- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Danjel Purifoy, Chuma Okeke, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley, Horace Spencer
Key Losses: Mustapha Heron, DeSean Murray, Davion Mitchell
Key Newcomers: Samir Doughty (VCU)
Outlook: Auburn enjoyed one of the more surprising 2017-18 seasons in the country, notching the program’s second highest win total (26) and earning a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The achievement was made even more astonishing given the fact two of the Tigers’ biggest assets, Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, were ruled ineligible prior to the start of the year in relation to the FBI scandal surrounding Chuck Person. Bruce Pearl, a walking scandal himself, has done an objectively awesome job at the helm of Auburn, lifting the school from SEC irrelevance to conference title contender. Despite the loss of two lineup keystones, Auburn figures to be in the national top ten conversation all year long.
The Tigers play the fastest brand of basketball in the SEC and were the conference’s best offense in 2017-18 by a wide margin. Per KenPom’s offensive efficiency metrics, the gap between Auburn’s rating (113.4) and the second place school, Vanderbilt (109.8), was wider than Vandy’s gap to fifth place Florida (107.4). At the core of Auburn’s offensive success is the execution of efficient modern-day basketball strategy, namely “pace and space”. Auburn likes to run out in transition, shoot a boat load of threes, and charge at the basket in an effort to get to the foul line. That last point was a major reason for Auburn’s success – the Tigers ranked 36th in the country in FT rate (the rate at which a team gets to the line) and 16th in FT%.
Defensively, Auburn was nearly as fierce, forcing turnovers at a high rate thanks to the switchable makeup of their perimeter and frontcourt. The losses of Mustapha Heron and DeSean Murray will be most felt in this area. Their presence allowed Auburn’s defense to be an amorphous blob of switching athletes. The Tigers still have nearly unmatched rim protection and will continue to force opponents to play fast while allowing nothing in the paint. It’ll be interesting to watch how much the absence of Heron and Murray affects the Tiger D.
Jared Harper keys the Auburn offense and is a problem on both ends of the floor, ranking 2nd in the SEC in assist rate and 11th in steal rate last season. With Heron, the most used player last year, gone, Harper should become even more of a focal point. The 5’10” guard is an expert passer and handler, but his ability to create his own shot, particularly from downtown, makes him stand out from the crowd:
Only 36% of Harper’s made three-pointers last season were assisted, a testament to the guard’s ability to shake his defender and find a clean outside look. Harper occasionally will force inefficient shots inside the arc, which led to his 36.8% 2P% last year, but his ball skills far make up for the lapses in judgment.
Bryce Brown and Samir Doughty will support Harper in the backcourt from the 2/3 spots. Brown is a good secondary ball handler and a weapon in transition. Like Harper, Brown is capable of creating his own shot from the outside or off the bounce. Doughty comes to Auburn by way of VCU. A fairly highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, Doughty is primarily a ball dominant off-guard that likes to drive to the hole and score in isolation. He’ll have to adjust to Pearl’s system to realize his potential. Returning wing Malik Dunbar will provide bench support and JUCO point guard J’Von McCormick may be forced into action with Davion Mitchell’s transfer.
The formerly suspended sophomore duo of Wiley and Purifoy should provide Auburn with plenty of punch coming back from a season on ice. Purifoy, the #66 recruit in the class of 2016 per ESPN, should regain his starting spot, filling in nicely for the departed Heron. At 6’7”, Purifoy has the requisite size to impact the game on both ends of the floor. On defense, he can switch to multiple spots; on offense, he’s mostly a shooter (37% as a freshman from three).
Wiley is the most anticipated returner out of everyone on the Tiger roster. After flirting with the draft, the former top 15 5-star recruit aims to etch his name on the SEC All-Conference list. Wiley is a big-time offensive rebounder and shot blocker and will serve primarily as a post presence on offense. Some outlets have even tabbed the rising sophomore as an All-American candidate heading into 2018-19. Here's Wiley destroying defensive mastermind Russell Woods back in 2016-17:
Frontcourt depth will not be an issue for Pearl. Along with Wiley, Auburn brings back Chuma Okeke, Anfernee McLemore, and Horace Spencer, three big men all with starting experience. Okeke is a rare physical stretch-four; he shoots threes on offense but bangs with the best bigs on defense and on the glass. Okeke was the team’s best roll man in PnR situations in 2017-18.
McLemore is also a stretchy power forward. He’s much longer than Okeke and looks to be honing an ever-improving three-point shot. McLemore, embracing the pace and space movement, shot only 1 three-pointer as a freshman and 46 as a sophomore. The big man missed the final seven games of the season, which truly hurt the Tigers more than most would expect: Auburn was 23-4 with McLemore in the lineup and 3-4 without him.
Spencer is more of an inside presence than Okeke and McLemore, but less than Wiley. He’s also a good rebounder like the three aforementioned bigs and can step out to 18 feet on offense. Spencer also serves as the team’s best overall defender, ranking 8th in the SEC in block rate and 6th in steal rate in 2017-18.
Auburn will have perhaps the deepest frontcourt rotation in the country this season and an All-Conference level point guard. If Purifoy and Doughty can fill in for the absence of Murray and Heron, Auburn should be considered a national title contender.