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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Auburn

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To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: the Auburn Tigers and the return of Coach Bruce Pearl.

Oh, good. This guy.
Oh, good. This guy.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah, basketball season is still a few weeks away.  On the other hand, basketball season is a few weeks away, and to get everybody around here back up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of their projected finish (according to yours truly), so as this is the third of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 12th in the conference.

Auburn Tigers 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

The Tony Barbee era was an unmitigated disaster for the Auburn basketball program, and a quick reminder that hiring the hot mid-major coach du jour doesn't always work out.  Barbee was coming off a 26-7 season at UTEP in which he won Conference USA, but never came close to replicating that success at Auburn.

Tossing aside his first year on the Plains, Barbee sandwiched two years of mediocrity (15-16 in 2012, 14-16 in 2014) around a disastrous 9-23 season in 2013.  You might recall that Mississippi State's 2013 team was one of the worst in SEC history, but managed not to finish 14th in the SEC.  That was how bad Auburn was that year.

So it was no surprise that Auburn decided to get rid of Barbee, though the timing (an hour after Auburn's season ended in the SEC Tournament) was a bit surprising.  But Auburn moved quickly and managed to land Bruce Pearl to coach the basketball team.

Pearl, as almost all Vanderbilt fans are familiar with, was hired as Tennessee's basketball coach in 2005 and immediately turned the Vols into a winner.  While he's unlikely to have immediate success at Auburn -- the talent just isn't there -- almost everybody expects Pearl to win at Auburn.

But then again, almost everybody expected Tony Barbee to win at Auburn when he was hired in 2010.

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.

Losses
  • Chris Denson (32.0 mpg, 19.1 ppg, 2.4 apg; graduated)
  • Allen Payne (28.2 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg; graduated)
  • Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (22.5 mpg, 6.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 bpg; graduated)
  • Chris Griffin (7 games, 16.7 mpg, 5.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg; left team)
  • Dion Wade (10.9 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg; transfer/Miami (Ohio))
  • Benas Griciunas (12 games, 9.3 mpg, 2.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg; transfer/Charlotte)
  • Alex Thompson (21 games, 7.8 mpg, 1.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg; left team)
  • Ronald Delph (sat out 2013-14; left team)
Projected Starting Five
  • PG Tahj Shamsid-Deen (5'9", 170 Soph., Decatur, GA)
  • SG Antoine Mason (6'1", 216 Sr., Queens, NY); transfer/Niagara
  • SF KT Harrell (6'4", 212 Sr., Montgomery, AL)
  • PF Cinmeon Bowers (6'7", 278 Jr., Racine, WI); #1 JC PF and #1 overall JC
  • C Matthew Atewe (6'8", 230 Soph., Brampton, ON)
Top Reserves
  • G Malcolm Canada (6'3", 225 Sr., Austin, TX)
  • G K.C. Ross-Miller (6'0", 178 Sr., Grand Prairie, TX); transfer/New Mexico State
  • F Jordon Granger (6'8", 210 Jr., St. Louis, MO)
Bench
  • G T.J. Lang (6'7", 193 Fr., Mobile, AL); #71 SF and #348 overall
  • F Jack Purchase (6'8", 198 Fr., Melbourne, AU); #91 SF and #449 overall
Potential December Addition
  • C Trayvon Reed (7'1", 218 Fr., Snellville, GA); #9 C and #77 overall
Sitting Out
  • G Kareem Canty (6'0", 183 Soph., Harlem, NY); transfer/Marshall

Perhaps two of the reasons why Tony Barbee got fired are apparent from looking at the losses above.  For one, Auburn actually had an experienced team last year and still finished 12th in the SEC with three senior starters.  Barbee might have had an argument for keeping his job if Auburn had been struggling with a young team, but that wasn't the case.  The other reason was that the Auburn program had become something of a revolving door under Barbee, and you see above that five players left Auburn with eligibility remaining.

The result is that Auburn only returns 47 percent of its minutes from last season, and while that might not be such a bad thing when you're talking about a team that went 14-16 last year, the Tigers are still going to have to break in a bunch of new players... even if some of the players Pearl brought in have some talent and experience at the Division 1 level, in addition to the top juco recruit in the nation.

Pearl's teams at Tennessee and Milwaukee relied on pressure defense to force turnovers, so the lack of a single player taller than 6'8" (at least to start the season) isn't a huge concern.  Auburn could even go with a smaller lineup, but Atewe, who averaged 1.1 blocks per game off the bench last year, can contribute on the defensive end even if he's raw offensively.  Cinmeon Bowers, the top juco recruit in the nation according to 247sports.com, will probably join Atewe up front and is a strong rebounder.  Auburn could also add Trayvon Reed to the frontcourt in December; Reed, as of this writing, is planning to spend a semester at prep school before enrolling at Auburn.

