This season started with a lot of promise. It was year two of the Pearl regime. Auburn welcomed its best recruiting class in at least thirty years with four stars Horace Spencer, Danjel Purifoy, and TJ Dunans; three stars New Williams and Bryce Brown; transfer Kareem Canty; and senior transfer Tyler Harris. They were joining four Tigers who were known contributors, Cim Bowers, TJ Lang, Jordon Granger, and Tahj Shamsid-Deen.
Trouble started in the preseason. Purifoy was never declared eligible. New Williams tweaked his knee, leaving us wondering what highlights we might have seen if he were healthy:
Even without these players, Auburn opened the season hot. Auburn beat UAB to open the season in one of the best games ever played in the Arena. Four Auburn starters scored in double digits. Horace Spencer came off the bench for seven rebounds and five blocks, including the game winner:
UAB went on to have a 26-7 record and won the regular season CUSA title. Auburn looked to be at least six to seven quality players deep. There was no doubt in my mind this was at least an NIT team.
Tahj reinjured his shoulder against Northwestern State in game four. By game seven against Xavier, he was done. Still, even without TSD, Purifoy, and New, Auburn won six of their first nine games. Auburn's three losses were to teams that are (or were) playing in the NCAA Tournament: Xavier (2 seed), Colorado (8 seed), and MTSU (15 seed). Auburn took MTSU to overtime and gave Colorado a scare.
The season started to collapse against Harvard in the second round of the Diamondhead Classic. Auburn was trailing Harvard 40-29 when TJ Dunans suffered a knee injury that kept him out for most of the rest of the year. TJ was a slashing guard who could drive to the rim and create. Dunans was a presence on the glass and took pride in his defense. We didn't have anyone else who could work the ball into the paint like TJ.
After that, Auburn wasn't the same team. The next eleven games were the Kareem Canty show. When he was hot, Auburn was a tough out. We beat Alabama, Kentucky!!!!??!!, and Tennessee at home. Other than these wins, we lost eight games by double digits to a weird collection of bad and average teams.
Then the season got weird. Auburn suspended Cim. Then, Cim came back. Then Canty was gone and Cim was running point. The rest of the season a group of outmanned and inexperienced kids fought their butts off. They even managed to beat Georgia and Arkansas somehow.
SO, ARE WE CLOSE OR WHAT?
So, now what? We're two years into the Bruce Pearl era and we haven't had the success we've expected. It's led a lot of Auburn fans to ask, are we even close to righting the ship? I think so.
We were close this last year. Without the injuries--especially the injury to TJ Dunans--Auburn was competitive with teams that made the NCAA tournament. After the injuries, Auburn was losing by double-digits to Missouri.
Auburn is losing three major contributors in Tyler Harris, Cim Bowers, and Kareem Canty. We're returning TJ Dunans, TJ Lang, Bryce Brown, and Horace Spencer, all of whom had moments of promise this season. Auburn also returns four-star recruit Trayvon Reed who missed this season due to academic and legal issues. We're adding Auburn's first ever five-star recruit Mustapha Heron, four-star point guard Jared Harper, and three-star power forward Anfernee McLemore.
Bruce also took the opportunity this year to enforce discipline. By suspending Cim and running Canty off, he sent a strong message that you can either play his way or play somewhere else. If you watch Auburn in the first half of the season, they were winning but they were playing AAU-style basketball. There wasn't a lot of good off ball movement or coordinated defense. They won by out-talenting the opposition and lost the same way. By the end of the year, the few remaining players seemed to be running Bruce's sets and making adjustments to their game. If that discipline carries over into next year, Auburn will start next year in better shape than this past season.
To make the next step, we need to find someone to help Horace Spencer down low. Maybe Trayvon Reed or Anfernee McLemore will be the answers, maybe not. I'm not overly confident that either will be immediate difference makers. I'd feel better if Auburn could find another senior transfer center like Tyler Harris.
We've survived thirteen years since Marquis Daniels led the Tigers to the Sweet 16. We'll survive another season or two. Auburn continues to recruit well. Sooner or later, we'll get over the hump. It may be next year, it may be the year after, but soon, Auburn will start winning at the levels we expected when we brought Bruce in.
Like all trips across the desert, all we can say for certain is that we're driving the right direction and we're moving forward so we're closer than we were. Unfortunately, with all the mirages, there's no way to know how close we are until we arrive.