clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

SEC Basketball Preview: #9 Auburn Tigers

Previewing the No. 9 team in the SEC, the Auburn Tigers.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last year I declared the Auburn rebuild under Bruce Pearl complete.

So how, if the rebuild is complete, could we think this Tigers program would fall to 9th in the league? The reason is it’s a really good deep league, and the difference between 6 and 11 is rarely more than a couple results you get to go your way.

Last year Auburn ran things back with nearly their entire roster minutes two NBA draft picks at the 4 and 5 spot. It seemed to be going really well, and they started 16-3 and 6-1 in the league. But if you peeked a little under the hood the metrics were a bit uglier than you might expect. Their best win in the non-conference was a 43-42 slugfest over Northwestern. In their second conference game, they dropped a road contest at Georgia, and it wasn’t particularly close. So it probably shouldn’t surprise you all that much that the Tigers finished 3-8 down the stretch, lost to Arkansas in the SEC Tournament and were handed a hard second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Houston.

It wasn’t an altogether unsuccessful year but it showed the bolts were a bit loose on the roster. So how will things look this season?


Previous SEC Previews:

Auburn Preview

#9 Auburn Tigers

Last Season: 21 - 13 (10-8 in conference) No. 32 KenPom

My Prediction: 18 - 13 (8-10, 9th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 10 - 8 (7th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 6th in conference

KenPom Projection: 21 - 9 (11-7 in conference) No. 15

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Auburn vs Houston Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl | 10th Season, 187-111

I’m still a believer in what Bruce Pearl is doing in Auburn. But there have been a few more recent cracks he will want to close up. Since hitting his first NCAA tournament on The Plains Pearl has only missed the tournament once, in 2021. Considering it was the year after COVID canceled the tournament and much of the season was up in the air due to contact tracing, it’s easy to give teams a little bit of a mulligan that year.

It’s fair to ask if the rope has slipped a bit. Over the past year Auburn lost commitments from 2 different 4-star recruits and lost assistant coach Wes Flanigan to Ole Miss. Auburn also struggled to close on needed talent in the transfer portal, ending up with a few plan B’s in the end. There’s also an adage in coaching circles of overstaying your time in any one place, and the belief is about 10 years is the right time to start looking for the next opportunity. That isn’t to say Pearl is on the hot seat, quite the opposite, he’s beloved there.

But from the outside looking in it certainly looks like there’s been at least a little bit of a momentum shift. The question is only if it’s a blip or a trend.

Seat Temp: COLD

auburn 10 year look

Reiterating Bruce Pearl is not and should not be under any job pressure and the reason is Auburn has not seen this level of success since the late 1980s, and even then it didn’t get to the height Pearl has taken the program. A Final Four and two protected seeds are enough for Auburn to consider a statue. It’s important to keep all that in context as things might get critical on the makeup of this roster.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Wendell Green Jr professional 34 70.26% 18.88% 17.67% 20.27%
Allen Flanigan transfer 34 67.18% 13.82% 12.79% 13.28%
Zep Jasper graduation 34 44.84% 3.84% 2.34% 3.94%
Chance Westry transfer 11 7.69% 1.09% 0.46% 1.84%
Yohan Traore transfer 25 18.10% 2.14% 1.25% 2.67%
Babatunde Akingbola transfer 4 1.10% 0.04% -0.02% 0.20%
Chandler Leopard graduation 6 0.29% 0.00% -0.04% 0.07%
41.83% 39.81% 34.45% 42.27%

One of the things Pearl and Auburn have had is loyalty, so the number of players who opted to leave the program of their own volition is higher than I expected. Only Zep Jesper and Chandler Leopard — yes, those are real names — graduated while four players entered the transfer portal and one left to pursue a professional career.

Auburn lost two of their three-man freshman class and the two they lost were the higher-ranked duo who just couldn’t wiggle themselves into the rotation. Yohan Traore was a top-30 recruit and a modern day center with a skill level to stretch the floor, so following in the footsteps of JT Thor seemed to make a lot of sense. But Traore only saw spot action all season, and even that dwindled to nearly nothing by years end. He played only 32 minutes in the final 15 games, with 9 DNPs. Chance Westry was a top-50 combo guard recruit who had knee surgery before the season and that seemed to knock him out of the rotation. He only played 1 minute of game action once the SEC season started.

Allen Flanigan followed his father to Ole Miss for his final season. Flanigan broke out as a sophomore but tore his achilles that offseason and just never quite seemed like the same explosive guard he was becoming late in his sophomore season. But the bigger loss here is Wendell Green Jr., who opted for a professional career over playing another season at Auburn. Green didn’t get a lot of credit for his play, mostly because he was a bit of a scapegoat for a struggling Auburn offense. In reality, Green was the guy who was most likely to bail out that offense on most nights.

