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End of the Storm: Men’s Hoops Preview

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It’s time.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

I know it’s not even Halloween and football season is still keeping us from our actual human relationships, but there is something else rustling through the fallen leaves. Or there would be, if there was something like fall weather in Alabama.

Do you hear it?

This might help.

Ahhh, now you can hear it. It’s time to get excited about the planet’s second most popular team sport (take that cricket!): Men’s Basketball!

Still not excited? Still not convinced you need to waste your pre-thanksgiving energy on tall men throwing a ball through a net?

Try this on for size:

If that song doesn’t inspire you for some HOOPS TALK then I don’t know what will. Turn the volume all the way up, dance around your house pretending to dunk on nerf goals that may or may not exist, and then come back to me.

Now that you see what time it is, let’s get into the Auburn Basketball preview for 2016/17

The End of the Storm

There are two types of teams in college basketball: stormers and stormees. No, this is not some think-piece on the morality of court-storming, but I think the desire to storm a court after a win places a program soundly into the category of Stormers. Auburn has been in this category for a long time. Probably since 2003. Thirteen years which have seen the Lebos and the Barbees of the world try to fill a decrepit old arena with fans to watch a team that never made it past the third round of the NIT. Then came the new arena—shining shimmering splendor. This whole new world of facilities needed a new prince, and so Bruce Pearl was hired. Two years of rebuilding took place, with recruiting classes getting better each year. Every season we would read about the new recruit Auburn was close to signing and how he was “the best recruit in Auburn history.”

This was us:

So many stars by these guys’ names, y’all!

Last season, Auburn was an OK team. Improving, but at the end of the season desperately lacking the on-court leadership a quality point guard could have given them. With Kareem Canty’s mid-season suspension, the season was lost. You can’t have your best offensive threat—a human embodiment of the flame AND the 100 emojis—be suspended and hope to be OK in the SEC. The team tried valiantly, but was only able to muster two more wins the rest of the way, posting a woeful 2-8 post-Canty record. Without him, the scoring was abysmal and the team lacked an identity.

The program was still a Stormer. When we beat Kentucky last season, our fans poured onto the court gleefully, and they should have. That is our right as a Stormer: we beat a Stormee so we get to storm.

This season already feels different.

Incoming freshman Mustapha Heron is better than any player to have played at Auburn since Marquis Daniels’ last dunk rattled the rim in Beard-Eaves. He can play three positions on the perimeter, including point guard, and seems to have the body of a grown man at 18 years old. There has never been a player get me this excited about an Auburn season. Stars matter in basketball, y’all. You know how there are always those stories on the football team of some 1-star guy becoming a top player and even finding his way into the NFL? That doesn’t really happen in hoops. The top 100 recruits will probably be fighting for the 60 draft spots in the NBA draft in a few years. There just aren’t as many places to hide on a basketball court. If you are good, scouts figure it out when you are 15. Mustapha Heron is good. Really good. A 6-5 guard who can run is a program changing prospect. There aren’t that many of them in college hoops, because they don’t stay in college for long.

If he is that type of player, and I think he is, then the days of being a Stormer are over, Tiger fans. Mustapha is bringing us into the realm of Stormee. One of these days, and I don’t know when, Auburn will lose a game against a team it has no business losing to, and the fans of the other team will storm the court. When that happens, we will be upset, and we will probably not be thinking about the days when we were filling the floor after beating Kentucky. We will be Stormees, with no time to give thoughts to the lowly Stormers of the world.

Could We Be THAT Good?

In one word: maybe. Our backcourt with returners Bryce Brown, TJ Lang, and TJ Dunans providing depth and experience will be our strength. Those three guys teaming with Mustapha Heron and Houston-by-way-of-Purdue-transfer Ronnie Johnson will be a formidable area. Brown can flat out score. His three-point shooting will space the floor and help the entire team find places to go to work. Johnson is as pure a point as Canty was, and will steady the ship. I haven’t even mentioned Jared Harper! Y’all know about him? Just another four-star, top 10 in Georgia player. Harper is a point guard who will challenge Johnson for the starting spot as a freshman. Auburn is ridiculously deep in the backcourt.

And then there is New Williams, who spent the summer doing this:

That’s him in the grey, dunking with a professional dunker and looking just as good. Watch the whole video, there isn’t a bad dunk in the bunch. Williams has been mostly overshadowed on this roster, and didn’t get much run last season. I believe he has a chance to be a really good player if he can crack Pearl’s rotation. He is athletic enough, at least.

