Auburn Basketball Preview

Auburn Basketball 2016-17 Season Preview

It’s another season of high expectations at Auburn.

Auburn Basketball is heaped with unrealistically high expectations this season and every season because Bruce Pearl is on the sideline.  This Auburn squad is the third radically different team that Bruce Pearl will have in his tenure and there have been very few opportunities for chemistry and continuity.  The hope is that a much hyped Freshman Class and a pair of graduate transfers can right the ship to transform this 2016-17 Auburn Basketball Team into the Tennessee Basketball Teams from 2005-06 through 2010-11.

Auburn’s Scholarship Depth Distribution

Bruce Pearl has had two straight twenty loss seasons at Auburn and two straight 13th place finishes in the SEC.  It is not like Pearl did not have talented student-athletes on his teams, but to be fair, the talent was not on the same level as he had at Tennessee when he started.

In Bruce Pearl’s words

“It’s been difficult. But it would not be fair to just stop there. ….  I haven’t been able to win early like I was able to at Southern Indiana, at (Wisconsin-) Milwaukee or at Tennessee, so my motivation is I want to provide Auburn with a return on their investment.”

I said it then, I’ll say it (now): Buzz Peterson left talent at Tennessee, absolutely left talent. And I inherited some really good pieces and we won right away. It was also a style of play that was perfect.  The 3-ball for Chris Lofton. The up-tempo for C.J. Watson. The undersized power forward in Dane Bradshaw. Pressing with Major Wingate.  The talent that was there fit what I did, so it was a beautiful, perfect marriage and it had success early.  The league is better now than when I was at Tennessee, but it’s not better at the top of the league – and that’s how leagues are always judged: how good you are at the top. Kentucky’s always going to be Kentucky. But when Billy (Donovan) was at Florida, they were always there. When I was at Tennessee, we were always there. And then those three teams in the East helped bring Georgia up and Vanderbilt (up), playing that schedule. And then Arkansas or LSU or Alabama or Mississippi State, those are some teams in the West.”

These were points made in last season’s Auburn Basketball Preview.  There is also a whiteboard explanation of the Auburn Flex Offense in that article as well.

Auburn plays at a fast pace just like Bruce Pearl’s teams at Tennessee, but the offensive and defensive efficiency and production are nowhere near the same level.

Auburn’s Roster, Lost Contributions and Featured Members of the Roster

Auburn lost their top two post threats, best perimeter threat and back-up Point Guard from last season.  Yet, the expectations are high due to the development of the Class of 2015 recruiting class and the Class of 2016 that Bruce Pearl brought into the program.  There is no NCAA drama nor drama surrounding student-athletes and their own personal legal issues.  It is a distraction-free offseason and a roster that is loaded along the perimeter, but the frontcourt is going to be undersized and thin in depth.  The biggest concerns may end up being interior defense and rebounding, which could result in opponents getting second chance opportunities and one-and-done possessions for the Auburn Tigers.

Bryce Brown and TJ Lang are the two best returning three point shooters for Bruce Pearl’s squad.  T.J. Dunans returns as the lead dribble-driver and Horace Spencer needs to desperately improve his efficiency in the restricted arc and in the mid-range to be credible.  As a team, this was a three point happy team last season, 43.9% of their shots were from beyond the arc, good enough for 21st highest in the country.  The problem for Auburn was that they were 34% from 3 point range, which was average.  They had to shoot a lot of threes due to their depth issues due to injuries, suspensions and attrition.  This depth impacted the Auburn defense as they played a 2-3 Zone that was rather soft for much of the season.

Featured Members of the Roster

Bryce Brown

He’s a solid shooter who could benefit from some help on the floor to set him up for better three point shot opportunities.

Brown is a Shooting Guard who literally is a shooter only for this team.  He does not get to the Free Throw Line enough to make a difference, even though he was an 82.6% three point shooter.  He lives and dies by the three point shot.

Brown’s best performance last season was at Arkansas when he shot 9/14 from three point range and had 27 points in a big Auburn win at Bud Walton Arena.

When Brown shot worse than his season rate from three point range (37%), Auburn was 4-13.  When he shot better, Auburn was 6-7.

Brown is a defensive liability despite what he can do from long range and his offensive efficiency rating actually reflects an average offensive player.

TJ Lang

Lang is the team’s best three point shooter, but he is certainly not the most frequent.  Lang improved in almost every metric from season-to-season.

He improved greatly as an offensive player, but he could stand to improve as a defensive player.  That’s the next big step for TJ Lang.  Lang on offense is nearly identical to Bryce Brown, but he has a 6’7″ 200 pound frame when doing so.

T.J. Dunans

The lead dribble driver for the Auburn Tigers.  He does not really have the strength to be as effective as he could be.

Dunans is strong where Brown and Lang are weak.  Dunans is a dribble driver who has passing instincts and can make defensive plays on his own.  He can force turnovers, but he also is prone to turning the ball over himself.  He’s an aggressive defender, which lends itself to foul trouble.  Dunans did not play the entire season due to injury, but he’s back and healthy.  Dunans missed the end of the non-conference season and most of the conference season due to injury.

