Looking Ahead: Auburn Basketball in 2018-2019
Will Auburn's leading shooter Bryce Brown be back for another season on The Plains? (photo: USA TODAY Sports)
After leading the SEC for virtually the entire season, the Auburn men’s basketball team couldn’t seal the deal, and Tennessee closed the gap and ended up taking a share of the SEC regular season title. Then Auburn was bounced by Alabama from the SEC Tournament and was completely embarrassed by Clemson with one of the largest margins of victory in the history of the NCAA tournament. It wasn’t the ending every Auburn fan had hoped. for.
Still, it’s tough to be too upset with coach Bruce Pearl. After all he got the Tigers back in the Dance after 15 years of irrelevancy. The fact that Auburn won the SEC and played in the tournament isn’t just a small victory. Especially, since many believed in the preseason that this was a make or break year for the fourth year coach.
While Auburn had some bright spots in Pearl’s first year, the truth was Auburn’s roster wasn’t good and the occasional wins were drowned out by miserable losses. But when the FBI came knocking and Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley were ruled ineligible, many wondered if Auburn would have another dreadful season, leaving coach Pearl’s future in question. However, in a testament to his coaching ability, Pearl won the regular season SEC title and got to the NCAA tournament while missing the two best players on the roster.
But now he has another job ahead of him due to players leaving the program either to transfer or to try their luck in the NBA draft. Let’s take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and who will be coming in to fill the gaps.
Austin Wiley – This is the headliner of the group. Wiley played half a season last year and showed promise on living up to the billing as Auburn’s big man. It may be a dissenting opinion, but how can Auburn miss a player it never truly had? Wiley’s impact was felt in mid-December of 2017, but from that point through the rest of the year, it was more about “if he is this good, what will he be like NEXT year?” Wiley balled out in the Team USA camp with Chuma Okeke before Okeke’s injury sent him home. Still, how can a player that was already considered “one and done” and didn’t play a single second this season be missed? Wiley didn’t hire an agent and could return to Auburn, but that seems unlikely.
Davion Mitchell – Of the scholarship players, Mitchell played the fewest minutes and was the first player out the door when he decided to transfer. Jared Harper was an Iron Man for the Tigers, and while Mitchell did provide critical minutes, the only time Auburn fans really saw him play extended minutes was game one of the NCAA tournament when Harper had quick fouls and sat the entire first half. Sitting behind Harper is tough as Harper is one of the best guards in the conference and has Pearl’s unquestioned confidence. Of course, with Harper testing the NBA waters, this move is suddenly just as important as any other when it originally seemed the least shocking move in the offseason.
Desean Murray – This one was the most shocking of all. News broke on April 10 that the graduated Murray was going to transfer. Murray had ten points and almost seven rebounds a game. It was his work on the offensive glass, where he had 92 offensive rebounds to lead the team by 30, that will be decimating. The 6′ 3″ forward played half a foot above his height and added tenacity that Auburn simply didn’t have otherwise, especially when Anfernee McLemore went down. Murray’s loss hurts Auburn in a way that most fans won’t realize because of the headliner losses. While Murray might have struggled to see the court next season, his game would have provided unquestionable depth to a team that had none down the stretch this year.
Mustapha Heron – This really isn’t a surprise. The best thing to happen to Heron was for Purifoy not to be eligible this season. Heron is a great player, and he led Auburn in scoring with 16 points per game. Although he can do it all from the wing, Purifoy would have taken a huge slice of the pie from Heron this season. It wouldn’t get any better for Heron next year as he didn’t have much left to prove. While that doesn’t mean another year at Auburn wouldn’t have helped him, the knock on Heron was the stretches that he would play “Hero Ball” and force shots. If Heron took the inbound pass after an opponent’s score and Auburn was down, you could rest assured that he would take the shot. Defenses knew this and forced him into a lot of really bad long twos. In the worst cases he was swatted or drew offensive fouls. Still, Heron is a terrific player and could be the first underclassman since 2001 to be drafted. Fans can’t help but wonder what next season would look like if Heron and Purifoy were playing the wing.
