The COVID season wasn’t a kind one for the Auburn Tigers. Overall expectations have changed for the program since a Final Four season and the cusp of a Championship game appearance. But while that season was incredibly memorable, it’s easy to overlook the part where the Tigers were just 11-7 in conference play, and nearly lost in the first round as a 5 seed.
And that’s not to denigrate the accomplishment at all, because winning in the SEC is difficult, winning in the NCAA Tournament is difficult, and those things are even tougher at a school which, until recently, has not prioritized basketball. But with some strategic investments, and a little bit of a loose approach with the rules, Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers have fans excited about this year, and the future on the plains.
Previous SEC Previews
- 14. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 12. Texas A&M Aggies
- 11. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 9. Ole Miss Rebels
- 8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
- 7. LSU Tigers
- 6. Florida Gators
Last Season: 13 - 14 (7-11 in conference) No. 60 KenPom
My Prediction: 21 - 9 (11-7, 5th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 13 - 5 (3rd in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 5th in conference
KenPom Projection: 20 - 9 (11-7 in conference) No. 28
HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl | 8th Season, 138-92
Is Bruce Pearl a likable guy?
He’s loud, he sweats through his shirts way too often, and takes those shirts off even more often it seems like. He’s had a show cause levied against him and forced to the sidelines on purpose because he lied to the NCAA over a minor recruiting violation. He’s had an assistant serve jail time over the whole FBI sting operation. So it feels safe to assume Pearl is more than comfortable operating in the gray, and sometimes black areas of high major basketball recruiting.
But he’s goofy and paints his face and hangs out in the student crowds so that’s likable, right? I don’t know. I think Pearl is a lot of things to a lot of people. He’s a good basketball coach. His teams win a lot of games. But in the past he’s made a lot of poor decisions which, frankly, make him hard to like. Even as a Missouri fan, you might find the story of what he did around the Deon Thomas situation at Illinois humorous, but in reality it’s gross and sad and quite ugly. If you’re a head coach, your Wikipedia page should be about your on the court accomplishments, and yet Pearl’s is littered with missteps.
So like him or not, he’s going to be at Auburn for a while. And he’s going to win more games than most of the other programs in the SEC. Probably at least until the next misstep.
Seat Temp: COOL
In 7 seasons Pearl only has two NCAA tournament appearances. There would have been a 3rd if it weren’t for a COVID-shortened season, as the Tigers were looking a lot like a 5 or 6 seed. But there’s no denying how much Pearl has had an impact on the program. Winning at a high level year in and year out is difficult, and Auburn hit a bit of a skid last season. But if you’re looking at program trajectory, it’s far more likely the Tigers are a tournament team again this year than not.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
If it’s possible to lose a whole lot without actually losing much, well then, Auburn accomplished it. One of the most exciting players in College Basketball last year was Sharife Cooper. The diminutive point guard only played in 12 games due to a myriad of NCAA clearance issues and injuries, but in those 12 games he was electric. In just 12 games, Cooper averaged 33 minutes per game, 20.2 points and 8.1 assists, while averaging nearly 9 free throw attempts a game. He was good for 1.09 point per minute while on the floor, or about a 107.5 offensive rating with a 34% usage (!!!!) rate and taking 30.9% of the shots. Pretty good was his 51.9% assist rate. Pretty absurd, actually.
JT Thor was a fun prospect to watch, but he was nowhere near a finished product and it showed. Equal parts awesome, train wreck, and newborn fawn, Thor was certainly active on the floor. Jamal Johnson transferred in and was impactful as a quality role player for two seasons. He was a low usage, high efficiency guy who wasn’t afraid to defend. The defense was often needed with Cooper on the floor, as Sharife could easily be called a passive defensive guy. Justin Powell flashed a lot early before being hurt and opting to transfer to Tennessee. Both Tyrell Jones and Javon Franklin never cemented a role in the rotation, and both will try their luck at South Alabama.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Allen Flannigan | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
It may seem strange to include a player here who will start the season on the sideline with an achilles injury and may not play at all, but Flannigan is a major reason at what might hold Auburn back or propel them forward. It’s unlikely Flannigan will play this year, and it’s for that reason I’m not jumping fully on the Auburn bandwagon. With Flanigan, Auburn could be a sleeper pick for another trip to the Final Four, but without him, they’re a really good team with an awesome front court and a good amount of questions in the back court.
The remaining production equals about 44% of the minutes, 37% of the points, and just 39% of the offensive value. Most of that value came from Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams. Williams is an combo forward with a bit of old school to his game. He’s happy on the low block and in the mid range, but will also take a few awkward looking three pointers which go in at a decent clip. Cambridge is best working off the ball on the wing and attacking the rim for lobs. He’s not afraid to shoot it from deep but it doesn’t go in often. That isn’t his strength. Defending, rebounding, and dunking, that’s his game.
