunde Akingbola||Dylan Cardwell|
This roster is an interesting blend. Pearl has a few returnees who could step into larger roles and a recruiting class with enough talent to push for early playing time. How he balances those competing forces will dictate Auburn’s fate.
Obviously, Cooper arrived expecting to start, and it’s likely he takes the reins. As for secondary ball-handlers, Pearl’s not starving for options among Johnson, Jones and Powell. Flanigan and Cambridge seems to be safe bets on the wing.
Where the rotation gets interesting is along the front line. It seems reasonable to plug Thor in at the post spot, but combo forward is where Pearl faces some tricky decisions. Williams is capable, but didn’t play much last year. Moore and Franklin are also energy guys. So, it’s not real clear who leads the pack. But given how Pearl wants to play, platooning bodies isn’t out of the question.
My Projected Record: 14-11 | KenPom Projected Record: 10-12
**Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the schedule is subject to (and likely to) change**
|Nov 26||Neutral||Saint Joseph's||161||W|
|Dec 4||Home||South Alabama||211||W|
|Dec 22||Home||Appalachian St||196||W|
First off: much respect on this schedule. In a time where so many programs are just trying to put together games, Auburn lined up a date with Gonzaga, one of the best teams in the country. They also got matched up with preseason No. 1 Baylor. The rest of the schedule is solid. UCF should put up a fight, and St. Joseph’s is a respectable team out of the Atlantic 10. Still, locking in a pair of top-five opponents away from home gives Auburn ample opportunity to notch a marquee win.
|Jan 2||Away||Texas A&M||L|
|Jan 6||Away||Ole Miss||L|
|Jan 23||Away||South Carolina||L|
|Feb 6||Home||Ole Miss||W|
|Feb 16||Home||Mississippi State||W|
The conference slate is also bumpy. Drawing Kentucky twice might be fine in a normal season, but Auburn Arena won’t be a crazy bandbox this go-around. The first three games should give us some hint about the Tigers’ direction. They open with Arkansas and hit the road for games at Texas A&M and Ole Miss. If they notch a couple of wins, the Tigers might be in line for an 11-7 campaign.
Never count out Pearl or Auburn. In a season where uncertainty is normal, surprises are sure to abound. Look back to last season, too. Pegged to finish in the middle of the SEC standings, a standout season from Okoro and a collective step forward by role players helped Auburn to a top-four finish. The question is whether Pearl sees a similar series of events unfold.
If you buy into the idea that Cooper and Thor will replicate Okoro’s impact, odds are you’re higher on Auburn than us. There is no doubt they’re going to be tough. That’s now encoded in their DNA, and Pearl’s enthusiasm is infectious. Cliched as it might sound, betting on culture isn’t a foolish proposition.
Still, it still feels like Auburn might be asking a bit more than their returners can offer. Doughty and McCormick were less efficient last season, but that’s partly attributable to their increase in minutes and usage. When it comes to Cambridge and Flanigan, neither were as efficient as role players, and so any dip from a similar expansion in their roles might leave them making less of an impact than the vets they’re replacing.
The more likely bet to step up is Johnson, but he only played 27.5 percent of minutes. Doughty, for his part, was around 60 percent as a reserve and 81 percent as a starter. Can Johnson sustain his efficiency if his minutes to triple to 32 a night? Maybe. But that’s a big ask.
Auburn’s distinct home-court advantage is also taking a hit as COVID protocols bar packing in bodies. The Tigers feed off that energy, and it can be especially crucial when a roster tilts toward youth and inexperience. How will this group muster that momentum if the environment around them is toned down?
Yet the Tigers still have all the components you need for a special season: an elite point guard, shooting, and an athletic front court. What gives me pause isn’t Cooper (if eligible) or Thor. It’s whether the production Pearl receives will be below the ceiling set in recent seasons. No, Auburn won’t crater, but a traditional reset is probably a safer bet—with some surprises along the way.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
As long as Cooper is deemed eligible, Auburn will hand the keys to the offense over to one of the best point guards in the league and country. He’ll feed steady shooters, while the Tigers’ defense creates transition chances that offset a dip in half-court efficiency. Pull that off, and the program will probably steal a couple of extra wins.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
Frenetic as Auburn can be, Pearl’s had continuity among the players harassing opponents. But there is no Harper, Brown, Doughty or McCormick this season. The returners aren’t as seasoned, and Cooper is the only elite talent in this class. If the veterans struggle to acclimate to more minutes and Cooper encounters growing pains, this could be a bumpy season.
About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything and the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game), but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.
* - 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.