As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just a few days - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year.
In case you missed it, we've already previewed the Memphis Tigers, then hit the Illinois Fighting Illini, Wyoming Cowboys, Xavier Musketeers, Michigan State Spartans, Alabama Crimson Tide, Arizona Wildcats, San Diego State Aztecs, UConn Huskies and the Texas Longhorns on Thursday. We also covered Dayton, a Top 25 team at A-10 Media Days
Today, we turn our attention back to the SEC - and talk the Auburn Tigers. Bruce Pearl's club had a historic season in 2021-2022 - now, after an off-season of hitting the portal and recruiting trail after losing multiple first round NBA picks, let's see what Pearl has in store for 2022-2023.
How it Went Down in 2021-2022
The 2021-2022 season was a dream season for the Auburn Tigers, as they accomplished a handful of things that were unprecedented in the history of the Auburn basketball program. The Tigers climbed all the way to the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll for the first time in program history, en route to an SEC regular season title and 28 wins. It was the Tigers' second SEC regular season title under Pearl, something the school had only accomplished once since 1960 prior to his arrival.
The job Pearl has done since he took over as head coach, has been super impressive and it all came to a culmination in 2022. Auburn only won 14 games in the season prior to Pearl’s arrival, and in only his fourth year, Pearl led Auburn to that above-mentioned SEC Title. Just when Auburn fans thought it couldn't get any better, Pearl led the Tigers to an SEC Tournament Championship and Final Four appearance in 2019. Because of his previous success, Auburn's 2022 run wasn't totally shocking - but it was still fun to see Pearl and the job he’s done turning around this program, come full circle and climb all the way to No. 1 in the AP Top 25.
While many had high expectations for the 2022 Auburn Tigers, not many expected them to be as good as they actually were. Auburn started the season ranked as the No. 22 team in the country and were voted to finish fifth in the SEC by the media. In the media's defense, Auburn had a self-imposed NCAA Tournament ban the year before, and lost its best player Sharife Cooper to the NBA prior to the start of last season.
Still, it was apparent early that Auburn would exceed expectations, as they welcomed in elite five-star prospect Jabari Smith and North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler to start the season. The Tigers hit the ground running, winning 22 of their first 23 games, which led them to jump all the way to the No. 1 team in the country on January 25th. However, Auburn suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss at Arkansas in early February and were never able to get back to being that same team that was dominant early. Instead, Auburn finished the Regular season 5-3 in their final eight games and lost early in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, with their season coming to an end against a red-hot Miami team in Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament.
Despite it, it was - as mentioned above - a dream season, that included an SEC regular season title and the first No. 1 ranking in school history. Smith ended up as the No. 3 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, and overall, Pearl has had six players selected since he took over a head coach, including several (Chuma Okeke, Isaac Okoro, Smith, Kessler) in the first round.
Prior to Pearl’s arrival, Auburn only had one player drafted from 2002-2013, which shows just how good of a job he’s done turning this program around.
Now to the fun part: How to rebuild off one of the most successful regular seasons in school history?
What You Need To Know About 2022-2023
Key Returnees: K.D Johnson, Wendell Green Jr., Allen Flannigan, Jaylin Williams, Zep Jasper, Dylan Cardwell, Lior Berman
Key Losses: Jabari Smith, Walker Kessler, Devan Cambridge
Key Transfers: Johni Broome (Morehead State)
Key Recruits: Yohan Traore, Chance Westry, Trey Donaldson
Part of what makes winning consistently in college basketball so difficult is the roster turnover and having to find different ways to win based on your team's strengths and weaknesses. Last season Auburn couldn’t have had a better frontcourt, but the guard play lacked.
We'll see if it's improved in 2022-2023.
But first, let's get back to the frontcourt, where Pearl did as good of a job as he could with the impossible task of replacing two first round NBA Draft Picks in the frontcourt. Auburn will be bringing in a top 30 recruit in Yohan Traore, who is a skilled big man that was originally committed to LSU. Traore should give Auburn a little more on the offensive end compared to what they had last year at the center position, but it would be unreasonable and unfair to think he can give you anything close to the production of Kessler, who was the National Defensive Player of the Year.
