The twists and turns of an unforeseen FBI investigation were not enough to keep Auburn from capturing its first SEC regular-season title since 1999 and making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 15 years. Now, even with the transfer of leading scorer Mustapha Heron, Bruce Pearl has a roster that could allow him to showcase a variety of lineups and an unprecedented amount of depth.
“I really like my roster,” Pearl says. “We have more frontcourt depth than we’ve ever had. We have more traditional size than we’ve ever had. That could be a positive, but that could also be a negative because we’ve made small ball work here. I enjoy coaching that way and hope to try to play the same way even though we have better size.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl
2017-18 RECORD (SEC): 26-8 (13-5)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Clemson 84-63 in the second round
G Mustapha Heron (16.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
G Davion Mitchell (3.7 ppg, 1.9 apg)
F Desean Murray (10.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
The biggest addition for the Tigers in the frontcourt will be the return of 6'11" center Austin Wiley, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA last season. The Alabama native, who tested the NBA Draft waters in the offseason, gives Auburn a physical inside presence who can change the game on both sides of the court.
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Danjel Purifoy will be back on the court as well after he serves an early season suspension. He led the Tigers in 3-pointers made during the 2016-17 campaign, so his return will give the team yet another strong perimeter option.
Sophomore Chuma Okeke should see his role expand after playing 21.6 minutes per game as a freshman and finishing as the team’s second-best rebounder and fifth-best scorer.
Anfernee McLemore, who missed the team’s final seven games due to a dislocated ankle and fractured tibia, had successful surgery and returns as the SEC’s premier shot blocker after recording 2.7 per game as a sophomore. Horace Spencer’s impressive shot-blocking ability and improved offensive game will also add to the frontcourt depth.
Senior Bryce Brown won’t catch anyone off guard thanks to his All-SEC first-team honors a season ago. He came close to eclipsing the school’s single-season 3-point record in knocking down 107 shots from beyond the arc — the most by anyone in the conference. Opposing teams will likely make Brown the primary focus, but Auburn’s up-tempo style should allow him to once again find plenty of open shots in transition.
Jared Harper will be the driving force for the Tigers at point guard after an All-SEC campaign of his own. The 5'10" speedster is a tremendous playmaker on both ends, and his role as floor general will continue to be crucial to the team’s success. Senior Malik Dunbar has the versatility to play multiple positions and should increase his minutes.
Pearl also adds two new faces to the mix in VCU transfer Samir Doughty and junior college point guard J’Von McCormick. Doughty, a 6'4" junior who sat out last season after averaging 9.0 points and 3.6 rebounds as a redshirt freshman with the Rams, can fill multiple needs by playing on or off the ball. McCormick, whom Pearl calls a “really important signing” for the program, can contribute in many areas due to his experience and playmaking ability.
Auburn hasn’t posted back-to-back 20-win seasons since 2000, but Pearl and company have more than enough depth to accomplish that feat this year. The Tigers should be in the SEC title hunt for a second straight year, and the potential is there to turn that into an even higher level of success in the NCAA Tournament. “They’re focused,” Pearl says. “We feel like we’ve got unfinished business. We’re excited about our team and the state of our program.”
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
SEC Prediction: 3rd