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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Auburn Tigers

It’s not often that we have to account for pending federal indictments in our season previews.

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn Tigers 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Bruce Pearl (44-54, 3 years at Auburn; 506-199, 22 years overall)

Last year: 18-14 (7-11 SEC); KenPom rating: 82

Returning starters: 4

Returning possession-minutes: 68.6%

Recruiting class ranking: #21 nationally, #6 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room.

On September 26, Auburn associate head coach Chuck Person was indicted on six federal corruption charges, stemming from an allegation that he accepted bribes in exchange for steering Auburn players (unnamed, but at least one is believed to be sophomore center Austin Wiley) to a financial advisor upon their entry into the NBA.

So far, the damage has been limited to Person being suspended without pay, though he’s still listed on Auburn’s website as the associate head coach. No players have been ruled ineligible as of yet, but it doesn’t seem the FBI is done with its investigation. Auburn received a federal subpoena on Friday, and the university previously announced that it would offer full refunds for season tickets.

The result: Auburn is a very difficult team to predict this season. The Tigers posted their first winning record in eight years in 2016-17, though almost all of that was on the strength of its nonconference performance. Auburn went 11-2 outside the SEC, and before you talk about “strength of schedule” that mark included four wins against KenPom top 100 teams.

But in conference play, Auburn slid to 7-11, with four of the wins coming against SEC bottom-feeders LSU and Missouri (though they did notch a season sweep of Alabama.) But then, they lost to Missouri on the first night of the SEC Tournament and weren’t invited to a postseason tournament.

But that came with four freshmen in the starting lineup for most of the season. Former five-star recruit Mustapha Heron started every game and led the team with 15.2 ppg. Redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy — academically ineligible in 2015-16 -- started 25 games and was the team’s second-leading scorer with 11.5 ppg.

Another freshman, Jared Harper, started 30 games and averaged 11.4 ppg. Another five-star recruit, Austin Wiley, reclassified ahead a year and joined the team after the fall semester, starting 22 games (including all 18 SEC games) and averaging 8.8 ppg in just 18 minutes a night.

And three more returning players -- Bryce Brown, Anfernee McLemore, and Horace Spencer — combined to start 26 games in 2016-17. And one of the few players who’s not returning was the SEC’s second-least-efficient player last season. Oh yeah, and Bruce Pearl signed a top 25 recruiting class for the third year in a row. All of this talent has to deliver at some point... right?

So the FBI bombshell frankly couldn’t have come at a worse time for Auburn basketball. This was a team that was about to take a big step forward, and instead the season is suddenly underneath a cloud of question marks. That said, if everybody is eligible to play (and healthy), this team still does have the potential to be very good. But the makeup of the roster is a bit of an unknown right now.

Last year’s team actually did quite well on the offensive end: in SEC play, this group scored 1.07 points per possession, the fourth-best mark in the league. The Tigers were the SEC’s best three-point shooting team, though in spite of Wiley’s presence down low they struggled to score inside the arc.

And they really struggled on the defensive end; their 1.13 points per possession was the second-worst mark in the SEC (only because LSU’s defense was flat-out awful). They managed to post the SEC’s second-best block rate, and also allowed the third-worst two-point percentage in the conference, which is a special feat. They did force turnovers on 18.4 percent of possessions; but that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for what happened when the defense didn’t turn you over.

That said, there are enough long, athletic guys on the roster that this team could have a better defense. And paired with an offense that scores a lot of points, Auburn will at least be fun to watch. But how much better they do on the defensive end will determine how far they can go.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
1 Jared Harper 5'10" So. 11.4 ppg/3.0 apg
2 Bryce Brown 6'3" Jr. 7.5 ppg/2.0 rpg
5 Mustapha Heron 6'5" So. 15.2 ppg/6.1 rpg
10 Davion Mitchell 6'1" Fr. #58 recruit
12 Devontae Williams 6'4" So. walk-on
14 Malik Dunbar 6'6" Jr. #62 JC recruit
20 Samir Doughty 6'4" So. sitting out 2017-18
21 Patrick Keim 6'0" Sr. walk-on
22 Will Macoy 6'4" So. walk-on

You probably didn’t hear much about Mustapha Heron last year. In part, that’s because he played for Auburn. Also, he wasn’t really showing up on mock draft lotteries. But also, Heron didn’t have too many nights when he put up ungodly scoring numbers. He averaged 15.6 ppg with a season high of 24 (in an early-season game against Eastern Kentucky) and just six 20-point outings.

