It's not personal, it's personnel: How Auburn has vaulted to the top of SEC basketball
Virtually nobody saw this coming. In the preseason media poll, Auburn was picked 5th in the SEC. The only Tiger picked for the league’s all-conference teams was freshman Jabari Smith, who was a second-team pick. The league’s coaches didn’t do much better, spotting Smith in the same spot and adding Allen Flanigan to the first-team group. So it would stand to reason that when Flanigan got hurt and missed virtually the entire pre-conference schedule, Auburn would be …
On top of the SEC and poised to become No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history. Huh.
So how has Bruce Pearl taken a team ranked just above the middle of the SEC pack to the verge of the No. 1 national ranking? How did a 13-14 team become a 17-1 team? Frankly, as the aphorism goes, it’s not personal, it’s personnel — and that’s where Auburn has built a monster. Here are the 5 keys to Pearl’s master job in melding one of the top teams in America.
First, yes, the true frosh Smith was everything he was expected to be. And then some. 247sports had him tabbed as the No. 7 player in the 2021 recruiting class, and the No. 2 power forward, trailing only Duke’s Paolo Banchero. Would it be heresy to say most coaches would probably rather have Smith?
Recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer compared Smith to Jaren Jackson, but it’s Kevin Durant who is routinely mentioned in conjunction with the strong but silky-smooth freshman. The 6-10 Georgia native is averaging 15.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He’s third on the team in steals, assists and blocks. He’s also shockingly consistent for a freshman. Smith has been in double digits in points in each of Auburn’s past 15 games. And when the stakes are down, he’s come through, including a 25-point, 7-rebound effort against Alabama. He’s a 6-10 athlete who is also shooting 43% from 3-point range. He’s easily an all-SEC player, likely the league freshman of the year, and possibly the Player of the Year. Quite a starting place.
The overlooked guy
Auburn’s biggest steal of the offseason, though, may have come against Kentucky. Wait, that’s Eastern Kentucky. That’s where 5-11 mighty mite Wendell Green Jr., played last season. Green had 15.8 points and 5 assists per game for the Colonels, after being ranked 340th in the nation by 247sports out of high school. When the top transfers were ranked, Green was barely listed or not listed at all.
All he’s done is be instant adrenaline for a coach whose teams thrive on pace and quickness. Green has started only 3 games for Auburn, but usually off the bench, he’s become a solid second scorer (13.1 points per game) and offensive leader (5.1 assists per game). He’s second on the team in steals and as an 87% free-throw shooter, he’s an ideal late-game option.
The excellent player who was in the wrong place
But Green might not even be the most impactful transfer. That honor could go to former Georgia Bulldog KD Johnson. A 6-1 combo guard who was a top 100 recruit for Tom Crean, Johnson missed almost half of the 2020-21 season due to an academic certification issue, but once he was cleared to play, he averaged 13.5 points and almost 2 steals per game.
He also apparently realized that playing for Crean wasn’t the way he wanted to spend his college years. Now a Tiger, Johnson is averaging 12.8 points per game, and he ranks 3rd in the SEC with 2.3 steals per game. He has made 3 3s in 3 of his past 4 games, too, showing he is getting more comfortable on offense.
The developing guy who developed
On the other hand, 7-1 Walker Kessler needed a place to play. Kessler, a big-time recruit for North Carolina, spend much of last season riding the pine with the Tar Heels. When he did play, he was productive, with 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. But when a coaching change added an incentive to finding a new role, Kessler ended up at Auburn.
He’s the SEC’s top shot blocker with an astounding 77 blocks on the season. He also averages 10.3 points and 7.4 boards per game. A testimony to his excellence came in a triple-double against LSU on December 29th — 16 points, 10 rebounds, 11 blocked shots. If he can avoid foul trouble, Kessler is an eraser at the rim who allows Green and Johnson to play aggressively without any real fear of getting burned over the top. He’s been huge in many ways for Auburn.
Which brings us to the one guy who went through the 13-14 season last year and returned to right the ship. Well, not the only one … but the guy who was the star of last season and is adapting to a new role, Allen Flanigan. The 6-6 junior wing averaged 14.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season. But a torn Achilles’ tendon in September left the season uncertain for Flanigan.
But now he’s back and has even managed to reach double-figure scoring in 3 of his first 6 games of the young season. Gaining comfort and defining his role, Flanigan is not quite back to 100%, but there’s no reason to think he won’t be in the new few weeks.
Of course, Auburn isn’t just 5 deep. The Tigers have 11 players averaging double-figure minutes per game, including component parts like shot-blocker Dylan Cardwell and underrated guard Zep Jasper, who distributes and defends. But the combination of the intriguing 5 guys above — the next NBA star in Smith, a great player previously stuck in a lousy program in Johnson, a developing great player in Kessler, an under-the-radar surprise in Green, and the wily veteran in Flanigan could well be the Tigers’ very own Fab 5, a few short decades after Michigan’s all-time recruiting class stole that name.
With the top spot in the nation potentially on the line when the Tigers host Kentucky, Auburn has somehow assembled the personnel to lay claim to that spot. It might not be Michigan’s Fab 5 exactly. But their final result could be even better.