In addition, Auburn added Morehead State Transfer Johni Broome, who burst onto the national scene in the Ohio Valley Tournament last season. Broome had a stellar sophomore season at Morehead State, averaging 16.8 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The Plant City, Florida native, had 32 points and eight rebounds, in Morehead State’s narrow title game loss to Murray State and since then it’s been apparent that Broome is a big-time player who could play almost anywhere in college hoops. He committed to the Tigers over Pearl's former assistant Todd Golden and the Florida Gators.
With the frontcourt replaced, Auburn will have to be much more reliant on its guards, which could feel like a scary proposition to the people that follow this team on a consistent basis. There were a handful of times last season where Auburn's guards cost them late in big spots.
Allen Flannigan was the second leading scorer for Auburn in 2021, and entered last season as a possible NBA Draft candidate. Unfortunately for Flannigan, he was also coming off of an Achilles injury, suffered in September and never looked like the same player we saw in 2021. With a full offseason to get healthy, Flannigan should see much more of a bigger role and will be a major factor for this Auburn team, reaching their full potential.
KD Johnson is another piece who is going to be very important to this Auburn team. The transfer who arrived from Georgia, couldn’t have gotten off to a better start last season, scoring in double digits in each of his first four games in an Auburn uniform. That included dropping 27 points against UConn, in one of the better games in all of college basketball last season, in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Johnson had a really solid season, averaging 12.3 points per game as Auburn’s most consistent backcourt scorer, but it will be interesting to see how he follows it up, with much more of the defense's focus on him.
Johnson also had some struggles last season, including shooting a 0-14 from the field in Auburn’s embarrassing blowout loss in the SEC Tournament against Texas A&M, yet it didn't stop Pearl from raving about him late last season.
“K..D 's come a long way. He’s been fun to coach,” Pearl said. “I’d rather -- here’s the deal. Dads, have you ever coached your son, and after he struck out, he threw his bat, and he kind of embarrassed you in front of other people because he kind of cried when he fouled out? I had one of those sons in Steven Pearl. I’ve got another one of them in K.D. Johnson.”
Wendell Green Jr. is another player in the Auburn backcourt that fits into a similar category. Green was a consistent go-to scorer at Eastern Kentucky, averaging 15.8 points per game, before he transferred to Auburn. There were way too many times last season, where Green was way too shot happy with the ball in his hands, including a 4 of 14 performance in the Tigers' second round NCAA Tournament loss to Miami. The Tigers needed Green’s scoring, but have to find a balance between his explosive offensive capabilities and trying to do too much.
Really, entering 2022-2023, that's the biggest question: Can that talented backcourt continue to mesh - and better mesh - with another loaded Tiger frontcourt?
SEC basketball has developed into arguably the best and most difficult conference in all of the sport. With that, you will have plenty of chances to earn wins that move the needle in your favor to secure an NCAA Tournament berth. That is part of the reason why Auburn's non-conference schedule isn’t easy but it isn’t impossible for them to handle either.
Auburn will open the season against a solid George Mason team on November 7th. George Mason was voted fifth place in the preseason Atlantic 10 poll and has a pair of former SEC players on their roster in Victor Bailey (formerly of Tennessee) and Devontae Gaines, who averaged 10 points a season ago.
It wasn’t until Feast Week last season that many people realized that this Auburn team was legitimate. The Tigers battled a very good Connecticut team in a double-overtime loss, which was arguably the game of the season and even in a loss, it was difficult not to come away impressed with Auburn. They then backed it up, by beating Loyola-Chicago and Syracuse rather easily and not using three games in three games as an excuse.
