Auburn Basketball Returns with High Expectations—(A Preview of the 2018–19 Tigers)
Danjel Purifoy is one of the keys to high expectations for Bruce Pearl's Auburn Tigers. (Auburn media via USA TODAY Sports)
It started quietly the second LSU kicked the game winning field goal inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. By the time Tennessee left the Plains, it was a roar: Bring on basketball. To be fair, the talk never really quit after last season, and certain Auburn basketball fans posted on Twitter nearly daily the number of days left until Bruce Pearl’s squad would be back on the hardwood to defend its SEC Championship.
For far too long, Auburn fans have been starved for great basketball. And Bruce Pearl’s first few squads had some terrific moments such as beating Kentucky, a berth in the NCAA Tournament and an SEC Championship. However, the fans were still left with disappointment. Part of that began on day one of last season when Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley were ruled ineligible after an FBI investigation into Pearl’s program. Another part of that was Auburn’s loss to a bad Clemson team in the second round of March Madness.
Everything happens for a reason though, and Auburn is now a preseason darling with the pieces to do some serious damage.
Auburn was nearly unbeatable most of last year before a slump after losing back-up center Anfernee McLemore, who filled in for Wiley and became a cornerstone of the high flying Tigers. Without a viable inside presence, Auburn normally fell back to the three ball, something that has kept them alive in the past years. But Bryce Brown, the Tiger sharpshooter, sustained an injury that led to a slump that cost the Tigers any real chance of competing in the post season. The Tigers may have been a high seed in the SEC and NCAA tournament, but anyone who watched Auburn knew the writing was on the wall.
Then it looked as if the Tigers would lose in the offseason as essentially every starter tested the NBA waters. 2017–2018’s best all-around player, Mustapha Heron, decided to leave.
While Auburn did lose a few backup players to transfer, the rest of the pieces have fallen into place. Wiley came back. Brown came back. Jared Harper came back. VCU transfer Samir Doughty’s year-long wait to be a Tiger ended, and McLemore healed.
The return of Brown and Harper, who have so much experience, was huge. Obviously getting center Austin Wiley, who was eyeing a first-round grade, is also huge. Chuma Okeke grew up before our eyes after McLemore’s injury, and McLemore, himself, is a beast of a player with amazing energy and athleticism.
All this is wonderful and special. A hungry and angry Danjel Purifoy is the major key to Auburn’s ability to rise to the 11th overall rank in the preseason polls. Anyone who follows No. 3 knows he is both hungry and angry. The forward is angry about being ruled ineligible. He’s angry that he missed a special year with his brothers. And he is hungry to take it all back. Purifoy possesses a rare combination of physical size and skill. At 6’ 7” he can do it all. He can shoot the long ball or take it to the rack. As a guard or forward Purifoy is the lynchpin. He can stretch the floor like few players in the game and do it faster than anyone.
In past years, the level of talent at Auburn has made the starting lineup easy to predict, but there was a significant gap between the first and second line. Last year’s squad had a second unit that was decent but not good enough to pressure good teams. While Auburn lost several members of that second line, Pearl has bolstered the lineup to the point where trying to predict the starting five is difficult. In fact, Auburn can now play different styles of round ball, depending on whom Pearl sends out.
Harper and Brown are locked in at the guard positions with Doughty likely first off the bench along with J’Von McCormick, the transfer from Lee who averaged 18 points as a sophomore. Memphis transfer Jamal Johnson is a wild card. He had 47 long balls at Memphis and was really good from the line. His elite size at the position makes him an interesting player. Harper played far too many minutes and it will be imperative for Auburn to have a capable second point man.
With Wiley and Horace Spencer down low, Auburn cannot afford not to play Anfernee McLemore. Mac was a blocking phenom last season while also managing a good inside/outside game. It makes him a potential stretch-four player who could be a serious matchup issue for other teams because of his athleticism.
Then there is Chuma Okeke, a Team USA player, who was brought along slowly last season but showed unbelievable all-around talent late in the year when pressed into duty. He has a bit more size and length than McLemore, who can jump out of the gym. And Okeke may even be better than McLemore at the inside/outside game
Expect McLemore’s minutes to go down, but also expect him to be moved around to create specific mismatches in Auburn’s favor.
Auburn basketball is back in seven days, and while it is just a exhibition against Lincoln Memorial University, it will be just the appetizer fans need to start off the year right. The regular season kicks off with South Alabama coming to The Jungle on Tuesday, November 6th. The 8:00 PM game will be on the SEC Network. Action picks right back up on Friday the 9th with Washington visiting the Plains.
As always, follow me on Twitter @Best5Zach as I live tweet during games.