2016-2017 SEC basketball preview: Auburn Tigers

Auburn has had a rough couple of years. Can Bruce Pearl lead his Tigers to a competitive season, or should fans prepare for their third-straight 20-loss season?

KNOXVILLE,TN - JANUARY 31, 2015 - bb during the game between the Auburn Tigers and the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Matthew S. DeMariaTennessee Athletics

Auburn basketball has had a rough couple of years, and the most recent season was no exception. Expectations weren’t particularly high going into the campaign, with the media picking them to finish at No. 10 in the conference. The Tigers were unable to clear even that low bar, finishing 11-20 (5-13 SEC) and No. 13 in the conference, above only Missouri.

This year’s team was again picked to finish near the bottom of the conference, this time at No. 11. The Tigers will be hoping to shake off last year’s disastrous performance and turn heads with a much more competitive team.

Strengths

As Tennessee fans know all too well, the Tigers should be well-coached in 2016. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl was a fan favorite during his time with the Volunteers in Knoxville. Unfortunately for the Tigers, however, that coaching talent hasn’t exactly been on display during his first two years in Auburn.

Under Pearl, the team has had back-to-back seasons with 20 losses, going a combined 26-40. Their 15 wins in 2014-15 was the lowest total Pearl had ever collected in a single year. That low-water mark didn’t last long, however — last year, the Tigers only managed 11 victories.

Those are some ugly numbers. Pearl’s track record before his time in Auburn has earned him the benefit of the doubt, though, and he deserves to be given some leeway. Besides, help is on the way for Pearl. He managed to pull in a top-10 recruiting class for this season, and 2017’s could be even better — it’s currently ranked at No. 4. Even the best coaches struggle to win games without great talent. It seems as if Auburn is building that talent for its star coach.

Players seem to love playing for Pearl, and his teams in Knoxville often seemed to overachieve or play at a higher level than expected. Though his team has been disappointing for several years now, it’s always possible for them to turn the corner and start winning games.

Weaknesses

Frankly, there’s not a lot to love about this Auburn team. Last year, they were No. 235 in the nation in points scored per game and No. 305 in points allowed. To make matters worse, the Tigers have lost a lot of talent. Tyler Harris and Cinmeon Bowers led the team in rebounding and were two of the top three scorers from last year’s team, and both graduated after last season.

In a year or two, the talent that Pearl is building in Auburn should be dynamic and hard to play against. For now, though, those talented players are freshmen and sophomores. Talent is important, but experience is incredibly valuable in college basketball, and that will be a major issue for Auburn.

Of the eight players from last year’s team that averaged over 15 minutes per game, only four return. Two of those will be sophomores. A year of experience in the NCAA is valuable, but it’s still not ideal for players that will be expected to step in as leaders of the team.

The roster is bolstered by a pair of talented graduate transfers in Ronnie Johnson and LaRon Smith. Johnson played at Purdue for two years before transferring to Houston to play last year, and he will likely start for the Tigers. Like Johnson, Smith also played for two schools before joining Auburn and figures to play a major role with the team this year. Both will be heavily relied upon early, but it’s possible that they have some growing pains while they try to fit in with the team.

Basically, Auburn is a team that was bad on both sides of the floor last year and lost some talented players. They have some incoming talent, but it’s in the form of raw young players and graduate transfers that may need time to adjust to the program. In other words, things aren’t looking great for the Tigers.

Players to Watch

G T.J. Dunans, Sr. — After point guard Kareem Canty left the program in the middle of last season, Dunans was forced to play a position that he wasn’t fully comfortable with, while still recovering from an injury that kept him out for most of the season. He’ll likely be able to shift back to his natural off-guard spot this year, and his 11.6 points per game last year represent the highest total for any returning player on the team. Watch for him to step into a major role this season.

G Mustapha Heron, Fr. — His positional overlap with Dunans may make for an awkward fit, but Pearl is a smart enough coach to make it work. Heron is a five-star recruit with talent and athleticism to spare, which should allow him to find a role on the team. If Kentucky’s superb recruiting class splits the vote, Heron could sneak in and win SEC Freshman of the Year.

F Horace Spencer, Soph. — The questions in the backcourt will be centered on how the talented pieces will fit together. The questions surrounding the team’s big men are more concerning. Spencer is the leading rebounder among returning players, but he only played 18 minutes per game during his freshman year. His improvement over the summer will go a long way towards deciding how competitive the team will be.

Matchups to Watch

Dec. 29 vs Georgia — Auburn hosts the Bulldogs in what will be both team’s SEC openers. Georgia was picked to finish as the No. 4 team in the conference, so the Tigers will likely be major underdogs. If Auburn wants to be competitive in the SEC this year, a statement win against an opponent like Georgia to kick off conference play would send a message to every other team in the conference.

Alabama — Their rivalry is fiercer on the gridiron, but there’s still no love lost between the two basketball programs. Alabama figures to be quite a bit better than the Tigers, but Auburn should be plenty motivated to hand their rivals a loss. If they can manage to win one, or both, against the Crimson Tide, the Tigers will be in good position to finish better than predicted. Auburn hosts Alabama on Jan. 21 and travels to Tuscaloosa on Feb. 4.

Jan. 31 vs Tennessee — A battle between two of the worst teams in the SEC normally wouldn’t get any attention, but it’s always fun when a coach leads his current team against his former employer. Besides, Auburn should be even more motivated to pick up a win after the Volunteers’ lopsided victory in last year’s SEC tournament.

Prediction

Auburn has a lot of young talent, but they are still likely a year away from being truly competitive. The Tigers should be better than last year and tally more than 11 wins, but Pearl’s boys will need more time to develop and grow in his system before they’ll be ready to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament.

The best-case scenario for Auburn this year is that they are better than expected and earn themselves an invitation to the NIT tournament. Realistically? The Tigers likely finish their season with a loss early in the conference tournament.

Edited by Adam Milliken

Featured image by Matthew S. DeMaria, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics