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SEC Hoops 2016: Auburn, the SEC's Mystery Team

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The on-court results weren't great in Bruce Pearl's first year, but that still did nothing to tamp the excitement for the future.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Auburn annual SRS

In hindsight, asking for an overnight turnaround in Year One under Bruce Pearl was asking a lot.  Yes, Pearl had done it before at Tennessee, but the Tennessee team he inherited from Buzz Peterson was in far better shape than the Auburn program he inherited from Tony Barbee.

Where Tennessee had made back-to-back NIT appearances in 2003-04, and was just four years removed from an NCAA Tournament appearance, Auburn... well, it's been 12 years since the Tigers have been dancing, the longest current drought in the SEC.  In those 12 years, only once have they finished with a record above .500 in the SEC or made any postseason tournament (both happened in 2009.)  Heck, it's been six years since they had a winning season at all -- and five years since the last time they posted a positive average victory margin!  Their SEC record since 2003 is a pathetic 62-136.  And even if you go back further, Auburn's had a winning SEC record three times in the last 27 years.  This isn't a middling program like Tennessee was before Pearl came along; it's a doormat, and has been for quite some time.

Auburn recruiting

Barbee's struggles on the recruiting trail should have been the first clue.  Actually, I take that back.  Barbee's first couple of recruiting classes in 2011 and 2012 were solid on paper.  But his first recruiting class was entirely gone after a year, and three of his four freshmen in the 2012 class also left after a year.  It's one thing to build momentum on the recruiting trail; it's quite different to sustain that momentum on the court, and the revolving door that became the Auburn basketball program ultimately did Barbee in.  The 2014 class was ranked #30, but that was almost entirely Pearl's work.

Pearl also used some of his available scholarships on transfers, including two grad transfers who are already gone.  But Pearl's first full recruiting class should provide a much-needed infusion of talent, and his 2016 class could be even better.  Still, though, it's one thing to win recruiting battles.  For Pearl to have long-term success at Auburn, those recruiting wins will have to start translating into wins on the court.

Auburn returning

With that said, Auburn has a lot to replace this season.  The Tigers bring back 45 percent of their minutes played, with four of their top six players from last season gone -- and that includes KT Harrell, the SEC's leading scorer at 18.5 ppg.  Harrell managed to make the All-SEC second team, quite a feat while playing for such a bad team, and a testament to just how bad the rest of the team was.  Were Harrell still around to greet all the incoming talent, this might be a pretty good team.

What's more, Pearl didn't completely put a stop to the revolving door that plagued the Barbee era, as three underclassmen departed the program in the offseason (granted, all three were Barbee recruits.)  And that's not even counting rising sophomore Trayvon Reed, who is not enrolled at Auburn for the fall semester but whom the coaching staff claims is coming back in the spring.  Oh, and of course as of this writing one of the highly-regarded freshmen has yet to be declared eligible to play.

In short, Auburn is basically an entirely new team.  While there are some holdovers from last year's team, how good Auburn is will mostly be determined by the seven newcomers on the roster, including four freshmen.  As we saw with both Vanderbilt and Missouri last season, heavy dependence on underclassmen can go either way -- regardless of how well the recruits are regarded (unless they're soon to be lottery picks, that is).

Auburn four factors

Auburn's biggest issue last season was a complete lack of size; the Tigers didn't have a single regular taller than 6'8" (with 7'2" Trayvon Reed used sparingly.)  And that showed up in the stats.  The Tigers couldn't defend the paint to save their lives (allowing an SEC-worst 55.1 percent shooting on twos) and similarly couldn't score in the paint -- though they did rank second in the SEC by shooting 36.4 percent on three-pointers.  They couldn't hit the glass, either, and that was in spite of having one of the SEC's best individual rebounders.  They did take relatively good care of the ball, though -- all of it was a solid indicator of a team that was getting pretty good play from its guards but getting no help down low.

And now, pretty much all of the guards responsible for last year are gone.  But hey, all of the "bigs" are back!  That's got to count for something, right?  And strangely, Pearl didn't do a ton to address that glaring need in the offseason.  The hope is either to force a lot of turnovers like Pearl's early Tennessee teams did, or to just hope to outscore people.  But with Harrell gone, where is the scoring going to come from?