Jesper played his role as a defensive stopper and backup point guard well. Babatunde Akingbola somehow stuck out four seasons on The Plains despite playing in just 10 games his final two seasons, and 50 games total for his career.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Johni Broome JR POST 33 64.10% 18.88% 55.20% 21.59%
Jaylin Willliams G-SR CF 33 67.25% 14.87% 56.77% 16.55%
K.D. Johnson SR CG 33 52.89% 11.84% 51.43% 8.57%
Dylan Cardwell SR POST 32 31.36% 4.81% 70.26% 8.45%
Chris Moore SR CF 31 32.82% 4.37% 59.73% 5.06%
Tre Donaldson SO PG 32 24.69% 3.23% 48.90% 3.71%
Lior Berman* G-SR WING 25 17.22% 2.18% 52.73% 1.61%
Jalen Harper* G-SR CG 2 0.07% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Carter Sobera* SR WING 6 0.29% 0.00% 0.00% -0.04%
58.14% 41.30% 65.50%
Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall/ Advertsier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Johni Broome | JUNIOR | POST

While Auburn has been very reliant on guards under Pearl the list of good bigs he’s escorted through his time at on The Plains is extensive. Johni Broome may not be the NBA Draft pick that Jabari Smith or Hunter Kessler was, but his impact and value to the Tigers last year was every bit as important. Broome was very likely the MVP of the Auburn Tigers last year, and he’s back for another season. In a lot of ways Broom is more of a throwback big. He’s not the flashiest athlete, he rarely tries to stretch the floor. Rather he’s at home confronting drives to the basket, and playing over his shoulder on block. Per Synergy he attempted more hook shots (68) than jump shots (39). He attempted 56% of his shots at the rim, and if you combine those with his hook shots the number jumps to 75% of his shot attempts being either at the rim or a hook shot.

Broome was also a top 100 rebounder in the country with a 12.4% offensive rebound rate and a defensive rate of 22.8%. Couple that with a 9.6% block rate — good for 16th in the country — and a fouls drawn rate of 4.6 and you have one of the most productive bigs in the country. Broome truly is a safety latch for this roster, and will be needed this season to keep that play at a high level.

My note above about the number of players who entered the transfer portal should bookend nicely with this next note that 9 players return to the roster this season with three of them using their extra year of eligibility to do so. Granted, two of those are walk-ons, but Pearl has been pretty remarkable in keeping players bought in, even role players. Prime examples of this are Chris Moore and Dylan Cardwell back for their senior years. Cardwell has never played more than 40% of the minutes at his position, has never had a usage rate higher than 14.6%, and has yet to hit 4.0 points per game in his Auburn career. But the useful rotational big is back for his 4th season. I can also cite the exact same stats for Moore, who is a useful rotational combo forward. Both players have been helpful supporting cast players and look to be in that same role this season. Lior Berman is also back for a graduate season after seeing the most minutes of his career as a walk-on with 17.4%. Part of the reason is he can knock down threes, as he’s a career 39% 3FG shooter.

Then you have guys like Jaylin Williams, a combo forward back for his 5th season. Williams is a quintessential program guy, playing in just 14 games as a freshman before becoming a double-digit scorer as a sophomore. Then he stepped back into a reserve role behind Jabari Smith as a junior before stepping forward again last year with an 11.2 ppg average. The advanced numbers support that too as his usage and minutes dipped as a junior. With increased usage, he’s a better more efficient player with an ORtg of 116 last year.

Tre Donaldson stood out last season as a freshman in limited exposure, but he could be in line for a larger role this season. And for what seems like the 15th straight season, K.D. Johnson will suit up in SEC games this year. The bowling ball of energy he is can be erratic on offense but when he’s on he can propel Auburn in all sorts of directions. Although his offensive output has not been trending up after his freshman season at Georgia, perhaps by design. Johnson has never been able to locate the efficiency switch with his energy.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Aden Holloway 6'1 165 ★★★★★ 16 PG
JR Addarin Scott 6'9 225 TRANSFER JUCO POST
JR Chad Baker-Mazara 6'7 190 TRANSFER JUCO WING
JR Denver Jones 6'4 190 TRANSFER Florida Int'l WING
JR Chaney Johnson 6'7 215 TRANSFER Alabama-Huntsville WING
2023 McDonald’s All American Game Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Aden Holloway | FRESHMAN | POINT GUARD

These days it’s rare for Bruce Pearl or any college head coach to need so much from a freshman, but Aden Holloway needs to be very much a guy for Auburn to succeed this year. The McDonalds All-American and top 30 point guard has all the tools to be a special college player. His best tool is his outside shooting where he can be deadly. Coming off screens, off the catch, despite only being 6’1 Holloway can get his 3-point shot off quickly and accurately. So he’s a danger from distance.