Chris Moore was quietly really good as a freshman last year. As sort of a jumbo wing, Moore was surprisingly good in spot up attempts, but better in transition and attacking the rim. Dylan Cardwell provided sturdy backup minutes in the post, as was Babatunde Akingbola. Both played about half the minutes at the center spot.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|SO||Wendell Green||5'11||170||Transfer||Eastern Kentucky||PG|
|SO||Walker Kessler||7'1||245||Transfer||North Carolina||POST|
|SR||Zep Jasper||6'1||170||Transfer||College of Charleston||PG|
Walker Kessler | SOPHOMORE | POST
It’s not often a 5-star prospect leaves Chapel Hill of their own decision, but that’s exactly what Walker Kessler did. A Georgia native, Kessler’s decision was reportedly one of the keys which spurred Roy Williams’ retirement. Kessler is a highly skilled center prospect who was bogged down a bit with the rigid two post system Williams has been running for decades. Playing behind Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks, and even fellow freshman Day’Ron Sharpe, Kessler’s minutes were limited and his impact mitigated. He played more than 10 minutes in only 2 of the first 18 games, and over 20 minutes in just two games as well. So while the hype around Kessler is there, it’s still fairly unknown what he’s going to provide at Auburn this season.
Wild that Kessler almost certainly won’t be the best forward prospect on the floor next year. That title will lie solely with Jabari Smith. Smith is an electric prospect and the 6th ranked player in the 2021 class. He’s a modern power forward, the type of lanky, rangy prospect who can stretch the floor and guard multiple positions, and at 6’10 and athletic, he’s very much a lottery pick level prospect.
After fortifying the front court with two elite prospects, Bruce Pearl went about adding depth and talent to his back court. Zep Jasper had a nice three year run at College of Charleston under Earl Grant, where he took on more and more of a scoring role after mainly running the offense for his first two years. The Georgia native has good size and speed for the position and will factor into the rotation early. One of the more fun players in the SEC last year was KD Johnson, a bowling ball of a guard who played exclusively as a reserve, and routinely injected energy into the lineup when he entered. He wasn't always efficient, but he was the second leading scorer when all was said and done. The last signing was one of the more intriguing ones in Wendell Green. Green was the undersized point guard for La Lumiere Prep before signing at Eastern Kentucky. At LaLu he was seen by scouts across the country and virtually ignored by all the high majors. After one year of averaging 15.8 points per game at EKU, the Detroit native transferred and landed at Auburn.
|(1) Point Guard||Zep Jasper||Wendell Green|
|(2) Combo Guard||KD Johnson||Allen Flanigan*|
|(3) Wing||Devan Cambridge||Chris Moore|
|(4) Combo Forward||Jabari Smith||Jaylin Williams|
|(5) Post||Walker Kessler||Dylan Cardwell||Babatunde Akingbola|
Man, with a front court featuring a sure-fire lottery pick in Jabari Smith, a former 5-star skilled center in Walker Kessler, and previously productive and developing bigs like Jaylin Williams, Dylan Cardwell, and Babatunde Akingbola, Auburn has no worries about production in those two spots. With Allen Flanigan out for an unknown amount of time, the back court has a lot more question marks as Bruce Pearl is going to be relying upon three transfer guards to handle the ball. Then filter in two pretty consistent wings in Chris Moore and Devan Cambridge and at least Auburn should be very good.
My Projected Record: 21 - 9 | KenPom Projected Record: 20-9
|Nov 9||Home||Morehead State||161||W|
|Nov 19||Away||South Florida||166||W|
|Nov 25||Neutral||Loyola-Chicago / Michigan State||32 / 22||W|
|Dec 1||Home||Central Florida||61||W|
|Dec 14||Home||North Alabama||299||W|
|Dec 18||Away||Saint Louis||92||L|
|Dec 22||Home||Murray State||128||W|
This is a well put together non-conference schedule. It’s challenging, without being too challenging. With Auburn needing a little time to sort things out, there’s no game they shouldn’t win before they get to the Battle 4 Atlantis, which has shaped up to be one of the best holiday MTEs. Auburn plays UConn in the first round, a top 25 preseason team according to KenPom. Then they face either Michigan State or Loyola-Chicago, both top 35 teams in round 2. Syracuse, Arizona State, VCU, and Baylor are on the other side of the bracket. After the tournament, there are three tough but winnable games at home against UCF, Yale, and Nebraska. Then they added in a good road game against one of the better Atlantic-10 teams in Saint Louis. Plus Murray State and then Oklahoma in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
|Jan 4||Away||South Carolina||86||W|
|Jan 15||Away||Ole Miss||57||L|
|Feb 12||Home||Texas A&M||78||W|
|Feb 23||Home||Ole Miss||57||W|
|Mar 2||Away||Mississippi State||65||L|
|Mar 5||Home||South Carolina||86||W|
Each season, Auburn gets Alabama, Ole Miss, and Georgia. Against Georgia, the Tigers have won six of the last eight games, but two of the last three have been losses. Auburn can’t afford that sort of loss this year. Going back to 2012, the Auburn-Ole Miss matchup has been a sweep, one way or the other. The Rebels won 10 straight before Auburn broke through for a sweep in Andy Kennedy’s last year. The Alabama rivalry is much more even, although Alabama has captured three of the last four under Nate Oats. Auburn also gets South Carolina and Florida. Going 7-3 in those games gives them some leeway the rest of the schedule. They do get Kentucky at home, but the rest of the home slate are mostly games they should win, like Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and LSU. Road games against Tennessee, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Missouri aren’t unwinnable, either.
