Auburn basketball: The ultimate preview for the 2021-2022 season
Bruce Pearl knows how to get from the penthouse to the outhouse. He’s also knows his way back. He’s walked those paths before.
After a strong run of success, Pearl lost his job at Tennessee because of some inaccuracies in his statements about minor NCAA violations. After serving his penitence, Pearl was hired by Auburn and took the Tigers to the Final Four in 2019. Then, Auburn was the focus of a wide-ranging investigation by the FBI and the NCAA.
Hoping to better control the NCAA/FBI situation, Auburn enacted a postseason ban for the 2020-21 season — just in case there was an invitation forthcoming. The Tigers finished 13-14. History would suggest Pearl is about to make a very successful return as the next step of his up-and-down career. The critics agree. Auburn is ranked No. 22 in the preseason Associated Press Poll.
Here is what you need to know about the latest version of Auburn basketball:
Allen Flanigan, Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith are Auburn’s best players but not necessarily in that order. Freshman Jabari Smith was rated as one of the top 4 high school prospects in the nation before choosing Auburn over Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. He’ll be expected to have an immediate impact.
Flanigan averaged 14.3 points per game last season and was considered the team’s best scoring option. Flanigan was the most improved scorer in the SEC last season after averaging 3.2 points per game as a freshman. As a sophomore, Flanigan proved he could do more than just score. He also averaged 5.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
Flanigan was a potential lottery pick in the NBA Draft before deciding to return to Auburn. That has been met with a bit of a challenge. Flanigan was hit by a scooter on campus, which caused an injury to his right Achilles tendon. He underwent surgery in early September and is expected to return to the court in December or January.
Kessler, a 5-star, was one of the top prospects in the nation when he signed with North Carolina. That didn’t work out to his satisfaction so he transferred to Auburn after 1 season in Chapel Hill. Kessler, a 7-footer with nice touch, had trouble finding playing time for North Carolina, but he excelled when he was on the court. Kessler only averaged 8.8 minutes per game as a freshman last season but averaged 4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and nearly 1 block per game.
Auburn’s biggest strength is balance and depth. The Tigers have young, top-flight freshmen who could explode on the scene and upperclassmen who will be able to provide a little needed leadership when necessary. Auburn’s depth is impressive. Auburn has 10 to 12 players who are expected to receive significant playing time. That’s a must in order to run Pearl’s attacking defense.
A couple of transfers have to be a concern. Guard Zep Jasper transferred from College of Charleston and Wendell Green transferred Eastern Kentucky. In order to give Pearl the depth that he craves, both players need to be able to make a successful jump from playing in the mid-majors to the Southeastern Conference.
Key to the season
Smith’s upcoming season at Auburn could be his only one on The Plains. He’s considered a potential one-and-done player. That could be great for him and Auburn, but there’s always the potential for things to not go well if he’s thinking more about the NBA than the Tigers. Auburn also needs to get better at home where they were 4-5 against SEC opponents last season.
Scouting the backcourt
Jasper and Green are the key to Auburn’s backcourt, especially early. They don’t have to achieve star status to help the Tigers. They just need to be competent, make open shots and distribute the ball to more talented players. Georgia transfer KD Johnson can provide a scoring option until Flanigan returns.
Scouting the frontcourt
This should be the strength of the team with Smith and Kessler. The frontcourt also has good depth, so finding the right mixture of players and substitution patterns will be key for Pearl, who knows his way around.
Predicting how far Auburn will go in March
Assuming that Smith is all he’s projected to be, Auburn has the perfect mix of young, superb talent and upperclassman leadership. That’s what every coach in college basketball craves. That’s what Auburn has. That could be the beginning of a special run this season.
Guards own March, so the level of guard play will be the key to Auburn’s success in the NCAA Tournament. It will be extremely important for Pearl to determine his best guard rotation, especially with 2 transfers entering the mix.
Pearl is an incredible motivator and often underappreciated for his ability to coach schematically, especially on inbound plays. Those are the types of plays that can determine a winner — or loser — in the NCAA Tournament. Pearl can design those with the best of them.
Anything can happen in March, but Auburn looks like a solid Elite 8 team that could go further than that. Cutting down the nets is not out of the question.