It’s October. The leaves are changing, it’s finally getting below 70 degrees across most of the southland, and it is time to start talking basketball. I know, I know, you are probably not ready yet. You haven’t even packed away your shorts, much less unpacked your Charles Barkley Suns jersey from the bottom of the duffel bag your wife hid it in back in August (you too?).
“Call me in February, Crow” I hear you say.
No. I’m calling you now. Now is the time to get ready for what might be the year Auburn crawls from the primordial soup of rebuilding years and onto the sandy shore of success. Auburn is the House of Barkley, for Pete’s sake. One of the 50 greatest to ever play the game and America’s basketball sweetheart calls Auburn home—let’s act like it.
Still not ready? I didn’t want to have to do this. Yes I did.
Now let’s talk some stinking roundball!
Auburn lost TJs Dunans & Lang, Ronnie Johnson, and Laron Smith from the roster last year. Each one of those players played meaningful minutes for Auburn, but Ronnie Johnson might be the hardest to replace. Johnson was a security blanket for Bruce Pearl last season during SEC play. When his freshman-heavy roster looked inexperienced or unsteady, Pearl could trust Johnson to calm the ball down. He had a team-best assist to turnover ratio in conference play last season. T.J. Dunans was a spark off the bench at times for Auburn, and there were games Dunans won for the Tigers, but he also was a turnover-machine. Auburn will not miss his 47 turnovers in conference play, but will need someone to replace the rebounding ability he brought on the defensive end.
Auburn adds DeSean Murray from Presbyterian, Malik Dunbar from JuCo, and two top-50 recruits Chuma Okeke and Davion Mitchell. Those four players are remarkably talented and can flat-out score the basketball. They will probably all start the season on the bench. Auburn has a ton of talent entering into this season, and should be as good on paper as almost every team it plays. DeSean Murray was a 20 points-per-game-player in his last season of NCAA action, but will need to fight for minutes on this team. Chuma Okeke averaged a double-double in Auburn’s trip to Italy, but isn’t guaranteed a starting spot.
Okeke is number 4 in blue in that video. He embarrasses the poor Italian kid defending him over and over. Okeke is a true freshman and has the potential to be a dynamic player for the Tigers. If he can rebound the ball and play even decent defense, he will play big minutes and might crack the starting lineup by the time conference play rolls around.
Harper was boom-or-bust last season. He is one of the fastest players to ever suit up for Auburn, and his ability to run the fast-break was uncanny against most teams Auburn played. At times, he was the best player on the court for Auburn, other times he was a defensive liability. Last season he scored 11.4 points per game, grabbed 1.9 rebounds, had 1.2 steals and dished out 3 assists. Those numbers, especially the assists number, should improve this season with experience. He will be competing for minutes against freshman Davion Mitchell, but Harper should be the man at the point for much of the time this season. All of his offensive statistics went down in conference play, as Ronnie Johnson proved more dependable in several games. Harper needs to play more consistent defense this season, and become a more effective leader on the floor for Auburn during SEC play.
Auburn’s leader last season in Games Started, Minutes Played, Field Goals Made, Free Throws Made & Attempted, Defensive Rebounds, Total Rebounds, and Points has been named to the 2018 Jerry West Award watch-list. Heron did it all for Auburn last year. He was ninth in the SEC in points per game with 15.2. He started every single game and was a guaranteed scorer. His presence in Auburn’s line-up was good enough for three wins last season. He is a solid, consistent, stellar offensive player. In fact, I don’t remember a guard Auburn has had who has a more complete offensive game. He rebounds at an absurd rate for a guard. Auburn was a bad rebounding team last season, but not because of Mustapha. His defense needs work, especially against quicker guards on the perimeter. If it does, he will be a millionaire one day and this will be his last season on the Plains. He was so much better as a freshman than the other guards on the team it wasn’t really close. He’s a James Harden-type scoring guard who could be a star by the end of the season. His size, athleticism, and smooth scoring ability make him my favorite player on this team.
Purifoy’s statistics from last season are a microcosm of Auburn’s season. He was amazing in non-conference play. His length and shooting ability were outrageous. In several games (Purdue, Boston College, Coastal Carolina) he was unguardable. In those games he shot over 57% from the field, 45% from three and 100% from the line, scoring over 20 points in each game . He was an offensive machine until December 18. From the Mercer game on, Purifoy didn’t ever score more than 15 points in any single game. An ankle injury slowed him down in conference play and he was a completely different player. In 7 of Auburn’s conference games he failed to crack 10 points. He didn’t even attempt a two-point shot in some of those. The ankle injury took his speed from him, and he failed to resemble the aggressive scorer he was in the early games of the season. His defense in conference play was simply not very good. His defensive rating in conference play was 113.1, meaning per 100 possessions, Auburn allowed 113.1 points when Danjel was on the floor. That isn’t good. He should come into this season healthy and hungry to improve on what he did last season. If he is the player he was in the early parts of last season, Auburn will be successful. If he is the player he was during conference play, Auburn will finish near the bottom of the SEC again.
The advanced stats love Mclemore. He is an extremely efficient player. He shot 68% from the field last season, and was a monster rebounder when he was on the floor, grabbing 17.4% of all available rebounds during his minutes in SEC play. He continued to improve as the season went along, and Coach Pearl gave Mclemore more minutes in SEC play as he showed the spark Auburn needed. His offensive numbers are great, but indicative of a player who gets the ball mostly on dunk attempts and put-backs. Auburn didn’t run a lot of plays for Mclemore, but he made the most of the minutes he played. He was worlds better then Horace Spencer when he was in the game, and I think he will start the season as a starter. Okeke might beat him out by the time we get to Christmas, but Mclemore deserves a chance to start after the way he played down the stretch. If he can be the guy who scored 19, grabbed six rebounds, and blocked two shots against Florida this season, Auburn will have a stud at the power forward position.
On his summer vacation, Austin Wiley averaged a double-double for Team USA in the U19 Basketball World Cup. USA lost to Canada and ended up bronze medalists in the tournament, but not because of Austin Wiley’s play. He was a star. In the toughest games the Americans played, Wiley came up big. He had 19 in the quarter-finals against Germany, and put up a 13 point 17 rebound (!) game against the Canadians in the semi-finals. He desperately needs to improve his free throw shooting, as he was a paltry 49% from the stripe last season. Making it worse, he was going to the line in conference play at an insane rate. Wiley averaged one free throw for each field goal he attempted in conference play. He is a tough cover for any defender in the SEC and his 6-11, 255lb body is only getting stronger with more time spent on a college weight program. If Austin Wiley has a good to great season, Auburn has a chance of making a run in the NCAA Tournament, if he doesn’t then Auburn has zero chance of making the Dance. He is the key to the team. The offense will likely flow through him in half-court sets and whether he can learn to defend without fouling will dictate how successful he can be. Auburn is technically deep at the Center position, but no one on the bench can do the things Wiley can do. The Tigers need him playing more than 20 minutes per game and they need him to be the rebounding monster he was this summer. He can’t do that if he is going to continue to average 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play.
Auburn has a non-conference schedule that should allow the Tigers to tinker with lineups and get all of its guys playing time and experience. There are some tough games on the schedule, with 3 tournament teams facing off against Auburn before SEC play, but there are enough chances to pick up wins that the Tigers should know what kind of team they are by New Year’s Eve. The SEC schedule sets up nicely for Auburn simply because it doesn’t include a trip to Vanderbilt and the Commodores’ bizarro basketball court. Auburn has to face Georgia and South Carolina twice which stinks if those teams are as strong as they were a year ago, but if Auburn has the team I think they do, they should be able to compete with every team on the schedule. Alabama will be much better this year, as will Mizzou, but I think Auburn has the talent to take a top 4 place in the conference.
Auburn was a terrible defensive team last season. Not bad, turribull. It was 323rd in the country in points allowed per game. Only one SEC team (LSU) was worse on defense. Auburn started four freshmen who played defense like they were still in AAU and not the SEC.
If Bruce Pearl ( a defensive-minded coach) can turn his long, athletic team into even an average defensive team, Auburn will be really good this season. If the Tigers can improve from 13th in the SEC in points allowed to even 7th, they will be a shoo-in for the Tournament because only one SEC team (Kentucky) was better on offense. Auburn returns almost all the scorers from a team that could score on anyone. The Tigers were the best three-point-shooting team in the SEC, making almost 40% of their triples. Austin Wiley is a year older, a year stronger, and is poised to make an impact on the conference. If he does, Auburn has the shooters, slashers, and rebounders to make this a fun ride into March.
If they don’t improve on defense, or if for whatever reason a certain number of players are ruled ineligible, Auburn will probably finish near the bottom of the conference again.