The preview for Auburn last year had a theme: Auburn’s guard play will determine how far this team goes. That was the literal title of the preview. We knew how good Jabari Smith could be, although I’m not sure many expected him to be top 5 draft pick good. We knew Walker Kessler could be a force in the paint. What wasn’t know was the type of production Bruce Pearl would get from his guards.
For the most part, the guards were really good. Auburn won the league — far better than my prediction of 5th last season — and landed a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers started 28th in KenPom, and after a 22-1 start to the season they were still 5th in the country, and 1st overall in the AP Poll. But they were teetering a bit at the seems. After taking down Kentucky at home, the Tigers squeezed out an ugly win over Missouri and narrowly beat Georgia before finally dropping their first conference game. After starting out 22-1, they finished just 6-5 which included a loss in their first game in the SEC Conference Tournament and a loss in the NCAA Round of 32 to 11th seeded Miami.
While their guards were winning the early battles, they faltered late. Will another year of experience make things better?
Previous SEC Previews
- 5. Alabama Crimson Tide
- 6. Florida Gators
- 7. LSU Tigers
- 8. Texas A&M Aggies
- 9. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Ole Miss Rebels
- 11. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 12. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 14. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last Season: 28 - 6 (15-3 in conference) No. 139 KenPom
My Prediction: 22 - 9 (11-7, 4th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 12.2 - 5.8 (4th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 4th in conference
KenPom Projection: 21 - 9 (11-7 in conference) No. 13
HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl | 9th Season, 166-98
Love him or hate him, Bruce Pearl has learned to be unabashedly Bruce Pearl. He’s obnoxious and loud, he’s constantly yelling and red faced. He’s just as prone to retweet wild right-wing conspiracies as he is to show up bare-chested and face painted in the student section of a women’s volleyball game. He’s unique in that he’s just unafraid to be who he is, even when it contradicts itself. No, Pearl is not perfect in a similar way that none of us are. He’s complex and flawed, he’s passionate and outspoken, and he’s also a really good basketball coach who players love playing for.
One, he’s built a program that puts a belief and responsibility on the players. They’re allowed to be who they are, as much as their coach is who he is. They play fast and loose, just like their coach, and sometimes it’s to their own detriment, just like their coach. Pearl, at a non-blue blood school like Auburn, winning like a blue blood school, is great for college basketball. And he makes the SEC better.
Seat Temp: COLD
Aside from a weird COVID year where Auburn’s best player was a freshman who missed a good chunk of time, Pearl has this thing rolling. 26 wins, 30 wins, 25 wins in a season without a post season conference tournament or NCAA tournament, and 28 wins last year. At this point, until Pearl is done you can probably slate Auburn in to win a minimum of 11 games in league play and make an NCAA Tournament.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
I thought when Jabari Smith was finishing up his senior year in high school that he could be a Lottery pick. The combination of size, speed, athleticism and shooting touch was tantalizing and a perfect fit in the modern NBA. However, I didn’t not expect Smith to become an All-American (2nd team) and be one of the best players in the country on one of the best teams in the country. But Smith was terrific, shooting over 42% from three while playing elite defense and averaging 1.13 points per possession. He went from a possible Lottery pick to a guy who was undoubtedly one of the best three prospects in the NBA Draft and likely would have gone number one overall if the draft order were different.
You knew Auburn would be good last year simply because their front court would be good, and the other part of the front court was 7’1 shot blocking menace Walker Kessler. Most modern offenses aren’t geared around traditional post players like Kessler, but he adapted. He had the country’s best block rate at 19.1%, an offensive rebound rate over 10% and a defensive rebound rate over 20%. If you couple those numbers with 70% shooting inside the arc, you have an All-League center.
Pearl doesn’t really lose a lot of players to the transfer portal, but he lost one of my favorite guys to watch wearing an Auburn Tigers uniform when Devan Cambridge transferred out with the hope to play his final season with his brother. Cambridge was a fun player, an elite defender, and the ultimate little things guy. If there was ever a play that needed to be made, Cambridge was the guy unafraid to step up and make it. He transferred to Arizona State to play with this season with his brother, Desmond.
Preston Cook, Ty Cressman, and Chase Maasdorp graduated and have moved on from the Auburn bench mob.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
|Wendell Green Jr||JR||PG||34||65.65%||15.30%||49.30%||14.42%|
Wendell Green, Jr. | JUNIOR | POINT GUARD
One of the major reasons the Auburn Tigers were as good as they were last year was the play of Wendell Green, Jr. Green transferred in from Eastern Kentucky as an undersized point guard but one who could score the ball, and he translated that skill to The Plains. However, Green actually was better than he was at Eastern Kentucky. His minutes and points dipped but his efficiency went up, and considering his three-point shooting got worse — likely due to a much bigger green light — that’s quite a feat.