Right now, though, the Tigers are pretty thin up front with the depth behind Atewe and Bowers consisting of Jordon Granger, a junior who hasn't played a whole lot in two years at Auburn, and freshmen T.J. Lang and Jack Purchase, both of whom are rail-thin and better suited to play on the wing.

Whether Auburn can improve on last year's 14-16 mark depends a lot on how much the guards buy into Pearl's system.  Auburn wasn't particularly adept at forcing turnovers last year and neither of the newcomers in the backcourt (Niagara transfer Antoine Mason and New Mexico State transfer K.C. Ross-Miller) picked up a lot of steals last year.  A different kind of question concerns Mason, who is Division 1's leading returning scorer at 25.6 ppg, but that mark came for a 7-26 Niagara team.  Mason will be, at best, the second scoring option (behind KT Harrell) for Auburn; the question is whether Mason is willing to sacrifice individual numbers for the betterment of the team.

Harrell not only averaged 18.3 ppg last year, but his shooting percentages -- 35.9 percent on threes, 87 percent from the foul line -- were very good, and he's clearly Auburn's number one scoring option.  If the possible chemistry issues between Mason and Harrell don't manifest themselves, that gives Auburn two very good scoring options.  The question with Harrell is whether he's willing to buy in to the commitment to defense that Pearl asks; in spite of the good offensive year, Harrell is a bit of a sieve on the defensive end.  Sophomore point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen is more of a distributor than a scorer, which is a good thing to have alongside Mason and Harrell.  But given that Pearl brought in Ross-Miller and Marshall transfer Kareem Canty (sitting out this year), it's an open question whether Pearl views Shamsid-Deen as a long-term answer at the point.  Malcolm Canada is the fifth guard on the roster and probably won't play a ton.

It must be pointed out as well that three of the newcomers have known character question marks: Bowers and Reed were both released from previous letters of intent (with Florida State and Maryland, respectively) after getting arrested, while Ross-Miller was suspended last year for his role in starting a brawl during a game with Utah Valley.  Players with character issues can be more hit-or-miss than their talent level might suggest, so this is something to keep an eye on with this team as well.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/7 West Alabama (exh.)
11/14 Milwaukee
11/18 at Colorado
11/21 Louisiana-Lafayette
11/24 vs. Tulsa
11/26 MGM Grand Main Event
12/3 at Texas Tech
12/5 Coastal Carolina
12/14 at Clemson
12/17 Winthrop
12/20 Xavier
12/23 Texas Southern
12/29 MTSU
1/3 North Alabama
Conference home-and-home

Missouri, Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia

Conference home

South Carolina, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas

Conference road

Vanderbilt, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky

Auburn's SEC schedule is evidence that the conference schedule-makers have a sense of humor: Pearl opens his return swing through the conference at Memorial Gym, and also will visit the O'Connell Center, Thompson-Boling, and Rupp.

The non-conference slate is a bit tough.  Of the 13 games, potentially eight (if Auburn plays Oklahoma State in the MGM Grand Main Event) will be against NCAA teams from last year.  And that doesn't include a home game against a tricky MTSU team or road games against Clemson and Texas Tech.  But hey... there is that game with North Alabama on the schedule.  Even if Auburn is improved, though, the record entering SEC play may not look all that good because of the schedule.

Outlook

While Auburn certainly hit a home run by hiring Bruce Pearl, there likely won't be an immediate improvement similar to what Pearl achieved at Tennessee.  The talent simply isn't there to challenge for an SEC title or an NCAA bid.

Pearl does bring an instant credibility to the Auburn program that is already helping matters on the recruiting trail, but much of the effort won't be felt until 2015-16.  A very good four-man recruiting class is on the way, and Canty will be eligible after sitting out this year -- but none of that will help the team this year.  This year's team has some talent, but with all the newcomers on the roster there may be some chemistry issues.

The good news here is that Pearl can generally be counted on to get the most out of the talent available, and that's why there is some reason for optimism even this season.  The bad news is that Auburn struggled on the defensive end last year, particularly on the perimeter, and that hasn't really been addressed.  Pearl produced good defenses at Tennessee and generally did so by forcing turnovers, but that wasn't really a strong suit for Auburn last year and this may not be an ideal roster for Pearl to set up the defense he wants to run.

In any case, though, there's an excitement about the Auburn program that there hasn't been since the days of Cliff Ellis and Chris Porter on the Plains.  The prediction for now is that Auburn will struggle again, but Pearl is good enough at what he does that even an immediate push to the middle of the standings would not be that big of a surprise.

SEC Hoops Preview Series

14.  Mississippi State

13.  Tennessee

12.  Auburn