With Auburn it’s easy to buy into the hype. Bruce Pearl is a master at building it, and he’s pretty good at living up to it also. And this year there’s a fair amount of hype built in, even before Pearl has to say a word.
Auburn has what could be the best and most most talented front court, and certainly the most exciting front court prospect in the conference, with Jabari Smith. I was a big time Auburn buy-in because I already loved what the new guys — plus Jaylin Williams, Devan Cambridge, and mostly Allen Flanigan — could bring together. Most of that involved the dynamism of Flanigan, who had grown into a consistent offensive weapon for Bruce Pearl a year ago. He was thrust into the lead guard role as Sharife Cooper went in and out of the lineup, and he excelled.
Filling in reliable point guard options with a stalwart like Flanigan at the combo guard position, or wing spot, and you can see a lineup that can really take off. Without Flanigan though, what’s left in the bag are mostly question marks.
The question marks are mostly because the history of transfers from lower leagues is hit and miss. Pearl needs at least two of the transfers to hit, and you can probably count on K.D. Johnson to be at least as good as he was last year for Georgia. As a former top 100 recruit it’s logical to think Johnson will take the sophomore step and improve upon his erratic efficiency. Plus, he’ll have viable primary and secondary options around him (the scoring options in Athens weren’t quite as good). But after Johnson, Pearl really needs either Zep Jasper or Wendell Green to be good for this to work.
It feels like there’s a separation between the very top of the SEC and the rest of the league and I think Auburn right now is at the bottom of that top pile. The only reason is because I’m worried about their guard play. If Flanigan was suiting up, and it’s possible he does this year, Auburn is probably able to add at least a couple more wins to their total. Flanigan was good for a 58.8% true shooting last year despite seeing his usage go up 8%. In his place, you’re likely asking Devan Cambridge to increase his efficiency and scoring. Something which hasn’t happened yet.
Auburn under Pearl has largely been a fast paced and mostly efficient offensive basketball team. The defense has waned at times, but they’ve fielded enough athletes to cover up any perimeter mistakes at the rim. Nearly all of those offenses have been geared towards guards pushing the ball and making plays and making shots. When Bryce Brown or Samir Doughty would line up and bury a 3-pointer on a fast break, Auburn Arena would erupt even moreso than if Austin Wiley or Anfernee McLemore threw down a dunk.
There’s too much emphasis in the Auburn system on guard play to ignore the questions which surround Auburn guards. Jabari Smith can be awesome, and you should expect him to be. Walker Kessler can be awesome, and nobody will be surprised if he is. K.D. Johnson should be, at worst, reliably good. But what does Pearl get from his lead guards?
If Zep Jasper runs the point like he did at College of Charleston and he’s able to scale up his production from the Colonial Athletic Conference, then you have point number one for a breakout season. If Wendell Green is able to be consistent in his sophomore season at the high major level, there’s point number two. That type of Auburn squad is capable of taking off.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
Anytime you want to have an elite kind of year, you have to be able to point to the NBA level talent on your roster. Bruce Pearl can point at Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler as two first round picks. Both have the elite level skill set to move outside in the modern game, and Smith looks like he could develop into a multi-positional defender. There’s also three transfer guards who all scored double digits at their last stop, and an electric arena for home games. Auburn has all the tools needed for a runaway type season.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
It’s guesswork to who will be a dependable guard, and if the transfers don’t work out Auburn will have a tough time getting the ball into the hands of a talented front court. With the college game so dependent on guard play, not having Allen Flanigan to right the ship when needed leaves the Tigers open to a season where they fall short of the sky high expectations set by the fan base.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for 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 Masses” picks. 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.
* - 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.