The Tigers are back to show that last season was no fluke, and this time, they’ve got more weapons in the arsenal.
The Auburn Tigers weren’t supposed to be relevant. They weren’t supposed to win 16 of their first 17 games. And they most certainly weren’t supposed to win the SEC. This is a program constantly overshadowed by its football team, routinely placed on the backburner, with fans longing for the Charles Barkley and Chris Porter days that marked the last truly nationally relevant bunch.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, expectations for the Tigers were low. News that sophomores Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy would be ineligible for the entire season only made things worse. CBS predicted a 4-14 record for the Tigers in conference play. Bruce Pearl remembers that prediction so well that he had it printed on his team’s warmup shirts as motivation. And boy did it work.
Auburn came out of the gates hot, following up on a loss to Temple with 14 straight wins. By mid-February, the Tigers were 23-3, running away with the regular season conference title. About two thirds of the way through conference play, their fortunes took a turn. Auburn lost four of its last six games, still managing to capture a share of the conference title in the process. After earning a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Pearl’s squad narrowly snuck past 13-seeded Charleston before being run out of the gym by Clemson in the Round of 32. The final score of that game was 84-53.
So why should Tigers fans expect more out of their team this year? Surely the scorching run through most of the season was just a flash in the pan, and with leading-scorer Mustapha Heron off to St. John’s, could the fairytale be over as quick as it started?
Of course not.
While most of Auburn’s players return, this season’s team is a totally different story. What undid the Tigers late last season should now be their strength, and that’s winning in the paint. Auburn’s late struggles can be in large part attributed to the absence of Anfernee McLemore, who was lost for the season in the team’s game against South Carolina with a gruesome ankle injury.
McLemore might not have been the best player on the roster. He wasn’t Heron, or Bryce Brown, or even Jared Harper. But he was arguably the most important player, the one that was absolutely irreplaceable, and his loss was crushing. With Wiley and Purifoy suspended, McLemore was the best remaining big, and he played like it on both sides of the floor.
Defensively, he erased shots at the rim, altering even more, and forcing teams to beat the Tigers from outside. Offensively, he did his job, filling his lane, providing second-chance opportunities, and hitting the occasional three. Just look at this highlight against Tennessee to see the effect he had.
Off a turnover, Tennessee tries to push to get a quick bucket, and McLemore beats the Volunteers back to the paint to force them to pull the ball out. When Jordan Bowden tries to take the ball back inside for a running layup, McLemore leaves his man, leaps, and alters the shot. He’s rewarded on the other end of the floor with a put-back dunk. Plays like this became commonplace for the 6’7 big, who completely anchored Bruce Pearl’s defense. McLemore finished 12th in the country in blocks and third in blocks per 40 minutes.
Not only does McLemore and his rim-protecting prowess return in 2018-19, but so do Wiley and Purifoy. At 6’11, 260 lbs., Wiley fills the lane as well as anyone, and he showed NBA-level promise in his freshman season with the Tigers. Purifoy has been extremely productive in his own right, averaging 11.5 points and 4.7 rebounds in his freshman campaign. And with another year of growth from Chuma Okeke, the Tigers’ frontcourt looks like a force to be reckoned with.
Pearl now has the room to push Desean Murray down to the three, a spot much better suited for him, where post-players can’t take advantage of his 6’3 frame. It also allows Auburn to be even better offensively. When looking at the Tigers’ offensive numbers last season, it’s remarkable what they were able to accomplish. Heron, Brown, and Harper all shot below 44% from the field, with Brown and Harper shooting 40% and 36%, respectively. In fact, the Tigers as a team shot 43.1%, 258th best in the country.
That doesn’t sound like an elite offensive team, but Auburn was just that. The Tigers put up 81.9 points per game, and that’s without a frontcourt that could score in the paint on a nightly basis. Only 41.8 percent of Auburn’s points were two-point shots, which ranked 11th-worst in college basketball.
Throw in Wiley, Purifoy, and 10 more games of McLemore, and that number should skyrocket. It should also allow for more scoring opportunities off offensive rebounds. The increased production from Auburn’s now-stout frontcourt has the ability to make up for the loss of Heron on offense, and will more than make up for it on defense, where Auburn should take a huge leap forward.
This certainly isn’t the same Auburn team it was last season. A lot of the faces might not have changed, but its strengths going forward certainly have. The potential for the Tigers is sky high, and if all comes together, a Round of 32 exit won’t be in the cards.
Right now, Bruce Pearl is probably checking out those way too early Top 25 rankings. He’s probably seeing every expert pick Kentucky or Tennessee to win the SEC. And he probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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- Charles Barkley
- Chris Porter
- Chuck Person
- Bryce Brown