He came to that scoring average mostly because he could be counted on for around 15 points every night; only once did he score less than 10 in a game. Factor in 42.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and I’d say Heron lived up to his advance billing as a freshman.

Even better, Heron’s numbers didn’t suffer a bit when the schedule picked up in January. That can’t be said for Jared Harper: Harper averaged 12.7 ppg against nonconference opponents and 10.6 in SEC play — and just 8.3 ppg in February and March.

As the season wore on, Harper’s jump shot just wouldn’t fall, and Auburn slumped as a result. Then again, reserve guard Bryce Brown picked things up: Brown shot an ungodly 58.2 percent beyond the arc in February and March, which led to him posting an SEC-best 46.6 percent three-point shooting in conference play.

And now, there’s even more help arriving. Four-star recruit Davion Mitchell arrives on campus as more of a pure playmaker than Harper, though his jump shot isn’t on the level of the returnees. He’s solidly built at 6’1” and 200 and should provide good depth even if he doesn’t overtake Harper for the starting point guard job.

The Tigers also added 6’6” junior Malik Willis, who averaged 15.6 ppg at the College of Central Florida last year, and Samir Doughty will sit out this year after transferring from VCU.

At least on one end of the floor, this could be one of the SEC’s better backcourts. But then this unit was a strong offensive unit last year and that didn’t help -- because they were bleeding points at the other end. Granted, some of that was on the bigs, but it’s sort of tough to explain opponents hitting 39.9 percent of their threes in conference play otherwise (while taking a lot of threes.) Brown and Harper did post good steal rates last year, though.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Horace Spencer 6'8" Jr. 4.8 ppg/3.4 rpg
3 Danjel Purifoy 6'7" So. 11.5 ppg/4.7 rpg
4 Chuma Okeke 6'8" Fr. #46 recruit
13 DeSean Murray 6'3" Jr. 20.2 ppg (Presbyterian)
24 Anfernee McLemore 6'7" So. 5.4 ppg/4.5 rpg
41 Cole Blackstock 6'9" Jr. walk-on
55 Austin Wiley 6'11" So. 8.8 ppg/4.7 rpg

Auburn didn’t have a single, standout shot blocker last season — largely because none of Austin Wiley, Horace Spencer, and Anfernee McLemore could manage to stay on the floor for more than 18 minutes per game. That threesome, combined, averaged four blocks per game and also committed eight fouls per game.

Which, I suppose, makes it a good thing that there are three of them. The low point came in early January, when the three combined to play 40 minutes and commit 11 fouls, with Wiley fouling out in just 12 minutes of action. That was the only time all season that Wiley fouled out, but the 6’11” sophomore did pick up four fouls in a game on five different occasions. If those had all occurred early, he might have had the excuse that he was more or less a high school senior playing against college players, but two of those games came against Missouri in the last two games of Auburn’s season.

This year, Auburn needs Wiley to stay out of foul trouble — because unlike McLemore or Spencer, he’s an offensive force, too. In spite of averaging 18 minutes per game, Wiley averaged 8.8 ppg and 4.7 rpg — at that rate, he’d be averaging 14.7 ppg and 7.8 rpg over 30 minutes a game.

As a freshman who joined the team at midseason after finishing high school early. What’s more, Wiley drew a lot of fouls as well; he attempted 114 free throws to 125 field goals as a freshman. (Some of that may have been strategic: he shot under 50 percent at the foul line for the year.) And his offensive rebounding rate would have been third in the SEC if he’d played enough minutes to qualify.

Anfernee McLemore attempted 101 shots last season, 100 of them inside the arc, and made 69 of them. That kind of shooting percentage on a relatively small number of shots normally indicates a guy who’s mostly scoring on putbacks and dunks. Pair that with 1.2 blocks and 4.5 rebounds per game — while averaging 15 minutes — and you can see the upside with the 6’7” sophomore. What’s more, McLemore played more minutes as the season wore on, largely because he managed to stay out of foul trouble.

Of course, you can look to Spencer if you want to talk yourself out of McLemore. The 6’8” junior posted the SEC’s best block rate as a freshman while committing a ton of fouls and missing a lot of shots. As a sophomore, though, his block rate dropped and his foul rate really didn’t, though he did improve his shooting percentage. But he also missed a lot of games.

