The SEC’s an emerging basketball conference. Auburn making its first Final Four is proof of the league’s ascension.
The other Tigers had their best, most successful season in program history and Bruce Pearl’s group is back to prove Auburn is more than a one hit wonder. To get a better idea of the 2019-20 Auburn Tigers, I reached out to Drew over at College and Magnolia.
1. Last year Auburn achieved something they’ve never done before and made its first Final Four; but Auburn loses Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke. What’s a fair expectation for the 2019-20 Tigers?
I think the fair expectation for this Auburn team is a tournament bid and winning its first game in the Dance. Even that could be high, to be honest. The team lost three guys who are at least in the G-League and two others who are being paid to play hoops overseas. That’s a huge hole, especially on the offensive end of the court. I think the freshmen Auburn is bringing in this season are extremely talented, but I am not expecting Babatunde Akingbola or Isaac Okoro to be some kind of transcendent offensive contributors out of the gate. Returning Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley gives Auburn much needed experience on the floor, especially defending and rebounding the basketball. If Wiley can ever live up to the admittedly absurd expectations Auburn fans had for him when he arrived on campus, this team will be special.
2. Auburn’s non-conference slate is pretty soft. Sure there’s a late December game against NC State and the Tigers host Iowa State for the Big 12/SEC Challenge, but other than that the schedule seems pretty manageable. When will we know how good Auburn is?
Since we have so many new faces, I couldn’t be more thrilled with how this schedule lines up. Auburn needs a few weeks to get its bearings before it starts the gauntlet that will be the SEC slate this season. We honestly might not know what we have with this Auburn squad until January. I’m penciling in the January 15 game at Alabama (of course) to be the game that tells me what I need to expect out of this team. Until then, the toughest road test Auburn will face will be Mississippi State to open conference play on the 4th of January.
3. February seems to be the month where the intensity amps up for Auburn. The Tigers play Kentucky twice and travel to Arkansas, but get LSU, Alabama, Tennessee and Ole Miss all at home. Auburn plays nine total games in February, how many wins do you see? How many will they need?
Because of the plush non-conference Auburn plays this season and the relative quality of the league, I think Auburn only needs five of those wins to feel really good about that stretch. I think the Tigers can do it, but LSU is going to be really good this year and Kentucky twice is going to be extremely difficult. I think Auburn can sneak five of those, but at this moment in October I’m not confident of anything. In my opinion, building a fortress at home, and then taking one of the Kentucky games and then one other win would make Auburn a lock for the Tournament.
4. Bruce Pearl has said over the summer that Auburn will adjust and play at a “normal pace” this year. How different will the Tigers look compared to last year and will the new approach lead to success on the court?
Auburn is going to be a defense-first team this year. It might a departure from the free-wheeling three-point barrage of Auburn’s offense last season, but I don’t think Auburn’s about to turn into Virginia or anything. Bruce just realized his best offensive player returning is 7-footer Austin Wiley. Austin is a really good player with a crazy high efficiency who does a lot of things well around the basket. He is not, however, a three point threat. I’m cautiously optimistic that Danjel Purifoy and J’Von McCormick will be able to carry the load on offense from the perimeter. Last season I only wanted McCormick to have more points per game than capital letters in his name, and he barely did it with 4.1ppg. This year, he will need to at least double that to take some of the burden off Wiley. Isaac Okoro is a dominant on-ball defender who might be the best athlete Auburn has had on the wing in a long time. If Auburn is successful it will be because Okoro is able to cause turnovers that Auburn turns into points. Or Austin Wiley becomes Shaq.
5. We’re entering year six of the Bruce Pearl era at Auburn. The Tigers have increased its win total in each of the past four years, have made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons and last year Pearl’s group won the SEC tournament and made the Final Four. What is Pearl’s standing in the Auburn community?
Bruce Pearl should have a building named after him on campus by now. That’s the standing he has in the minds of Auburn fans. There are Third World Dictators who have a lower approval rating than Bruce, and they are rigging the votes. It is difficult to convey just how bad Auburn was at basketball and how little anyone cared. It wasn’t that people hated the last few Auburn basketball coaches as much as they were apathetic towards Auburn basketball completely. Bruce has people wearing Auburn Basketball shirts to football games—when I was in college at Auburn from 04-08, you couldn’t buy an Auburn basketball shirt at most of the bookstores. I think most Auburn fans realize this is as good as it has ever been and it will only stay this good as long as Pearl is on campus and happy.