How important is it that Auburn has built a formidable backcourt? Well, in college hoops there is a theory that the team with the best guards wins the tournament. If you can control the tempo of the game, limit turnovers, and maybe cause a few turnovers, you give yourself a chance to be dangerous. At Tennessee, Pearl ran a lot of full-court press defense. It is one of the things he was known for. At Auburn, he hasn’t quite had the horses to implement that type of pressure, but with these studs playing wing for him, he might this season.

My favorite returning player on the team is probably Horace Spencer. He has so many things I like in a post player. He wears number 0, which is cool. He doesn’t care at all about offensive touches, perfect for our offense. He just rebounds and dunks everything, perfect for getting the crowd into a game. If his offensive game has moved beyond dunks and rebounding, that’s gravy for this team.

Next to Spencer on the block will FINALLY be Danjel Purifoy. Some called him the best player on last year’s team, and he was never allowed to play. NCAA investigations into his academics have finally allowed him to be cleared to play starting this season, and you can bet a year watching his teammates struggle without him has made him a man on a mission this season. In the SEC, the ability to rebound on the offensive glass with the shooters Auburn has can change losses into wins. I believe Auburn will have a chance in a lot of games this years, based on rebounding the basketball alone.

Freshman Anfernee Mclemore and transfer LaRon Smith will add some depth to the front-court for the Tigers. It is a big day when I mention a three star shot-blocking post like Mclemore with “will add some depth.” Mclemore will develop under Pearl and will be a productive part of this team. Especially since he is basically a Horace Spencer clone.

My Starters

If I am coach Pearl, which I am not, (though I have amassed an impressive record coaching JV girls’ basketball in the Northwest European Council of International Schools) these are the first five guys I’m putting on the floor:

1-Ronnie Johnson (6’0)

2-Bryce Brown (6’3)

3-MUSTAPHA HERON (6’5)

4-Danjel Purifoy (6’7)

5-Horace Spencer (6’8)

That’s a squad. Those five can score, defend, and rebound. Sure, we will miss the leadership of Bowers and Harris early on, but Ronnie Johnson will bring some confidence and level-headedness that we didn’t have on the court last season. That’s important. Heron’s name is in all-caps for a reason. The offense is going to go through the kid this season. If he is what we think he is, feed him early and often. Let him get you as many wins as he can before he becomes a millionaire.

My Strategy

On offense: like I said, run it through Mustapha “James Harden without the beard” Heron. He scores inside and outside. With the shooting of Brown and Purifoy being able to knockdown open looks, a point guard like Johnson should have no problem getting some gaudy assist totals if he plays his cards right. Ronnie Johnson is getting the keys to an exotic sports car with a name he can’t pronounce yet, but if he can just steer it around the corners OK, he will have a winner. Jared Harper will be first off the bench shooting threes and running the offense with efficiency. Some think he will beat out Johnson for the starting job, and he might eventually, but not week one. You don’t bring a graduate transfer point guard in to ride the bench, but you also don’t sign many Jared Harpers either.

On defense: I would love to see this team run that 1-2-1-1 diamond press Pearl crushed people with at Tennessee. This is the most athletic team he has had at Auburn. These guys can all run and jump and defend. If we can harness the power of the press, we can wreak havoc in the SEC this season. Last year, we lived and died with our ability to rebound the basketball, and defend the perimeter. I think the five guys I would start can do both. Bowers was a rebounding machine, but Spencer began to come into his own at the end of the season. If only Austin Wiley was a year older, this team would be DANGEROUS.

Prediction

Auburn is an “On the bubble” team once bracketologists start doing whatever they do to earn a living. Auburn makes postseason play, either as a high NIT seed or a low NCAA seed. Either way, we are watching meaningful basketball in March, which is a good thing.

I can’t wait for this season to start. We don’t have the talent top-to-bottom of a Kentucky just yet, but the foundation of high-end talent is starting to pile up. Imagine this Auburn team as a lot like the 2001 or 2002 Auburn football team, really good, but not quite great. There will be flashes of excellence though, which is all you can ask for as an Auburn fan.

Our days of storming courts are over. We are going to be Stormees now, please and thank you.