He served a three-game suspension in December — then his minutes started to drop in late January before he went on the shelf, missing the final ten games of Auburn’s season. But if healthy and effective, Spencer gives Bruce Pearl three players who can roam the paint and alter shots.

There’s more talent alongside the rim protectors, too. 6’7” redshirt sophomore Danjel Purifoy started his college career on fire; through Auburn’s first nine games, Purifoy was averaging 17.6 ppg. The fact that he ended the season averaging 11.5 ppg should tell you about how the rest of his season went: Purifoy went into a funk starting around the Mercer game (December 18) and missed three games in January with an ankle injury, though he did recover to score in double figures in seven of Auburn’s final ten games. He’s a good shooter for his size, though, shooting 37 percent from three and 88 percent at the foul line on the season.

And if Purifoy isn’t enough, Auburn also adds Chuma Okeke, a 6’8” freshman who spent part of the summer with Team USA. Okeke left camp early due to a knee injury, but the freshman is a good slasher who can score at the rim.

With all of the talent here, Presbyterian transfer DeSean Murray might have a difficult time finding minutes -- and that’s saying something for a guy who averaged 20.2 ppg as a sophomore. Murray is listed as a forward on the roster, but at 6’3” he’s much more likely to see playing time on the wing. But he made just one three-pointer in two years at Presbyterian.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/2 Barry (exh.)
11/10 Norfolk State
11/16 vs. Indiana State
11/17 Charleston Classic
11/19 Charleston Classic
11/24 Winthrop
11/29 at Dayton
12/3 George Mason
12/6 Gardner-Webb
12/9 UAB
12/16 vs. Middle Tennessee (Birmingham)
12/19 at Murray State
12/23 Connecticut
12/30 Cornell
1/2 at Tennessee
1/6 Arkansas
1/9 Ole Miss
1/13 at Mississippi State
1/17 at Alabama
1/20 Georgia
1/24 at Missouri
1/27 LSU
1/30 at Ole Miss
2/3 Vanderbilt
2/7 Texas A&M
2/10 at Georgia
2/14 Kentucky
2/17 at South Carolina
2/21 Alabama
2/24 at Florida
2/27 at Arkansas
3/3 South Carolina

Auburn put together a nonconference schedule that’s quietly solid. There aren’t many huge names on the schedule (UConn qualifies as a “name” but hasn’t been good in recent years), but there aren’t many truly awful teams on the schedule (only Norfolk State and Cornell finished outside the KenPom top 200 last year) and three teams on the slate made the NCAA Tournament last year — and potentially four, if Auburn plays Dayton on the last day of the Charleston Classic.

Auburn’s five double opponents in SEC play are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Ole Miss, and South Carolina. Whether that group is tough or not depends a lot on what you think of Georgia and South Carolina; Alabama has an influx of talent coming in this year and Arkansas and Ole Miss should be at least solid.


Outlook

This is, by a wide margin, the toughest team to project in the SEC. The pending FBI investigation has something to do with that (obviously, if several important players are ruled ineligible, Auburn is headed for the bottom of the conference), but so, too, is the fact that having a pretty good team on paper last year still led to an 11th-place finish in the SEC and missing the postseason for the ninth year in a row.

There is basically everything you’d want on a roster here. Shooters? Auburn has those (Danjel Purifoy, Bryce Brown.) Creators? Auburn has those, too (Jared Harper, likely Davion Mitchell.) A slashing wing? Yep (Chuma Okeke.) Rim-protecting big men? Absolutely (Austin Wiley, Horace Spencer, Anfernee McLemore.) A big man who can score in the paint? Yeah, they have that too (Wiley.)

And with most of the key players being freshmen last year, Auburn showed a lot of that... on the offensive end, anyway. On defense, this was a disaster. But even there, you can see the potential with a bunch of long, athletic players.

Seriously, where are the holes on this team? There don’t seem to be any, and that’s why you don’t have to squint very hard to see how this could be a team that can make the NCAA Tournament — and maybe even win a couple of games there.

That said, the potential fallout from the FBI investigation could throw a wrench into the season, and Auburn seems to be preparing for the worst (you don’t offer refunds to season ticket holders if you think everything is going to be fine.) Most of the time, freshmen are going to improve before their sophomore years, but it doesn’t always happen — or maybe not enough to make this much more than a .500 SEC season. And if multiple players are declared ineligible, things could get even worse than that. We’ll say tentative optimism here.