What was interesting was how Green was used. He came off the bench in all but five games last year, deferring to Zep Jasper for the starts. Jasper was the more consistent player and more consistent defender, but Green has the electricity. Maybe he should have deferred a bit more often to Jabari Smith or even K.D. Johnson, but that’s also part of what makes Bruce Pearl, and how he handles his players, great. Green was - and will be - a key player on this team.
Speaking of K.D. Johnson, the Georgia transfer left an impression as he was the 2nd leading scorer brought mostly through wild energy. While rarely efficient, Johnson always played hard and attacked with near reckless abandon. The next step for Johnson is turning in that energy and effort into efficiency, since 29% from three, and 46% from two isn’t the kind of shooting you want from a leading scorer. As a sophomore, Allen Flanigan took a bit step in his development, bumping his scoring to 14.3 points per game. He looked like he was ready to take another step in his development before tearing his achilles last offseason. He returned to his starting role but was clearly not the same player. But if Flanigan is able to return to his sophomore form the Auburn scoring attack just got a lot better.
The starter at point guard is Zep Jasper, who split a lot of time at lead guard with Green. Jasper is more sure-handed and a better shooter and a bit more consistent defensively, but he’s not as much of an attacker offensively. Jasper spent three seasons at College of Charleston and is taking an extra COVID year this season.
Like Flanigan, Jaylin Williams looked like he might’ve been ready to take that next step. He went from 2.4 ppg as a freshman to 10.9 ppg as a sophomore. As a skilled power forward, Williams slid behind Jabari Smith in the rotation and saw his production dip to 5.6 ppg in just half the minutes he played as a sophomore. He’s entering his senior year where his role again might be threatened a bit by a talented younger player.
Dylan Cardwell has spent the last two seasons playing a backup role as a rotational big man and an energy guy. This year he may be asked to scale up. Chris Moore and Babatunde Akingbola are both in a similar place. Little has been required of both for the last two seasons, but they’ve been adequate reserves. Lior Berman, Carter Sobera, and Chandler Leopard all return as walk-ons.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|SO||Johni Broome||6'10||235||TRANSFER||MOREHEAD ST||POST|
Johni Broome | SOPHOMORE | POST
One of the breakout players in the spring was Morehead State post Johni Broome. As a sophomore he played really well in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and his play gave him the springboard he needed into the transfer portal and onto Auburn’s roster. Broome had one of the country’s best block rates, and handled a hefty amount of possessions for Morehead, who were the 3rd best team in the OVC behind Murray State and Belmont. At 6’10, Broome is a sturdy post with good timing more than athleticism, and uses good positioning to be effective. His efficiency against Tier A & B teams dipped, so how he translates to playing in the SEC remains to be seen. Remember, Broom is also being asked to replace top NBA Draft Picks around the rim. He’s listed as a sophomore on Auburns roster but spent two seasons at Morehead.
Helping solidify the defense around the basket with Broome is 5-star freshman Yohan Traore. A lengthy 6’10 forward, Traore has the ability to stretch the floor with his shooting but is a bit more of a work in progress offensively than what Jabari Smith provided last season.
Chance Westry is the prototypical wing that Bruce Pearl looks for. He’s long, and athletic, and attacks the rim. As a top 40 player, Westry is a plus passer on the wing and still working on developing his handle. As he develops he could push into a starting role and be looked upon for some additional scoring. Point Guard prospect Tre Donaldson was a high level two sport star at his Florida high school, but is planning on only playing basketball for Pearl at Auburn. With his focus only on basketball, Donaldson has the size, speed, and athleticism to be an elite playmaker in the SEC.
|(1) Point Guard||Zep Jasper||Wendell Green Jr||Tre Donaldson|
|(2) Combo Guard||KD Johnson||Chance Westry|
|(3) Wing||Allen Flanigan||Chris Moore|
|(4) Combo Forward||Yohan Traore||Jaylin Williams|
|(5) Post||Johni Broome||Dylan Cardwell||Babatunde Akingbola|
With virtually the entire back court coming back it’s difficult to make many changes. Perhaps with another offseason of growth and improvement, Wendell Green, Jr. can take over the starting duties. K.D. Johnson seems cemented into the combo guard spot, but I almost think he’d be better coming off the bench. With Johnson still having issues with his efficiency, pushing him down a bit in the rotation might help improve it. And if Pearl uses Flanigan and Westry together you still have adequate ball handling to go with length and athleticism.
It will also be interesting to see if Dylan Cardwell and Jaylin Williams can push Traore and Broome for playing time. Both have been program stalwarts now for multiple seasons and have seized opportunity when provided it, and they’ve proven they can defend and be efficient around the basket. So while the top end talent may not be as good, the depth is still very much there.