Auburn was 6-4 with Dunans prior to his injury, but were 1-5 with him when he returned.  Auburn was 6-3 when Dunans had three or more assists.  Auburn was also 1-6 when Dunans committed four or more turnovers and 1-7 when Dunans committed four or more fouls.

Horace Spencer

The top returning post presence on this Auburn team.  Spencer put on some weight this offseason and is stronger, which Auburn alumni and students are hoping will result in a better season for the Sophomore from Philadelphia.

Spencer proved himself to be a shot-blocker and a frequent fouler.  He was not exactly strong enough last season to hold his own in the low post against some SEC posts.  However, he was a very good shot blocker last season coming in third in the SEC in blocks per game.  Imagine if he had more playing time, but the fouls really caught up to him as far as how long he lasted on the floor.

Horace Spencer staying on the floor and contributing with his work on the glass is actually rather critical to Auburn having any success.  Auburn only won one game out of fourteen when Spencer did not have five or more rebounds.

In 19 games last season, Spencer had four or more fouls.  He had fouled out in eight games!  Twice against Georgia and Tennessee.

Spencer needs to stay on the floor and improve as an offensive player in order to make a major impact this season.

Ronnie Johnson

Ronnie Johnson is a graduate transfer who should push T.J. Dunans and Mustapha Heron for primary ball handler responsibilities this season. He is not much of a three point shooter, but he is effective at attacking the rim like Dunans.  He does not foul much, but he does distribute the ball in a rather consistent fashion every season.  Do not let the ‘Per Game’ metrics deceive.

Ronnie Johnson is a steady, experienced hand for Bruce Pearl.  It is possible that his role could change as the season progresses, especially as it relates to Freshman Mustapha Heron.

LaRon Smith

LaRon Smith is a graduate transfer who attended Bethune-Cookman before coming to Auburn.  He was featured in Georgia Basketball Blog’s 2016-17 Top Possible Graduate Transfers – Frontcourt Edition in March.

Smith is a defensive presence in the middle for Auburn and has shown progress on the offensive end.  He’s not going to blow anyone away by averaging 7 points a game, but if he can find a way to get himself to double digits per game, it would be a major win for Auburn.

LaRon Smith averaged 3 blocks per game at Bethune-Cookman, which may not necessarily translate against tougher competition every night.  He’s 6’8″ 215 and playing the Center position, which means that he could face similar problems to what Horace Spencer faced and could possibly face.

The degree of difficulty steps up significantly and LaRon Smith could eventually give way to Horace Spencer while Danjel Purifoy assumes Horace Spencer’s spot at Power Forward.

In games against Akron, West Virginia, Richmond, Central Florida and Toledo:

  • Averaged 5 points per game
  • Averaged 7.2 rebounds per game
  • Averaged 1.4 blocks per game

Bruce Pearl is itching to give Danjel Purifoy a starting role and Horace Spencer is far more experienced against a higher level of competition.

Danjel Purifoy

Purifoy is finally eligible to play at Auburn and be a student-athlete.  He is a Combo Forward who is able to work inside and out.  How Purifoy eventually contributes after the one year lay off is anyone’s guess, but he certainly will make an impact.

As a high school recruit, his scouting report from Future 150 looked like the above.  Finishing through contact and upper body strength are likely weaknesses that have been addressed during his redshirt season.

Expected Starting Lineup for the Auburn Tigers

PG:  Ronnie Johnson

SG:  Bryce Brown

3G:  T.J. Dunans

PF:  Horace Spencer

C:  LaRon Smith

This lineup will change and morph into this lineup eventually…

PG:  Ronnie Johnson

SG:  Mustapha Heron

3G:  T.J. Dunans

Combo:  Danjel Purifoy

PF:  Horace Spencer

Minutes will be distributed in a rather even fashion, this is a team that will play deep and fast.

What To Expect from Auburn This Season?

This team will play fast, score a lot of points and give up a lot of points.  The frontcourt will get into foul trouble very quickly and Auburn will rely on zones and presses to create matchup problems.  The team’s chemistry is questionable and it shows especially on the defensive end.

Auburn is participating in the Cancun Challenge and they draw Texas Tech with their new coach, Chris Beard.  This is an experienced Texas Tech team that is playing a different style than last season and should prove to be a test for Auburn.  The next game would be against either Purdue or Utah State.

The game at UAB is going to be tough because UAB is an experienced team who is rather dangerous and the game is being played at Bartow Arena.  Finals Week is approaching and this is a game filled with possible distractions.

Boston College should be a pushover for Auburn at Madison Square Garden and it will be odd to see Bruce Pearl decimate his alma mater.  The alma mater that may give him a call at the end of the season and leave him in a tough spot.  Boston College is in the pits right now as a Men’s Basketball program.

The games in the State of Connecticut stand out as opportunities for Auburn alumni to blow their money at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Casino.  There are also a pair of challenging games to be played.  Oklahoma is without Buddy Hield should still be a difficult draw and of course facing UConn at the XL Center is going to be very tough.

