Defining Success for Auburn’s Other Major Sports in 2018–2019
Can coach Bruce Pearl get the Tigers into the Final Four in 2019? (photo:USA TODAY Sports)
This time of year is all about expectations. Unlike that other team across the state, Auburn fans want and expect the other major sports to do well. 2017–2018 didn’t feature any national championships, but every sport save softball exceeded expectations. No, Auburn football didn’t end on a high note and watching Alabama’s Tagovailoa connect with Smith on 2nd and 26 in overtime (COME ON GEORGIA, IT WAS SECOND AND TWENTY-SIX!!!) was a totally fitting ending to the football season for grizzled Auburn fans. No, basketball didn’t make it to the final four, nor did softball or baseball play in Oklahoma or Omaha. And women’s basketball slid significantly this year, failing to improve on a 17–15 record and an NCAA bid.
On Monday we took a look at what success might look like for the Auburn football program. Today, we want to examine what might success in the other major sports programs at Auburn look like for 2018–2019?
As mentioned, women’s basketball slid slightly from 2016–2017 where it played in the NCAA tournament, losing to NC State. This past season, Terri Williams-Flournoy’s sixth club fell to 14–15, lost to the Lady Vols in the first game of the SEC Tournament, and weren’t offered a berth in the NCAA tournament. Despite the losing season, Coach Flo received a contract extension. While having only one twenty-win season, Coach Flo has led the Tigers to 19 wins multiple times and had the program on the cusp of turning the corner until this year’s downturn. With the SEC having traditional powerhouses, the issue has been conference wins. Williams-Flournoy has no winning records in the SEC. Success in 2018–2019 is simply getting to 9–7, which could likely mean an NCAA bid.
The softball team went through tremendous change in the off-season, starting with completely rebuilding a coaching staff due to internal issues. Some of the fallout led to a head admin. assistant Meredith Jenkins being removed by new AD Allen Greene. Along the way, Auburn lost the best player in program history, and one of the best players the sport has ever known, in Kasey Cooper. However, the killer blow to the season was losing catcher Carlee Wallace to Baylor amid the scandal that involved relationships between players and coaches.
After staff resignations and retirements, the number one coach on the board, Mickey Dean, was brought in from James Madison. While Dean worked wonders with JMU, especially with pitching, pitching wasn’t an issue at Auburn—hitting was. Auburn’s bats were in a two-year slump, and Dean and fellow coach Eddy Kettelhut couldn’t work miracles. Pitching kept Auburn in most every game this past season, but it wasn’t enough to make the Women’s College World Series. It should be noted that Auburn ran across Florida State in Tallahassee. Auburn couldn’t win on the road, and FSU ended up winning the National Championship.
Gone from the 2017 roster are outfielder Victoria Draper, ace pitcher Kaylee Carlson, and catcher Courtney Shea. Will Makayla Martin live up to the billing as the ace? The infield is set going into the season. How will the outfield shake out? More importantly, whose bats will improve enough to get them on the field and can the rest of the entrenched starters improve enough to give the pitching staff more run support? What is success in 2018–2019? The easy answer is making it back to Oklahoma City.
Baseball coach Butch Thompson had one of the tougher jobs, if not the toughest, at Auburn when he took over a languishing program mired in controversy thanks to Sonny Golloway. To many, it seemed Thompson was likely a stop-gap measure to stabilize the program before a bigger name could be wooed. Nobody told Thompson. The 2015–2016 squad went 23–33 before a surprise showing of 37–26 in 2016–2017. Then in 2018, Thompson got Auburn to super regional play, where the Tigers lost to top seeded Florida, but not before posting a 43–23 record and had MLB’s number one over-all pick in pitcher Casey Mize.
Projecting baseball, outside of the blue bloods, is such a hard thing to do, especially with baseball’s looser rules on drafting young players. Auburn has quality young pitchers and a ton of young players. Case in point came about when second baseman Luke Jarvis decided to leave Auburn after a terrific season.
What does success look like to Thompson’s Tigers? Auburn has to be better against middling SEC teams and has to be more competitive against the top programs such as Florida, Mississippi State, and Arkansas. The Tigers were 15–15 in conference but did so by sweeping bad teams while struggling to close out series against competitive teams. Sure, beating Florida was nice and winning the series against Mississippi State was great, but Arkansas swept Auburn as did Kentucky and Ole Miss. If Auburn can secure a winning SEC record, it would be an incredible season and set up Auburn for the tournament.
The basketball program had an interesting year. Leading up to the season, Auburn began offering buy-backs for season tickets thanks to the FBI probe into the college game and the arrest of Chuck Person. On the outset, Auburn was predicted to finish 4–14 in the SEC with Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy out for the season. All the round ballers did was defy every expectation, win the SEC and play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years. With a healthy Bryce Brown and Anfernee McLemore on the floor, who knows how far Auburn could have gone.
But, Auburn is loaded for bear this coming season, and the sky is the absolute limit. Of all Auburn sports, this is the one where Auburn can make some serious noise. Now, winning a national championship in basketball is harder, in my opinion, than in football. But Auburn has the pieces at least to challenge. Aside from losing Mustapha Heron and a few other transfers that were bench players for Pearl, Auburn reloads with the best returning back court in the SEC with Jared Harper and Bryce Brown.
Auburn has Austin Wiley to lock down the minutes in the paint, and McLemore and Horace Spencer will spell him. McLemore will likely play a big four for Auburn this season, challenging Chuma Okeke for playing time. Danjel Purifoy is a legit inside-out player for the Tigers on the wing. The good depth should carry the Tigers to another good year. An even better year than last season. So, success would be a second SEC championship, a deep run in the SEC Tournament, and a Final Four appearance. While a Sweet Sixteen appearance would be acceptable, it would be tough to accept less.