My Projected Record: 22-9 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-9
|Nov 7||Home||George Mason||104||W|
|Nov 11||Home||South Florida||174||W|
|Nov 18||Home||Texas Southern||305||W|
|Nov 23||Neutral||Northwestern/Liberty||70 / 82||W|
|Nov 27||Home||Saint Louis||39||W|
|Dec 14||Home||Georgia State||234||W|
|Jan 28||Away||West Virginia||73||W|
Bruce Pearl has mastered the art of creating good-looking non-conference schedules without a lot of real substance. Opening with a good George Mason team will be a test, but not many teams win in Neville (formerly Auburn) Arena. Since Bruce Pearl was hired, Auburn wins at a 76.98% rate at home. They’re 70-9 since the start of the 2017-18 season and haven’t lost a non-conference game at home since the 2015-16 season. Considering four of their nine losses came in the COVID-impacted 2021 season when capacity for games was significantly limited, they’ve become pretty unbeatable at home.
The SLU game is a solid matchup, as the Billikens have experience at guard and reliable interior play. But they haven’t beaten a top 25 level opponent on the road since... hold on, I’m still checking... let’s just say it’s been a while. But if there’s a team that can pull it off, it’s this SLU team. A road game at Memphis will also be a tough challenge, but that feels like a game Auburn should win. And then USC should also be tough. Even Washington and West Virginia, Auburn’s Big 12-SEC Challenge opponent, are both rebuilding. This could easily turn into another season where the Tigers fans are crowing at AP Poll voters to put them number 1 after being undefeated going into Conference play.
|Jan 10||Away||Ole Miss||49||L|
|Jan 14||Home||Mississippi State||53||W|
|Jan 21||Aways||South Carolina||78||W|
|Jan 25||Home||Texas A&M||45||W|
|Feb 7||Away||Texas A&M||45||L|
|Feb 22||Home||Ole Miss||49||W|
Auburn has a soft entry into Conference play as well with just one top 20 opponent in the first nine games, and that’s a home game against Arkansas. Also, there are only two top 50 road games, which means at worst Auburn should start 6-3 in league play. But the schedule is backloaded which could lead you to believe the Tigers may have another late season letdown. When in reality they’re just as good as they were. Of the five road games in the second half the SEC slate, only Vanderbilt is sub-50 in KenPom, and the other four are all expected tournament teams, including top 10 Kentucky and Tennessee. So the Tigers are very much going to need that soft entry to overcome a very bumpy second half of the schedule.
This roster is nearly the same as last year except Bruce Pearl is replacing a lottery talent at the four spot, and a 2nd round NBA Draft pick and All-American defensive stopper at the five spot. So, the question is less about the guards this year and more about if Johni Broome and Yohan Traore can replace what Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler provided the team last season?
While the talent of Traore is exciting, and the production of Broome can scale up to a point, is that enough to replicate or get closed to Smith and Kessler?
Obviously, there’s reason for skepticism since they won the league last year and we’ve dropped them all the way to 4th. Most of what really held Auburn back last season was how many possessions their guards gobbled up with only moderate efficiency.
- K.D. Johnson averaged 12.3 points per game, but just a 99.45 Offensive rating, and just a 0.731 points per possession in the half court when he was shooting the ball.
- Wendell Green, Jr averaged 12.0 ppg, his ORtg was 105.02, but just a 0.835 ppp on shots in the half court.
- Zep Jasper chipped in just 5.1 ppg with a 108.5 rating, with very light usage. But again, those numbers dipped significantly when he was shooting the ball, just 0.804 when shooting the ball.
When the guards were driving the offense last season, Auburn was worse off than when it was going through Kessler and Smith. Which is why I think Allen Flanigan could be a key this year. As a sophomore, Flanigan was one of the few things that went right in a rough season. He had possessions heaped upon him and held up, but last year his role was reduced coming off an achilles injury, and the Tigers playing through the other guards already by the time he came back.
If Flanigan is able to return to the player he was two seasons ago, that’s a better starting point than running back 15% of your possessions through K.D. Johnson. Using Johnson off the ball, as a cutter, and letting Flanigan and Green handle more of the pick and rolls is another path towards helping their efficiency.
And any possessions where Broome and Traore - and subsequently Williams and Cardwell - aren’t trying to create is better because I’m skeptical the interior game will be as good as it was last season. They should be solid, at least. And very good at best, but not Lottery pick good. At least I don’t think so. If they are that good, then Auburn should win the league again.
But these are all things that can make Auburn great, instead of just being really good, which they’ll be. As they are, and with their well-crafted schedule, the Tigers could be in the hunt for a protected seed and should at least be a top four seed in the SEC Tournament.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
A league champion returns all its key pieces in the backcourt, and as we know the success of your team hinges most on how the guards play. At their worst, Wendell Green, KD Johnson, and Zep Jasper are all pretty good. When they’re playing well, Auburn is nearly impossible to stop.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
There’s really no reason to be pessimistic if you’re an Auburn fan, truthfully. Bruce Pearl has this program humming where even in an off year they’re still dangerous. But on the outskirts, I do still have questions about this team's guard play. So, to reiterate, they’re good. But can they be great?
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.