Backcourt

Player Year Height Weight 247 Rating 247 Rank MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG WS Notes
Malcolm Canada 22.2 5.7 2.6 2.0 0.4 1.1 1.2
KT Harrell 33.0 18.5 3.0 1.5 0.1 0.9 4.3
K.C. Ross-Miller 25.1 7.1 2.1 2.4 0.0 1.5 1.0
Antoine Mason 28.9 14.4 2.4 1.0 0.0 1.0 2.0
Devin Waddell Sr. 6'5" 225 7.6 0.6 1.2 0.1 0.1 0.0 0.2 walkon
T.J. Dunans Jr. 6'5" 174 0.96 4* (#1 JC SG)
Tahj Shamsid-Deen Jr. 5'9" 175 0.8414 3* (#62 PG) 23.2 6.1 1.1 1.5 0.0 0.7 0.6
Kareem Canty Soph. 6'1" 185 36.7 16.3 2.2 5.5 0.1 0.7 1.8 transfer/Marshall
T.J. Lang Soph. 6'7" 200 0.8177 3* (#71 SF) 13.8 2.4 1.3 0.4 0.1 0.2 0.3
Bryce Brown Fr. 6'3" 195 0.8138 3* (#95 SG)
New Williams Fr. 6'2" 170 0.8825 3* (#50 SG)

For practical purposes, last year's entire backcourt rotation is gone.  Tahj Shamsid-Deen missed the late part of the season due to injury and T.J. Lang worked his way into the rotation late, but almost all of Auburn's backcourt production last season came from four seniors who are now gone.

That said, Pearl has a couple of transfers waiting in the wings to compete for starting spots.  T.J. Dunans was one of the top JUCO recruits in the nation after averaging 22.8 ppg at Columbia State -- but that came with 20.5 percent shooting from three.  At least at the JUCO level, most of Dunans' scoring came inside the arc and at the free throw line; Dunans attempted 253 free throws last season in 32 games, pretty good numbers for a guard.  Of course his 69 percent shooting at the foul line was pretty average.  All of that suggests that Dunans is much more slasher than shooter.  About as important to Pearl, though, was that Dunans averaged nearly three steals per game, making him a good fit for Pearl's preferred pressure defense.

Sophomore point guard Kareem Canty is likewise looking at a step up in competition.  Canty put together a solid, if inefficient, freshman year at Marshall before transferring to Auburn.  But being the featured player on a bad C-USA team is not necessarily going to translate to playing in the SEC, and Canty will still have to fend off competition from Shamsid-Deen, who is more or less the incumbent point guard after starting 15 games last season.  Shamsid-Deen is comparatively less dynamic than Canty and yet also far less turnover-prone; basically Pearl has a choice between a dynamic playmaker in Canty who's also a pretty big risk, and a less dynamic but much more stable choice in Shamsid-Deen.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Lang was a relatively little-used freshman last year; while he averaged 15.0 mpg in 11 SEC games, he also only attempted 31 shots in his time on the floor.  He showed some potential but is likely to be a backup at this point.  The other two freshmen, Bryce Brown and New Williams, are less highly-regarded than Dunans but should have plenty of opportunities to earn playing time if merited.  Senior Devin Waddell, a walkon, managed to get into 27 games (and even started once) last season, but it's fair to assume that if he's playing regularly then some of the newcomers are not panning out as expected.

Frontcourt

Player Year Height Weight 247 Rating 247 Rank MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG WS Notes
Alex Thompson 11.3 2.7 1.9 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.0 transfer/Samford
Matthew Atewe 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 DNP; transfer/Washington
Jack Purchase 13.0 1.3 1.1 0.6 0.0 0.1 0.0 transfer/Hawaii
Cinmeon Bowers Sr. 6'7" 260 0.96 4* (#1 JC PF) 30.1 12.1 9.6 1.3 0.6 1.1 1.6
Tyler Harris Sr. 6'10" 228 0.9153 3* (#24 SF) 26.7 9.9 4.0 1.0 0.2 0.9 2.7 transfer/Providence
Jordon Granger Sr. 6'8" 220 0.8041 2* (#67 PF) 23.1 4.9 3.4 1.0 0.6 0.6 1.3
Horace Spencer Fr. 6'9" 220 0.9749 4* (#16 PF)
Danjel Purifoy Fr. 6'6" 190 0.9740 4* (#12 SF) questionable eligibility
Trayvon Reed Soph. 7'2" 245 0.9661 4* (#9 C) 8.9 1.1 2.0 0.1 0.7 0.1 0.1 likely redshirt

On paper, at least, Bruce Pearl addressed some of last year's frontcourt issues.

Or so it seemed.  As of this writing, incoming freshman Danjel Purifoy had not been cleared to play by the NCAA Clearinghouse, though he is enrolled at Auburn.  And last year's freshman Trayvon Reed, who at 7'2" has the potential to be a game-changing defender, was not enrolled at Auburn for the fall semester.  Reports are out that Pearl expects Reed to be back in the spring, but intends to redshirt him if he does return.

