With only seven players returning from last year, it initially looks like the Tigers are coming in with a lot of ground to cover. That is true, but it can be argued that with the exceptions of Kenny Gabriel and Adrian Forbes, the returners are the core squad anyway. Simply looking at games played, we find that the guys coming back are the guys that played the most last year. Out of 31 games, Noel Johnson played in 19, Allen Payne in 20 and Chris Denson in 30. Josh Wallace, Frankie Sullivan and Rob Chubb played in all 31 games; Sullivan started in 27 of those and Chubb started in all of them. And yes, it hurts to see that Gabriel started in all 31 games and Forbes played in 29. What is interesting to note is that the players that didn't come back that played the most -- Varez Ward in 27, Willy Kouassi in 25 -- were players that were either a transfer or a true freshman.
Payne was a starter in the first six games but did not even play in the next five. The next seven, he did not play or had limited playing time. It just seemed like he was in head coach Tony Barbee's doghouse, but he obviously did what he had to do in order to gain his starting position back. He had a better game against MSU in February with 10 points and two rebounds and was on fire against Arkansas with 15 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Unfortunately, he was also injured in that game and was out for the remainder of the year. Payne shot 41.3 percent from the field, 30.8 percent from the 3-point line and made 69 percent of his free throws. He averaged four rebounds per game.
Denson only missed one game, but he started in only eight games. If you look through the individual games, it might surprise you how few shots he took from 3-point range -- he was 14 of 38 for 36.8 percent on the year. He averaged 8.7 points per game, 46.4 percent from the field and a free-throw percentage of 63.6 percent.
Do you remember how every time Auburn played on television the announcers let you know that Wallace was on an engineering scholarship? Not to take away from that at all, it is just something that every Auburn basketball fan already knew. Let's hope ESPN bothers to do some research this year because Wallace is now on basketball scholarship. That should speak volumes about his work ethic. Wallace definitely plays bigger than his height (5'10). Last season, Wallace shot 45.3 percent from the field and hit 60 percent of his free-throws. His assist to turnover ration was 2.0. Wallace played in every game and started in 13.
Sullivan started in 27 games and played in all 31. He averaged over 30 minutes per game, but his stats didn't always match up to his talent -- 38.3 percent from the field, 31.7 percent from behind the arc and 70.2 percent on free throws. He had seven games with 19-plus points and led the team in steals with 44. He averaged 12.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He still wasn't at 100 percent, battling the remnant effects of an injury from two seasons ago. This year, though, he should be healthy once again.
Johnson was a highly-touted transfer from Clemson, but an injury to his shooting hand hampered most of his season. He started in three games and played in 19. Johnson hit 25.4 percent from the field and 24.3 percent from behind the arc. Johnson was highly ranked out of high school (no. 30 by ESPNU, no 40. by HoopsReport.com) and played in all 32 games as a true freshman at Clemson. He transferred midseason last year and was not eligible to play until last January.
Chubb started in every single game last year. He finished last year with 28 blocks and 11 steals and averaged 8.1 points per game. He was 45 percent from the field and hit 68.2 percent of his free throws. He averaged 5.1 rebounds per game. Chubb has flashes of greatness every now and then, but he can also be a foul machine, racking up just over a hundred for the 2011-12 season. Barbee is high on Chubb, though, and has talked about him being able to expand his game from five feet in to sixteen, seventeen feet in.
The 15-16 record from last year doesn't tell the whole story. Auburn averaged 62.6 points per game, its opponents 64.0 points per game. In the first half, Auburn scored a total of 925 points, one point more than the opposition. In the second half, Auburn scored 1,003 points, just 39 points shy of its opponents. In overtime, Auburn was outscored by a measly seven points. Over the course of the season, Auburn held the edge in field-goal percentage 41.7-40.9. One of the things that killed the Tigers were the missed free throws. Auburn made 64.8 percent and its opposition made 68.6 percent.