The point guard experiment is still just that, an experiment. He’s not a natural point guard and is still learning the position. It will be interesting to watch how he’s deployed by Pearl but if things are falling into place Holloway is average double figures and hitting at a 37-40% clip from behind the arc. If Holloway is hitting those numbers he makes Auburn a much more dangerous team.

The rest of the incoming class is devoid of freshmen. I’m not sure how concerning that is or isn’t, but Pearl had to go pretty deep into the transfer portal and came back with some mediocre results.

Perhaps the best of the bunch is high-volume scorer and Florida International transfer, Denver Jones. Jones is a 6’4 wing who grew up in New Market, Alabama and attended Memphis Day Academy for high school. Jones played one year at Garden City Community College before his two seasons at FIU where he averaged 12.5 points his first season and 20.1 last year while shooting 37.1% from deep. And why did Auburn like him so much? That number ticked up on pure catch and shoot opportunities with nearly 45% on his unguarded catch-and-shoots. Auburn also added Alabama-Huntsville (D2) forward Chaney Johnson. Johnson is probably closer to a true wing, and he was a lightly recruited player out of high school who sprouted up once he got to college and turned into an All-Conference player.

Then Pearl dipped into the JUCO market for a wing and a post. Chad Baker-Mazara is a talented wing who is well-traveled. He started at Duquesne, transferred to San Diego State, then transferred to Northwest Florida State Junior College before finding his final spot at Auburn. He is known for being a good shooter and was the Mountain West 6th Man of the Year while shooting nearly 40% from deep. And in need of some post depth, the Tigers also added 6’9 post Addarin Scott who should be able to fill in rotational minutes.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Aden Holloway Tre Donaldson
(2) Combo Guard K.D. Johnson Chaney Johnson Lior Berman*
(3) Wing Denver Jones Chris Moore
(4) Combo Forward Jaylin Willliams Chad Baker-Mazara
(5) Post Johni Broome Dylan Cardwell Addarin Scott

Figuring out the depth chart is easy when you start with someone like Broome in the middle. I think with Jaylin Williams back he’s the guy at the four spot, and I think Aden Holloway is a starter. From there it gets interesting.

K.D. Johnson started most of the season two years ago, and zero games last year. Does Pearl keep Johnson coming off the bench and move Tre Donaldson into the starter spot at point guard allowing Holloway to start off the ball? Then the wing spot can go a number of different ways with Denver Jones or Chad Baker-Mazara stepping into the spot-up role. If Pearl decides to keep Donaldson on the bench to start and goes with Holloway as the starting point guard, he can still slide Johnson to the bench and get a bit bigger with Jones at the combo spot and Baker-Mazara on the wing. Or possibly even Chaney Johnson in the wing spot.

Either way, it’s likely Chris Moore and Dylan Cardwell are safe in their roles as backups.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 18-13 | KenPom Projected Record: 21-9

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament Quarterfinals - Baylor vs Iowa State Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 7 Neutral Baylor 7 L
Nov 10 HOME Southeastern Louisiana 222 W
Nov 16 Neutral Notre Dame 165 W
Nov 17 Neutral Ok St / St. Bonaventure 68 / 70 W
Nov 21 HOME Alabama A&M 340 W
Nov 29 HOME Virginia Tech 65 W
Dec 3 Away Appalachian St 121 W
Dec 9 Neutral Indiana 49 L
Dec 13 Neutral UNC Asheville 156 W
Dec 17 HOME USC 21 L
Dec 22 HOME Alabama St 353 W
Dec 30 HOME Chattanooga 203 W
Jan 2 HOME Penn 215 W
avg 159.75 10-3

Well, opening with Baylor is certainly a choice!

I don’t know if Auburn is going to be good or not, but Baylor is usually very good. Since the SEC expanded in 2012-13 Baylor has never fallen below 35th in the KenPom ratings and have a national title to their name. But they get a break in the Legends Classic where they should be the best team. Notre Dame is down as Micah Shrewsbury rebuilds that program, Oklahoma State suffered some tough offseason losses but should at least be decent, and St. Bonaventure has fallen back after topping out two seasons ago.