Jared Harper – I am listing him leaving because he is going through the draft process. While he was unquestionably the most important player on Auburn’s roster, the 5′ 10″ point man isn’t likely to be drafted. Anything is possible, so Auburn fans have to consider that Auburn may be without a returning point guard in 2018–2019. Only Bryce Brown played more minutes than Harper, who would have led this category had he not not missed basically an entire game. Harper kicked in 13 points a game and showed that he could take over a contest, but only when Auburn really needed it.
Bryce Brown – What else can you say here? Downtown Bryce Brown is already an Auburn legend for his sharpshooting, and it is very possible that had a shoulder injury not affected his last ten or so games, Brown might have been the SEC player of the year. The shooting guard led Auburn in minutes and points scored for almost the entire season until the injury and still averaged 16 points a game. Brown’s game matured this season with his ability to attack the rim, and it really opened up the offense. There’s more of a chance that he will be drafted and leave than there is for Harper, but I expect both to be back. I think scouts are going to see how his game grew and will want to see what more he can add before drafting him.
Key Players Returning:
Horace Spencer – No player benefited from Wiley not playing quite like Spencer. The rising senior has the length. His game did get better this season in terms of shooting, shot blocking, and rebounding, but he is an absolute liability with the ball in his hands. Spencer cannot dribble. He is not consistently aggressive, and he really doesn’t rebound at the level he should. Spencer was a great guy to have around in the first years of Pearl’s tenure, but he isn’t the type of player Auburn needs on the court to be a winning program.
Anfernee McLemore – In the preseason, McLemore looked like a guy who wouldn’t play any significant minutes for Auburn with Wiley, Spencer, and, sometimes, Murray ahead of him on the roster. McLemore played as a freshman but looked lost at times, despite elite physicality. The player that emerged in 2018 had the same name and number on the jersey but played like a beast. McLemore went down with a serious injury just as Auburn was trying to wrap up the SEC championship, This loss alone likely cost Auburn a chance to at least make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament as the Auburn offense looked completely lost without McLemore. His points don’t really show up in the stats, but they were always big. McLemore did serious damage on the glass and led the nation in blocks. If he can rebound from the injury and add to his game, no one will miss Austin Wiley.
Chuma Okeke – It was hard to tell that Okeke was a Team USA finalist, but that was by design. Coach Pearl was open in the mid-season about limiting the freshman’s minutes and not because of his skills. Okeke was finally unleashed late in the season and showed that he is a big man with a really complete game. Okeke and McLemore have similar skill sets. Both can shoot the long ball. Both can block shots. Both need a little more work in the inside game. Can Pearl use both at the same time?
Danjel Purifoy – Admittedly, I was hard on the way Purifoy ended last season with Auburn. Purifoy just looked tired in games and simply refused to play defense for long stretches. Purifoy is a complete mismatch for anyone on the wing, and he has a complete game. He can play every position. Auburn is fortunate to get him back, and he will be the best all-around player on the court for Auburn this coming season. It’s a shame fans won’t see him and Heron together. They really stretched defenses out.
Auburn has now lost one to two of the three recruits from 2017 in Mitchell. And Malik Dunbar isn’t really going to make his way into a starting role. Auburn signed no one in 2018, is a direct testament to the FBI investigation.
Samir Doughty – The sophomore from Philly comes to Auburn from VCU. As a freshman, the 6′ 4″ guard scored nine points a game and added two assists per contest. What role will he fill as an Auburn Tiger? That’s really the question. He isn’t a great shooter. With Harper (likely) and Brown back, Purifoy entrenched on the wing and McLemore/Spencer down low, will he play a fourth guard/forward along with Okeke?
Next Year’s Starting Five:
Again, we are assuming that Harper and Brown return. This will be one of the best guard tandems in the SEC and with more experience could become one of the best across the nation. Bryce Brown will be shooting guard yet again with Harper calling the shots. Both of these guys are locks at their positions.
Now it gets tricky. On the wing, Purifoy is a mismatch with anyone as a third guard or small forward. The same can be said for Okeke, but both are going to be on the floor at the same time. McLemore is Auburn’s center/big forward by default with Spencer backing him up. Who will be the first off the bench? Doughty seems like a lock. Regardless of who the starting five will be, next season will bring higher expectations for Auburn basketball.