Auburn may surprise people with a win over Texas Tech in Cancun, but should return to reality quickly.

Opening at Auburn Arena against UGA during Christmas Week and the date of a possible Bowl Game should neutralize their home court environment.  It is a gift to UGA by the SEC as far as the schedule is concerned.  Traveling to Vanderbilt for the next game is just wrong.

The schedule is balanced for Auburn as there are no true murderer’s row sections.  The end of the schedule should be interesting with a six game stretch that starts at Ole Miss and ends at Georgia, it is not impossible to get through at all.  However, it would not shock anyone to see Auburn go 2-4 or 1-5 during this stretch.

Getting a road game against TCU and following it up with a home game against Tennessee should provide a necessary pick-me-up going into the Iron Bowl of Basketball at Coleman Coliseum.

Auburn is not an NCAA Tournament team, they certainly are not an NIT team either.  Auburn should consider finishing above .500 to be a big deal this season, this should be the goal.  Will they do it?  The SEC is rather weak, but 16-15 is certainly within their grasp.  They benefit from playing the other two sets of Tigers twice and they both should be bad this season.

Let’s Talk About the Hype Circus That Surrounds Auburn Basketball and Bruce Pearl…

There’s a lot of hype coming from the team’s scrimmages and the Auburn Family are glad to AstroTurf and show everyone that the process is working when things are not going as well as hoped.  Auburn wants to feel good about Basketball and wants everyone to know how good they feel.  The Auburn Family is a rather legitimate claim considering Auburn’s rather insular culture.  Families do not fight each other (at least in this  Cracker Barrel version of a family), they just annul/divorce/abort away the problem and cheer each other on through thick and less thick.  It’s a repressed 1950s family.

Getting excited about Freshmen in College Basketball is a bit dicey especially if the Freshmen are not attending a Blue Blood program.  Bruce Pearl is not a Blue Blood quality coach and he has predictably disappointed in his first two seasons on the Plains.  Freshmen that are not deemed NBA ready are rather hit-or-miss, it does not matter what the understaffed recruiting media says, it is all very arbitrary.  (In fact, the NBA-ready Freshmen should not be in College, they should take the $400,000 to $2,000,000 and play overseas.  Education can wait, money now is always better than money later.)  It is a growth process for heralded recruits that actually need time in College and some will mature faster while others may flame out.  It would be disingenuous to say that this “star studded class” will all be superstars on the floor and dominate from Day One.  However, this is the hype that follows Bruce Pearl – it is a blessing and a curse.  The open scrimmage did not help things as far as expectations, especially if the results on the floor do not match the hype created by the open scrimmage.  After all, under-promise, over-deliver.  This is unfortunately impossible with Bruce Pearl.

The Auburn Family expected Bruce Pearl to immediately make Auburn a contender and so did the Football-centric media, they got it very wrong.  Bruce Pearl is trying to rebound from adversity as a Head Coach for the first time and it will be interesting to see if the media turns on Pearl if things do not exactly go as expected.  Bruce Pearl is not a savior and he does not claim to be one, he does not have a unique offensive system nor a defensive philosophy that blows everyone away.  Bruce Pearl is a gregarious, charismatic and positive personality who happens to be a great motivator and nobody can deny this.  However, everyone has their breaking point in the face of adversity and that moment of doubt.

The media projected Auburn to finish 11th in the conference and even Bruce Pearl agreed with that assessment.  College Basketball is about chemistry, skill, strategy and composure.  It is extremely unrealistic for this Auburn to have enough of all four to be a credible contender, let alone earn a postseason invite this season.  This team needs to play and grow together, Fall Practice only provides just so much time to do that.  Bruce Pearl will be held to the four year standard and even though he is bringing in heralded recruits, there is still a great deal of impatience.  If things do not go as planned/hoped/expected, will the Auburn Family find a way to remove someone that was actually never one of them?  Pearl is an outsider invited into the Auburn Family, he’s not an alum like his assistant coach Chuck Person.  He’s just the Head Coach of the Men’s Basketball Team and sometimes coaches are forever part of that Auburn Family fabric such as Sonny Smith.  There are others have attained the highest heights, but get The Bum’s Rush like Gene Chizik.  With family, it is important to know that keeping up appearances is important especially when you’re the outsider.

If the road map is not projected to be favorable after this season, will/should Bruce Pearl stay at Auburn?  It’s an honest question that is taboo to explore.  Would it be considered more noble for Pearl to return to Chestnut Hill and pull the Boston College Men’s Basketball program out of the grave?  The honeymoon is over in Auburn and Pearl is well aware of it based on his comments.  Pearl should be lucky that he even had a honeymoon at all.  Now it is time to perform, just because the media actually had a sober, rational expectation of Auburn Basketball at Media Day does not mean that the base does not.  After all, a culture that is “All In” can easily become “All Out” and if that happens to Bruce Pearl after this season…

 

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