So for those of you that doubt the Tigers this season, realize how close they are to taking a step forward. They aren't a Final Four team, but they should win more than they lose this year, and maybe, they'll play a few games into the SEC Tournament. The team has a different confidence level than in years past, and the hot rumor is that Sullivan promised 20 wins. Look at the schedule -- it is entirely possible. Big wins against big names like Murray State in the Charleston Classic, at Boston College and against Illinois in the United Center can put this team in entirely different conversations. The key is stealing a few big games, being consistent in the SEC and making a large portion of the foul shots. With five seniors and two juniors that have lived in the Tony Barbee world, it is not a far fetched notion that the new guys will fall in line.
Given the above and the kids coming in for this year, we could likely see the following lineup starting the first game: Sullivan, Chubb, Payne, Johnson and Adamu. Although, it may be doubtful that we consistently see the same five start every game. Sullivan, Chubb and Payne are the obvious starters, and there will likely be some rotation among these guards to start: Johnson, Wallace and Denson. Johnson is more of a shooter, although unproven. Wallace is a great defender, and there were noticeable improvements in his shooting last year. Denson will play often, but he might be on reserve and relied upon when the offense needs that "pop." Payne should pick up where he left off before his injury.
Adamu is the newcomer that may stand out the most. He has a lot of similarities to Gabriel and could bridge the gap from last year to this year. Brian Greene Jr. will definitely rotate in for Sullivan, and Asauhn Tatum-Dixon will relieve Chubb. Jordan Price, Jordon Granger and the high-flying Shaquille Johnson will all have opportunities to prove themselves and earn more playing time as the year progresses. This year, Barbee has a lot more versatility in terms of players being able to different things and in terms of having depth.
New NCAA rules allowed coaches access to the players in the summer -- two hours of full instruction and six hours of strength and conditioning per week, spread out over eight weeks (16 total hours). In order to participate, the players must either be enrolled in summer school or be in good academic standing. During the summer, Coach Barbee had the following to say about the upcoming season.
On Auburn's backcourt:
"We have lot of different pieces in the backcourt. We have a lot of depth in the backcourt. We have a lot of different parts, obviously, with the veteran presence in the backcourt with Josh Wallace, Frankie Sullivan and Chris Denson. Those guys give us a veteran presence and in college basketball, veteran experienced guards typically win games. I am excited about those guys having been under me for two years and understanding the system in how we play, and how we do things. They have been fantastic. Obviously, having Frankie back at 100 percent and being I think one of the best guards in the conference coupled with what we have added in Brian Greene and Jordan Price and all of a sudden, you have five guys in two positions that bring different things to the floor. That will give us more versatility and more depth."
On Auburn's frontcourt:
"The frontcourt with Rob Chubb and with Jordon Granger, a freshman from St. Louis who has been fantastic this summer, and once we get Asauhn (Dixon-Tatum) and Shareif (Adamu) here, then all of a sudden you have four bigs in that four-five position who do a lot of different things. Obviously, Kenny Gabriel will be missed with what he was able to get done in his senior year on the floor, but I think we have some guys who can help fill in that gap for him. I think Shareif is one of those guys that is 6-foot-8, 230 pounds that does a lot of things similar to Kenny but also brings some things to the floor that Kenny couldn't do because of his physicality. I am looking forward to those guys meshing and gelling together.
"I am excited about Rob Chubb and the development he has had in two years has been fun to watch. I think you are even going to see a different level of play with Rob. He has really worked on expanding his game from more than just five feet and in. He has pushed his game out to 16 to 17 feet and in. So, we will do some different things with him, but I think you will see a different level of confidence from Rob Chubb. You have seen that increase from year to year since I have been here. Now as a senior, he should have the ultimate confidence in his ability because he has been through this league in a full-time manner now for two years. Now as a senior, it is time to go out there and have fun and do what you do."
For more on what Barbee had to say on the health of Frankie and Noel, and the incoming guys, click here.
We'll continue our basketball preview next week, including our picks for the newcomer to keep an eye on and the returner we are watching the most.