Other games to earmark as good barometers are a home game against Virginia Tech for the ACC-SEC Challenge, a Hoopsgiving game against Indiana in Atlanta, and a home game against what should be a very good USC team.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Away Arkansas 14 L
Jan 9 HOME Texas A&M 24 L
Jan 13 HOME LSU 47 W
Jan 17 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
Jan 20 HOME Ole Miss 82 W
Jan 24 Away Alabama 10 L
Jan 27 Away Mississippi St 27 L
Jan 31 HOME Vanderbilt 79 W
Feb 3 Away Ole Miss 82 L
Feb 7 HOME Alabama 10 W
Feb 10 Away Florida 39 L
Feb 14 HOME South Carolina 66 W
Feb 17 HOME Kentucky 18 W
Feb 24 Away Georgia 57 L
Feb 28 Away Tennessee 8 L
Mar 2 HOME Mississippi St 27 W
Mar 5 Away Missouri 55 L
Mar 9 HOME Georgia 57 W
avg 43.39 8-10

There are things to like and things to really not like about this conference slate. For one, opening with Arkansas and Texas A&M sucks for Auburn. But their home-and-home setup is manageable and marks a good way to move up in the league standings. Only Alabama and Mississippi State are ahead of Auburn in the projections. With Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Georgia all behind the Tigers if they just take both games against two of those teams it’s how you go from 8-10 to 10-8. That’s the difference between looking from the outside in for the NCAA Tournament and being fairly safely in. Plus getting both Kentucky and Texas A&M at home should provide great opportunities for a big win in the selection committee's eyes.

OVERVIEW

The saying, “You don't know what you don’t know” applies to Auburn this season. We know Johni Broome well; he’s good. Dylan Cardwell, Chris Moore, and Jaylin Williams are all back and we know them, too. None of those three are huge difference makers or 1st or 2nd team all-conference level guys. We also know K.D. Johnson. And it’s tough to trust a team where Johnson is on the floor for more than half the time and using a quarter of the possessions.

He’s just not efficient. The energy is always there, the shooting is rarely there, and he does get fouled a lot but he’s just an okay free throw shooter. It all amounts to a player who can create things but less than half the time are those positive things.

Bruce Pearl did his best to mitigate Johnson last season, knowing he needed to be better offensively without Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler around the rim. Another issue is the Tigers have been one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league for many years running now. It’s been since 2019 that the Tigers finished in the top half of the league in shooting, and keep in mind the SEC is a traditionally poor shooting league.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall/ Advertsier / USA TODAY NETWORK

I think this is largely why Pearl has built the roster how he has, and he’s really pursued shooting and each new roster addition can shoot the ball. Expanding the floor to give more room for drives and for Broome is essential to this team's success. As the shots didn’t fall last year it became too easy for defenses to collapse in and around Broome any time he touched the ball. So it’s paramount this season for guys like Aden Holloway, Denver Jones, and Chad Baker-Mazara to provide what they were recruited for— outside shooting.

One of the reasons why Lior Berman has seen his minutes increase during the season is at least you have to care if he’s open. If K.D. Johnson is open, or Chris Moore, you aren’t closing out hard.

So there’s a combination of things working against Auburn here and one reason why they are this low. The depth is just ok, and there’s no proven ball handling to go with hoping several players can scale up their shooting.

But that’s the funny thing about the SEC and this very soft middle. If you were picking games and had Auburn 5th I’d believe that’s possible. After all, it’s essentially flipping three results. So much of placement in the league standings comes down to a few results going your way. So there’s not a lot of reason to think Auburn can’t be good this year, they just have a few more questions to answer than teams ahead of them.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

If you’ve met any Auburn fans chances are they’re optimistic, after all, why wouldn’t they be? Bruce Pearl has turned into one of the best hires in the SEC in recent years. He’s taken the Tigers to the NCAA tournament 4 out of the last 6 years, and one of the misses was in 2020 when nobody made the tournament. That team was likely headed for a 2 or a 3 seed, and Pearl already has more protected seeds (2) in the NCAA Tournament than Auburn does in the rest of its history (1). If you’ve got Bruce Pearl, you should be pretty optimistic.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

As I mentioned above, the rope slipped a bit with Pearl in the last year, and this team looks like one of his least threatening since maybe 2017. KenPom has them rated 15th in the preseason and that just feels WAY too high when you look at the roster. It wouldn’t shock me if Auburn beat my expectations of an 8-10 record and 18-13 overall, but it would really shock me if this was one of the best 15 teams in the country.


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 team's 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 as well.

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.