That means that Auburn, while still possessing some size, is dangerously thin up front.  On paper, losing players the caliber of Alex Thompson, Matthew Atewe, and Jack Purchase shouldn't be a big deal, but the lack of depth could end up being a big blow.

Still, Auburn does return Cinmeon Bowers, who ranks as one of the SEC's best rebounders even if he's otherwise a horribly inefficient player.  Bowers' rebounding prowess is balanced out by the fact that he shot 41.6 percent from the floor last season -- terrible for a guy who's mostly taking shots around the basket -- and while he got to the foul line a ton, he only shot 47.8 percent there.  All that inefficiency was compounded by the fact that Bowers used even more possessions than the far more efficient KT Harrell.

But at least part of Bowers' high usage was that Auburn didn't really have any better options, and in particular they didn't have any better options down low.  At 6'8", Jordon Granger prefers to play on the wing rather than inside -- he attempted more threes than twos last season and wasn't a particularly good rebounder.  Now a senior, Granger isn't anything more than a role player, useful to have around but not somebody who's really fit to handle the scoring load.

Which means that any improvement down low is going to come from two (or potentially three, if Purifoy qualifies) newcomers.  Tyler Harris, the younger brother of Tobias Harris, comes in as a graduate transfer from Providence and while he has length he hasn't shown himself to be much of a rebounder or shot blocker.  Harris can be an effective scorer, but defensive deficiencies are what Auburn has been trying to cure.  A better bet is four-star freshman Horace Spencer, who has the length and athleticism to be a disruptive defender in the paint.  Just having a presence down low at all will be a vast improvement over last season, when Auburn's post defense was nonexistent.  Purifoy, if he plays, has the potential to be a disruptive defender in the press.

Schedule

Date Opponent
11/13 UAB
11/17 Colorado
11/20 Georgia Southern
11/27 Northwestern State
12/2 at Coastal Carolina
12/12 at Middle Tennessee
12/15 Mercer
12/19 at Xavier
12/22 Diamond Head Classic
12/23 Diamond Head Classic
12/25 Diamond Head Classic
1/2 Tennessee
1/5 South Carolina
1/9 at Missouri
1/12 at Vanderbilt
1/16 Kentucky
1/19 Alabama
1/23 at Florida
1/27 at Mississippi
1/30 Oklahoma State
2/2 LSU
2/6 at Georgia
2/9 at Tennessee
2/13 Vanderbilt
2/17 at Arkansas
2/20 Mississippi
2/24 Georgia
2/27 at Alabama
3/1 Texas A&M
3/5 at Mississippi State

The non-conference schedule has been upgraded. There aren't a lot of "name" opponents, but there are some potentially salty mid-major opponents on the schedule: UAB and Coastal Carolina both made the NCAA Tournament last year, Georgia Southern and Northwestern State finished near the top of their conferences, and MTSU has had a solid program for the last few years.  There are home games against Colorado and Oklahoma State, and a road trip to Xavier in December.  Auburn will open the Diamond Head Classic with New Mexico, then face BYU or Harvard (both tournament teams last season) in the second game; Oklahoma and Northern Iowa are on the opposite side of the bracket.  If Auburn is contending for an NCAA Tournament bid, their schedule shouldn't be an issue.

In SEC play, Auburn does draw the rebuilding outfits at Alabama and Tennessee twice each, but the Tigers also get Vandy, Ole Miss, and Georgia twice -- the latter two were tournament teams last year and Vandy should be this year.

Outlook

Bruce Pearl hasn't completed the job at Auburn by any stretch, but he's already upgraded the talent level -- or so we think.  Already, there are three four-star recruits in the program (though one of those may not play this year), and Pearl has a five-star recruit as well as a four-star recruit coming next season.

Still, though, a team with this many newcomers is tough to project.  Aside from potential chemistry issues from guys who have never played before, in some cases we just don't know how good the players are going to be.  There are not many proven commodities on this team -- and the ones that there are seem to have major question marks.  And already, Auburn is starting to show signs of the off-court troubles that seemed to plague Pearl's tenure at Tennessee, with a couple of academic question marks already popping up in the offseason.

What's more, this is a team that had some glaring deficiencies last year -- namely, defense and rebounding -- and even on paper those deficiencies might not have been addressed.  So while we suspect that Auburn has improved, that assessment is still an uncertain one.  The Tigers could make the NCAA Tournament or they could finish 14th -- and neither one would be a big surprise.