Tigers shoot for lasting hardwood success

After winning its first SEC title since the turn of the century, AU hopes to build on foundation laid last season

Anticipation for the Auburn Tigers 2018-19 campaign is its highest since “Sir Charles” Barkley and Chuck Person roamed the Plains in the 1980s. Last year, head coach Bruce Pearl guided his ballclub to a 26-8 (13-5) mark, an SEC regular season title, and a fourth seed in the NCAA Tournament. The program hopes it can build off last season’s success and stoke the fires of a starved fan base.

Despite three key departures, the Tigers field a team that should contend in the SEC and have fans dreaming of 1986, when Person and former coach Sonny Smith were at the doorsteps of the Final Four, losing to eventual champion Louisville in the Elite Eight.

Charles Barkley and Sonny Smith | Photo courtesy Auburn Athletics

Although guards Mustapha Heron (16.4 ppg/5.3 rpg), Davion Mitchell, and forward DeSean Murray (10.1 ppg/6.7 rpg) all transferred out of the program, Pearl is adamant that Auburn will not miss a beat.

With 6-foot-7 Danjel Purifoy (11.5 ppg in 2016-17) and 6’11” Austin Wiley now eligible to play, the Tigers’ frontcourt should be one of the best in the country. Purifoy’s length and position flexibility provides Auburn a chess piece that can defend multiple positions while his 37 percent from beyond the arc fits beautifully with Auburn’s frantic offense. Wiley may prove to be the the Tigers’ missing link, a big man with an array of post moves and size to supplement the small-ball look Auburn frequently uses.

Bryce Brown | Photo by Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics

Sophomore forward Chuma Okeke (7.5 ppg/5.8 rpg) will use his 6’8”, 230-pound frame to bang on the inside in addition to stepping out and knocking down 3s. With Okeke and Purifoy’s perimeter expertise, Auburn should have little problem spreading out its opposition.

Three Man Weave writer Ky McKeon noted: “At the core of Auburn’s offensive success is the execution of efficient modern-day basketball strategy, namely ‘pace and space.’ Auburn likes to run in transition, shoot a boat load of 3s, and charge the basket in an effort to get to the foul line. That last point was a major reason for Auburn’s success – the Tigers ranked 36th in the country in free-throw rate and 16th in free-throw percentage.” It will be imperative for the Tigers to continue get to the charity stripe as they did last season.

Guard Jared Harper | Photo courtesy Auburn Athletics

With Heron gone, look for guard Jared Harper’s (13.2 ppg/5.4 apg) usage rate to increase dramatically in 2018-19. While the 5’10” Harper is a wizard at setting up teammates, his best asset will be creating shots for himself when the offense bogs down. Of the 61 3-pointers Harper made last season, just 36 percent were assisted. Harper’s Kobe-like mentality will be critical when pace and space doesn’t yield results on Tiger possessions.

Look for senior Bryce Brown (15.9 ppg) to be Auburn’s most dangerous perimeter weapon after leading the SEC with 107 3-pointers in 2017-18. Harper and Brown’s 3-point efficiency takes Tiger fans back to the ‘90s when Wesley Person was dropping 3s with no regard at the old Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Pearl will look to 6’4” transfer Samir Doughty to give viable minutes at point or off-ball guard on the second unit.

Auburn great Charles Barkley | Photo courtesy Auburn Athletics

While sporting several decorated players such as Barkley, Chuck Person, and Chris Porter, Auburn’s hoop history is underwhelming with just nine NCAA Tournament appearances. Barkley and Person led the Tigers to their first NCAA bid in 1984, with Barkley named SEC Player of the Year. Although Joel Eaves and Cliff Ellis have more wins at AU, Smith is the only coach to lead the Tigers to three consecutive NCAA bids. Behind Marquis Daniels and Marco Killingsworth in 2002-03, the Tigers advanced to the Sweet 16, upending second-seed Wake Forest before losing a nail-biter to 2003 tourney champ Syracuse. The Pearl-led Tigers seek to add some more history to Auburn’s basketball resume.

The Tigers non-conference schedule includes the No. 25 Washington Huskies traveling across country for a November 9 meeting at Auburn Arena. The Tigers then travel to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational and a battle against Xavier on November 19. If Auburn can get past the Musketeers, a second-round matchup with fourth-ranked Duke would be a great barometer for Pearl’s squad. On December 15, the Tigers make the short trip to Birmingham for a showdown with UAB for the fourth consecutive year. Four days later, Auburn travels to Raleigh, North Carolina, and squares off with NCAA hopeful North Carolina State.

After one of the finest years in school history, how does Auburn handle prosperity? Can the Tigers build on last season’s success and keep the ball rolling? The answer is simple. Trust the elite group of ball handlers and 3-point marksmen Pearl can deploy with no hesitation. Look for Brown and Harper’s contributions, in conjunction with Purifoy and Wiley’s, to take the Tigers deep into March and give fans another season to remember. H&A

All photos courtesy Auburn Athletics 

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