How Did We Get Here?
It took a minute, but Bruce Pearl’s rebuild was a smashing success.
Pearl didn’t have the immediate success he did at Tennessee, but as I noted prior to the 2015-16 season, the situations were entirely different. At Tennessee, he’d inherited a pretty good roster that had been misused by Buzz Peterson; at Auburn, he inherited from Tony Barbee a roster that had been completely hollowed out. This was a true rebuild and not something that would require only cosmetic changes; as such, the Tigers won 26 games, total, in Pearl’s first two years before improving to 18-14 in 2016-17. Then, Auburn went 81-24 over a three-year period. That included an SEC regular season title (Auburn’s first since 1999) in 2018 and a Final Four run (Auburn’s first ever) in 2019, followed by a 25-6 record in 2020 before the season was called off due to COVID-19.
We’ll never know what would have happened had Auburn gotten an almost certain NCAA Tournament bid, which would have been the program’s third straight. The last time Auburn made three straight NCAA Tournaments came in a run of five straight from 1984-88; after that, Auburn made the tournament just three times between 1988 and 2018.
You might expect that given the history, Auburn would be due to return to earth at some point. But Pearl — in spite of an NCAA investigation — is still here, and the Tigers’ two most recent recruiting classes have ranked 20th and 9th nationally. There’s still plenty of talent on the roster, though given that Auburn lost five seniors and its top freshman off last year’s team, this figures to be a bit of a transition year.
And that’s fine. Pearl has certainly bought himself an off year with the success of the last three years. The talent level probably ensures that Auburn won’t fall off too much, but this roster might still be a year away from challenging for an SEC title again.
|Isaac Okoro||31.5||12.9||4.4||2||0.9||0.9||NBA Draft|
With 99 wins, an SEC title, and a Final Four run, last year’s senior class was the most successful in Auburn history and it really isn’t even close — granted, Anfernee McLemore was the only one who played all four years (with Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick being transfers, and Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy missing the entire 2017-18 season due to eligibility concerns.)
Those five and Isaac Okoro, a five-star recruit who was Auburn’s second-leading scorer as a freshman, are all gone, leaving Auburn with just 16.9 percent of its possession-minutes returning from last season — the third-lowest total in the SEC, ahead of only Arkansas and Kentucky. It goes without saying that Auburn has a lot to replace.
This is certainly an unusual development for a college basketball program in 2020-21. Auburn had seven scholarship players on the roster last year who played 13.8 minutes per game or less — and all of them are returning this season.
Now, here’s the bad news: the highest-rated recruit among the returnees ranked 116th in the class of 2019. And that was Tyrell Jones, who played all of 38 minutes in 2019-20. The second-highest rated recruit in the class, Jaylin Williams, played 100 minutes all season, though 81 of those came in Auburn’s final six games. 6’10” Babatunde Akingbola played 32 minutes, and 6’7” Javon Franklin played a grand total of six minutes — and scored zero points. (It’s not a mystery why these guys played so few minutes — Pearl was clearly riding the five seniors and Okoro — but it is a bit of a mystery why none of them redshirted.) As such, these four players are effectively new to the team in 2020-21, even if they technically count as returnees; with so few minutes played, there’s really little that we can read into them, with the possible exception of Williams because of his late-season surge in playing time. Williams’ 5.4 percent block rate would have ranked 8th in the SEC had he played enough minutes to qualify, and he shot 73.7 percent on two-pointers (I am assuming these were mostly layups.)
Three players — sophomores Devan Cambridge, and junior Jamal Johnson, who transferred in from Memphis — did play real minutes last season, though none of the three appeared to be more than rotational players or specialists. Johnson’s most notable skill was a 38.6 percent three-point percentage, which is fine. Cambridge showed some ability in attacking the rim and was a decent three-point shooter (his 27.8 percent free throw shooting might be a sample-size issue more than anything), and Flanigan — the only returnee who started a game (three) — has a lot of work to do on his shooting. Basically none of these guys are locks to start with the nation’s 9th-ranked recruiting class joining the fold this season.
Interestingly, Auburn is the only SEC team that does not have any transfers joining the roster this season. Instead, the Tigers will have five freshmen joining the team — including the program’s highest-rated player in the history of the 247 Sports composite. (Which, of course, doesn’t go back to the 1980s when Auburn had players like Charles Barkley and Chuck Person on the team, but I digress.)
That would be 6’1” point guard Sharife Cooper, the nation’s 24th-rated prospect and just the second five-star recruit (per the 247 composite) that Auburn has ever signed. (Note: Cooper might not hold this distinction by the time this article is published, with Jabari Smith, the #5 recruit in the 2021 class, being extremely likely to sign with Auburn during the early signing period.) And with no other true point guard on the roster, Cooper figures to be the odds-on favorite to start from day one at Auburn. 6’9” J.T. Thor, the #51 prospect in the class, falls more into the bucket of “long, athletic guy who’s a bit rough around the edges,” but as with Cooper there doesn’t seem to be much standing between him and early playing time.
The other three freshmen are not as highly regarded, but can play specific roles. Justin Powell is 6’6” and an exceptional shooter; he shot 55 percent from three on the Nike EYBL circuit. Chris Moore, a four-time All-State player in Arkansas, is an undersized power forward at 6’6” and 240 pounds who averaged 16.7 rebounds per game as a high school senior, while 6’11” Dylan Cardwell is a shot blocker with a fairly minimal offensive game at this point in his career.
The hard part here is sorting out the roster. I’m extremely confident that Sharife Cooper will be the starting point guard, and I’m fairly confident that J.T. Thor will start up front. The questions, then, are whether Pearl decides to start Thor at the four (alongside Akingbola or Cardwell) or at the five (with a smaller lineup), and how exactly the remaining spots get sorted out.
At least at first, I would bet on Jamal Johnson and Devan Cambridge starting on the wings, and that would give Auburn multiple options off the bench with Tyrell Jones, Justin Powell, and Allen Flanigan available. If Pearl does go with Thor at the five, that would leave the four to either Jaylin Williams or Chris Moore — probably Williams, given what he showed down the stretch last season. But everything would appear to be in flux here.
There are some superficial similarities between Mississippi State — which I picked to finish 14th in the SEC — and Auburn, which I am picking to finish 8th. Both hired an experienced coach a few years ago to rebuild a moribund program, and both are now hitting a transition as the initial wave of recruits cycle out of the program.
That’s where the similarities end. Aside from the fact that Bruce Pearl’s rebuild was more successful than Ben Howland’s, the key difference is that Auburn has continued to recruit at a high level. Mississippi State saw three underclassmen declare for the NBA Draft and, at least on paper, those players are obviously of a different caliber than the ones who will replace them this season; Auburn, meanwhile, is plugging in a five-star recruit and has a bunch of other interesting pieces filling out the roster. There’s upside here that I don’t see with Mississippi State, and while Auburn’s floor might still be rather low with so many unknowns, they also have one of the best coaches in the country.
That said, this is definitely a transition year. There aren’t any seniors on the roster, and there are five freshmen and five sophomores — a formula that can work if you’re John Calipari, but most teams that are this inexperienced are generally going to be a year away from success. That means that this team probably won’t get back to the NCAA Tournament, and there’s also a non-zero chance that things completely fall apart this season. I’m pretty confident that Auburn will compete for an SEC title again in 2021-22 (assuming no mass exodus from the program), but for this season, this is at best a team that finishes around .500 in the SEC and maybe sneaks into the tournament as an 11-seed, but is probably more like an NIT team.
And again, that’s fine. After the last three years, you’d take a mild transition year if you’re an Auburn fan, wouldn’t you?