Auburn enters the second year of the Bruce Pearl era with a lot of promising newcomers. There's also significant uncertainty about who will actually be healthy enough or eligible to take the court this Friday in the season opener against UAB. This Auburn team should be fun to watch but a brutal schedule and lack of depth leaves many fans wondering if this will be the year we break through or another rebuilding year.
Auburn lost two key contributors off of last year's team, KT Harrell and Antoine Mason. Harrell and Mason were the Tigers' top two scorers last year. Auburn also lost K.C. Ross-Miller and Malcolm Canada to graduation. Auburn also lost Alex Thompson and Jack Purchase to transfer. Trayvon Reed is no longer on the Auburn online roster and is not enrolled in school but may return in January (although at this point, I'd be surprised if this happened).
Auburn's returning talent is highlighted by Cinmeon Bowers. Bowers was second in the league in rebounding and averaged nearly a double-double last fall. Despite his hulking frame, Cin is a finesse player. Cin likes to run the break and shoot outside. Cin would rather drive past a defender and lay the ball in than go over one and draw contact. Cin was an awful free throw shooter for most of last year but improved late in the year. This preseason, he's a combined 6-19 from the charity stripe. He has to improve for Auburn to win close games. Auburn's added depth down low should help Bowers this year who seemed to get winded towards the end of the season.
Jordon Granger, who started 33 games last year, returns for his senior season. Pearl played Granger at center last season but I've always wanted to see him moved to wing. He uses his height and wing span well in defense. Granger moves really well with and without the ball and shoots 37% from outside the arc. Granger also led the Tigers in field goal percentage. Despite this, Granger averaged only 5 points per game. With Auburn's added depth in the paint, he may play outside more this year. Granger was highly recruited out of high school. Tiger fans are hoping this is the year his contributions live up to his athletic potential.
Auburn also returns Tahj Shamsid-Deen. Maybe. Tahj is a fan favorite who plays hard every time out. He plays aggressive defense and fights for every ball. Unfortunately, Tahj is very injury prone. Tahj had surgery last year after suffering 5-6 shoulder dislocations. Tahj was expected to be our best returning defender this year before separating his shoulder again. He'll miss at least a month.
TJ Lang ended last year as one of Auburn's most consistent contributors. He didn't do much in the first half of the year but blossomed late, starting five of the last seven games. Lang is an intelligent player and a real pest on defense. His offensive game improved during the second half of the year. I expected him to be the biggest surprise of this year's team before he suffered an MCL sprain. He'll miss at least a couple of weeks.
Auburn also returns Auburn High's Cole Stockton and Mountain Brook legend Patrick Keim who played sparingly last year and haven't seen the floor much in the preseason. Here's hoping we see a lot of them in mop up time this year.
So here's the bad news: We return four regular contributors and maybe two of them are healthy enough to play. The good news? Auburn is bringing in its best recruiting class in recent memory. Several of them competed in a Birmingham summer league. The highlights can be seen here.
Let's start with our new point guard, Kareem "Nunu" Canty. Canty transferred from Marshall last fall where he averaged 16 points and 5 assists per game and was named C-USA Freshman of the Year. Canty is a scorer and a facilitator. Through two preseason games, he's averaged 20 points per game. The offense will be run through Canty this year. Look for him to put up gaudy numbers.
Auburn's new backup point guard/shooting guard is New Williams. New is 6'2" bu he can jump through the roof. No, seriously.
Williams started one preseason game and played well in the other. He will see a lot of playing time until Tahj is healthy enough to play. Williams will be exciting to watch.
Bryce Brown is a guard that Auburn fans would like to see step into the KT Harrell role as an outside shooter. He's got a big body and good range. Brown has battled injuries this preseason but went 2-4 from 3 against Indianapolis.
TJ Dunans is the Antoine Mason replacement. Dunans isn't a sharpshooter but he's great at driving and drawing contact. Dunans scored in double digits in both preseason games and started one of them. He's tall for a guard at 6'5" but handles the ball well. He also showed a willingness to crash the boards, collecting 8 rebounds against Brevard College. He plays above the rim and will bring energy to the Auburn attack.
Moving to the Paint, Auburn brings in senior transfer Tyler Harris from Providence. Harris's brother played for Pearl at Tennessee. At 6'10", Harris is the tallest player on our roster. Harris is a polished offensive player who averaged around 10 points and 4.5 rebounds during his time at Providence. He started both preseason games at center, averaging 17 points and 7 boards.
Auburn brings in an enforcer in Horace Spencer. Horace is a defensive specialist whose offensive game is a work in progress. He's a great rebounder and shot blocker and has a motor that never stops. Bruce Pearl compares him to Dennis Rodman. He's not as crazy as "The Worm" but he plays with a lot of energy like Rodman. Auburn hasn't had a nasty inside presence in a long time so Spencer will be a welcome addition on the Plains. Spencer had a double-double off the bench against Indianapolis. He will likely play a sixth man role this year for the Tigers.
I've saved Danjel Purifoy for last. Danjel is a 6'7" wing who by some reports may be the best player on the team. He's a playmaker who brings energy both inside and out. He's an excellent defender. He can drive, he can shoot, in short, he's an all-around player. He's facing academic eligibility questions and may not get to play this season. His presence could make the difference between a rebuilding season and a great one but his availability is out of our control.
If the preseason games are any indication, Auburn is going to be fun to watch this year. The Tigers averaged over 106 points per game in two preseason games. Of course, they also needed overtime to put away D-II Indianapolis. Unlike last year's Tiger's this team is going to play fast and above the rim and hope they can play just enough defense to win out.
It's hard to forecast the Auburn season because there's so much we don't know about the personnel. Will Tajh and Lang be healthy enough to contribute? Will we see Purifoy or Trayvon in uniform this year? Will the new players mesh and play up to our expectations?
These uncertainties will be tested early against a brutal schedule. Auburn opens up with UAB and Colorado. Auburn returns visits to Coastal Carolina and Xavier in December. Auburn is playing in the Diamondhead Classic over Christmas and right now would probably be considered underdogs in 2 of 3 games on that trip. Put differently, a good team might only go 6-5 against our November and December schedule. Oklahoma State in January is also a very challenging nonconference opponent.
Auburn's SEC schedule sets up reasonably favorably in that we only face Kentucky and Texas A&M once each. Auburn needs to open up 3-0 in conference against Tennessee, South Carolina, and Missouri before things get tough if we're going to have any chance of a good season. Depending on the team's health and depth, Auburn could win anywhere from 6-12 games. Ten wins are in play if the team gels.
So how will the team do? My wild, homerific guess is 17-13 with a chance at the NIT due to our strength of schedule. Given the numbers of ifs and contingencies listed above, if someone arrived in my office claiming to be from the future and told me I was wrong within six games either way it wouldn't be a huge shock. Auburn continues to rebuild under Pearl. We have another solid recruiting class coming in next year so things will continue to improve but Auburn fans may have to be patient another year before everything starts to click.