After losing a ton of important pieces from last year’s squad, Pearl decided to ease it up a little for Feast Week this season. Auburn will be heading to Mexico, to participate in the Cancun Challenge, alongside Bradley, Northwestern and Liberty. Despite Bradley and Liberty being two very solid teams in the mid major ranks, Auburn should be very disappointed if they do not end up winning this event, as they are clearly the best team in the field.
Auburn’s first major challenge will be on November 27th, when Saint Louis comes to town. One of Auburn’s more difficult games of last year’s season came when they visited the Billikens. Auburn escaped with a narrow four-point victory, after trailing by double digits at numerous points throughout the game. Saint Louis returns just about everyone from last year’s team that won 23 games and made the NIT and is expected to compete at the top of the Atlantic 10.
On December 10th, Auburn will also take on Penny Hardaway and Memphis in Atlanta, for the second time in three years. Auburn fans might remember that two years ago, Auburn stunned Memphis in Atlanta, winning outright as a 6.5-point underdog. Memphis is still a really good team, but like Auburn they will be losing a lot from last year’s team that made the NCAA Tournament. This is a game that will tell us a lot about both teams and where they stand early in the season.
Finally, the last major tests of Auburn’s non- conference schedule will be part of a two game West Coast Road Trip. Auburn will play at Southern California on Sunday December 18th, followed by a quick turnaround at Washington the following Tuesday. USC is one of the more underrated teams heading into the season, as they are coming off making each of the last two NCAA Tournaments and winning a combined 73 games in each of the last three seasons. Only Kansas and Baylor, who have won each of the last two National Championships, have more victories during that span.
In addition, Washington and Mike Hopkins are in for a make or break season and will need the game against Auburn in the worst way. The Huskies added some really talented, high major transfers this past offseason and should be projected to finish in the top half of the Pac 12.
What to Expect in 2022-2023
Auburn was voted as the No. 15 team in the initial AP Preseason Top 25 Poll and fourth in the SEC Preseason Poll. At this point it is very difficult to doubt Bruce Pearl, considering he’s won an SEC regular season and tournament title, plus brought Auburn to the Final Four and the No. 1 spot in the AP Poll in only the last four seasons. With that being said, I am not as high on Auburn to justify them being ranked as high as the No. 15 team in the country. Right now, Auburn would be one of the first five teams right outside my Top 25, in my opinion. This is due to the fact that it is not proven their guards are capable of carrying this team and it will be very difficult to replace two first round picks in the front court.
Is Bruce Pearl good enough to lead Auburn back to the NCAA Tournament and finish in the top half of the SEC? Absolutely, however anyone thinking this Auburn team will not take at least a slight step back, after being one of the best teams in the entire country last season is mistaken.
Right now, I would rank Auburn sixth in the SEC, behind Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Texas A&M. This shouldn’t be considered a knock, due to the fact that the SEC has turned into arguably the best conference in all of college basketball and anyone who finishes in the top half of the league is a very good team.
Despite all of the great moments that Auburn had last season, they really did not play well in the second half of the season. The team we saw lose five out their last 11 games including postseason to close out 2022, was nowhere close to the same team that climbed all the way to No. 1 in the AP Poll in late January.
As good as guys like Broome and Traore are compared to other replacement options, it is still going to be very difficult to replace two first round picks like Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler. All of Auburn’s Guards have a ton of potential, but I need to see them put it all together first, until they can be definitively trusted. Bruce Pearl is too good of a coach not to have Auburn right in the middle of things when all set and done, but it is also unfair to think this team won’t miss them at least a little bit.
No. 30 - Memphis Tigers
No. 29 - Illinois Fighting Illini
No. 28 - Dayton Flyers
No. 27 - Wyoming Cowboys
No. 26 - Xavier Musketeers
No. 25 - Michigan State Spartans
No. 24 - Alabama Crimson Tide
No. 23 - Texas Tech Red Raiders
No. 22 - Arizona Wildcats
No. 21 - San Diego State Aztecs
No. 20 - UConn Huskies
No. 19 - Texas Longhorns
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