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State of the Program: Basketball

What a Difference a Year Makes!

Auburn Arena (full) Kentucky vs Auburn men’s basketball on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 in Auburn, Ala. Todd Van Emst

Today, we continue our State of the Program Series by looking at Auburn Basketball. I joined C&M before the start of last year’s basketball season and one reason why is I thought last year’s team had the potential to be really good for the first time in quite some time. Perhaps that was a bold thought because let’s be honest: Auburn basketball fans haven’t had a whole lot to cheer about this decade, this century, heck this millennium for that matter. The 2017-2018 season will be remembered for the year that all changed. After its first winning season since 2008-2009 in 2016-2017 (18-14), the Tigers went 26-8 (13-5 in the SEC) last season and won their first SEC Regular Season Title since 1999. Gone are the days are empty seats galore at Auburn Arena. Gone are the days where students could walk in 10 minutes before tip-off and stand in the front row of the student section. Gone are the days where fans can essentially give their tickets away to watch Auburn Basketball. Bruce Pearl and Auburn Basketball have become must-see and 2018-2019 is poised to be an even better season. But let’s go back a bit and review what has transpired over the past year.

Before Auburn Basketball played a game last season, they lost Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy due to suspension over the FBI investigation. It looked to be a devastating blow to a team that looked to take a big step forward in Year 4 of Bruce Pearl. The Tigers were undersized and depth, especially in the frontcourt became an issue. They would play a 6’3 Desean Murray at the Power Forward spot. Then they lost their exhibition game and things didn’t look too good for Auburn Basketball. Rumors were rampant that Coach Pearl might not make it to the season opener before being fired. What happened instead is a season that none of us will soon forget. Auburn went 12-1 in their non-conference schedule, their only loss to Temple in the Charleston Classic. They beat the likes of Dayton, UAB, Middle Tennessee, Murray State and destroyed UConn at home. Then came the first week in January where the Tigers opened their SEC schedule at Tennessee. To me, this was one of the year’s signature moments.

4-14. This will always be something we remember about this team, one that was predicted (keep in mind with Wiley and Purifoy) to go 4-14 in the SEC by an SEC writer. Auburn won that game 94-84 in Knoxville that night and put the SEC on notice by following that up with a win at home over Arkansas to put the Tigers in the Top 25 of the polls, where they would remain for the rest of the season. People began to take Auburn Basketball seriously after the accomplishments of that week and Auburn Arena was electric for every game from that point forward.

Auburn broke a lot of streaks this past season. Here’s a few of them:

  • Won at Tennessee for the first time since 1998.
  • Broke a 10 game losing streak to Ole Miss with an 85-70 win on January 9. They went on to sweep Ole Miss for the first time since the 2007-2008 season.
  • Won in Starkville for the first time since 2009 with a 76-68 win on January 13.
  • Beat Georgia TWICE in the same season since the 1985-1986 season.
  • Broke a 13 game losing streak to Vanderbilt with a 93-81 win on February 3, it’s first win over the Commodores since 2007.
  • Beat Kentucky for only the 2nd time since 2000 (both have come in Kentucky’s last 2 trips to Auburn). *Kentucky will be back in Auburn this year and the Tigers will also to look to win in Lexington for the first time since January 9, 1988.
  • Made its 1st NCAA Tournament since 2003

But now it’s time to look forward to the 2018-2019 season. The Tigers will lose 3 pieces from last year’s team. Mustapha Heron has transferred to St. John’s. Desean Murray has moved on to Western Kentucky while Davion Mitchell is off to Baylor. 2 new guys will play a role on this year’s edition of Auburn Basketball as VCU transfer Samir Doughty is eligible this season. The team also adds J’Von McCormick, a junior college point guard from Texas to back up Jared Harper. And oh by the way... have I mentioned that Austin Wiley AND Danjel Purifoy are back for this year? Both players will be extremely hungry after having to sit on the sidelines all of last year.

Jared Harper and Bryce Brown return for their junior and senior years respectively to lead the backcourt, as does senior Malik Dunbar. Then there’s the frontcourt which will be absolutely loaded. In addition to Wiley, the Tigers return senior Horace Spencer, junior Anfernee McLemore, and sophomore Chuma Okeke. Depth should not be an issue this year as the Tigers will be able to go 10 deep, including 2 deep at every position this year. Experience will also be a strength on this Auburn team as it’s 10 man rotation is comprised of 3 seniors, 6 juniors and a sophomore. Bruce Pearl has a lot of tough decisions to make in regards to giving out minutes and different combinations of players and rotations that will be used. For example, Bruce can elect to go small with 3 guards by playing Harper, Brown and Doughty together with McLemore and Wiley or he can elect to play 3 big guys like Chuma, McLemore and Wiley at the same time. And that’s just 2 of the endless scenarios that I could throw out there. Point is: it will be fascinating to see the different lineups that Auburn can throw out on the court next year.

Looking at the competition, the SEC will be much better this year than last year and as it stands, Auburn looks poised to be a Top 3 team. Many publications will have Kentucky at the top with Tennessee and Auburn holding down the 2 and 3 spots respectively. Both teams come to Auburn next year while the Tigers, as mentioned above, also travel to Lexington. Kentucky looks to have its best team since 2014-15 when they went undefeated all the way to the Final Four and Tennessee returns almost everybody from last year’s team. Florida, Mississippi State, and LSU are also Top 25 teams that Auburn will have to navigate through as well. We’ll go much more in-depth with this as the season draws closer.

Unlike last year, the NCAA Tournament will be an expectation instead of a goal and to me, advancing to at least the Sweet 16 would be a reasonable goal for next year’s squad. This team is highly motivated to remove the sting of a 31 point loss to Clemson in the NCAA Tournament. For the first time in many years, there are high expectations around this team and Auburn fans are extremely excited for the return of Auburn Basketball. The state of the Auburn Basketball program is really strong and with Bruce Pearl signed long-term, it looks as if Auburn Basketball is here to stay for awhile and that’s something we can all get excited about. War Eagle!