Auburn Basketball 2018-2019 Season Preview

November 7, 2018 By Cameron Caldwell

Horace Spencer (0) soaks in the fun of a championship. Photo by Wade Rackley /Auburn athletics

This is a formal warning to every college basketball team out there around the country: Auburn is coming.

If you have read anything that I have written in the past concerning the Auburn basketball program, you know that I’ve been telling you guys this for a while now.

Bruce Pearl has completely transformed the outlook on Auburn Basketball. It is quickly becoming a national brand right before our eyes and oh, is it beautiful.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that this upcoming season has the potential to be one of the most exciting years in Auburn basketball history. There are a plethora of reasons why.

Not only do 15 of Auburn’s games have a chance to be televised on either ESPN or CBS, but the Tigers will travel to Maui early in the season to compete in the Jim Maui Invitational, which will host the likes of Duke, Xavier, Arizona, and Gonzaga, among others. The Tigers will open up with Xavier, and a win there could possibly pair the Tigers up with national title favorite Duke and their barrage of freshmen superstars.

An early season tilt with NC State up in Raleigh should be fun as well. Dayton also makes the trek down to Auburn Arena in what is a rematch from last season in which Auburn won 73-60 at Dayton.

Not to mention, in the second game of the season the Washington Huskies will visit The Plains in what will be the first game in a two-year contract that will force Auburn to travel to Seattle next season.

Even with all those non-conference games, the real test for these Tigers will be when SEC play begins. This year the Southeastern Conference might very well be the best conference in America. This is astonishing when you take into account that the SEC prides itself on being a football-first league, unlike the ACC for example.

Last season a record 8 teams from the SEC made the big dance, but no one advanced to the Final Four. This year there are a number of teams that realistically have a shot at that feat.

Before we get into the opponents for this season, let’s break down who I believe will be the starters for Auburn.

Projected Starters

Point Guard- Jared Harper 

Harper averaged 13.2 points and 5.4 assists per game last season, spearheading the best offense statistically in the SEC. He shot 36% from the floor, but will look to be more efficient this year as the Tigers try to spread the ball around more.

Sparking up a late-season SEC Player of the Year push, Jared really came on towards the end of the season and should figure to have a really big yearb. He has notably been tabbed as a Bob Cousy Award preseason nominee, named for the top point guard in the country.

Shooting Guard- Bryce Brown

The sharpshooter from Stone Mountain had a tremendous junior season last year, scoring 15.9 points per game while shooting 38% from 3-point range. When Bryce was hot, the Auburn offense was almost impossible to defend.

The highly regarded publication Street and Smith’s put Bryce on the cover of their 2018-19 College Basketball Preview, showcasing the extra amount of attention he has been receiving. He has also found himself on the Jerry West Award watch list, an award given to the nation’s top shooting guard.

Small Forward- Danjel Purifoy

Purifoy did not play last season due to the nationwide FBI investigation involving college basketball and players’ benefits. An Auburn assistant, Chuck Person, was accused of funneling cash payments to the families of Purifoy and Austin Wiley. It was decided that Purifoy also has to sit out the first 33% of this season, which will amount to 9 games.

When he played in 2016-17, he scored 11.5 points and collected 4.7 boards a game, while being a key cog on a team that was building itself into what it is today. Purifoy is an intriguing NBA prospect and could skyrocket his draft stock with a successful season.

While Danjel is serving his suspension, Anfernee McLemore could get the nod at the 4 or 5 spot, while Chuma Okeke starts at small forward. Pearl will be forced to do a lot of mixing and matching early in the season with a limited amount of healthy scholarship players. However, McLemore’s return from an ugly knee injury at the end of last season is sure to be a boost to Pearl’s roster. After all, McLemore did lead the SEC in blocks last season despite suffering a season-ending injury in Columbia, South Carolina.

Power Forward- Chuma Okeke

There is a lot of talk as to how Bruce Pearl will construct his lineup at the forward positions, but this is what I figure to be the most optimal and most logical starting lineup. 

As a freshman, Chuma Okeke showed us that he can play with anybody in the country as well as both 3 and the 4. A former 4-star recruit out of Atlanta, Okeke played key minutes due to the suspension of forward Danjel Purifoy last season.

He averaged 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds while playing both forward spots and even getting a taste of being at center when the Tigers went with a smaller lineup. Look for Chuma to have a big role this upcoming season and for him to really grow in Bruce Pearl’s system.

Center- Austin Wiley

Austin Wiley (50). Auburn men’s basketball vs Georgia on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Dakota Sumpter/Auburn Athletics

As eluded to previously, Wiley was the other player caught up in the FBI probe. Unlike Purifoy, Austin is clear to return to the team right away and play from the start.

He also participated in the 2018 NBA Draft Combine, but withdrew his name after he learned that it would benefit his professional future and draft status if he returned to Auburn. Wiley averaged just over 8 points a game his freshman season, but was young and came to Auburn midseason after graduating high school early. In other words, while Wiley’s high school friends were going to senior prom, he was dunking on Bama.

Even though the offense should once again shoot a lot of 3’s, there will be plenty of post-ups and possessions that will be run through the big fella. Along with Harper and Brown, Wiley was named to the Kareem Abdul-Jabaar Award preseason watch list as the nation’s best center.

Breaking down the non-conference schedule

Since Bruce Pearl arrived on campus, his mission has been to put Auburn Basketball on the map. He wants people around the country to pay attention to his program, and this means that playing in televised marquee games is a must. The Tigers will be doing just that, and playing the likes of NC State, Xavier, Washington, and Dayton will provide some early season tests.

Lets break down some of the early non-conference tilts.

The Tigers welcome the preseason top-25 Washington Huskies to Auburn Arena on November 9th. Washington finished 6th in the Pac 12 last season with a 21-13 (10-8) record.

Coach Mike Hopkins returns 3 of his top 4 scorers from a year ago when the Huskies lost to St. Mary’s in the second round of the NIT. Auburn will be favored in this matchup, and the intrigue of an uncommon opponent should fill up the seats and have the crowd ready to go.

The Tigers have also been invited to play in the prestigious Maui Invitational this season, where they will play Xavier in the first round on November 19th. The Muskateers, coached by Travis Steele, won the outright Big East title last season and are poised to defend their crown. The key players to watch out for in this game will be Quentin Gooden and Naji Marshall.

Gooden finished 3rd in the Big East last season in assists with 4.9 a game, which was good for 7th in school history. Naji Marshall is back for his senior campaign, after a season in which he was named an All-Conference freshman finishing with 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds.

If the Tigers are able to get past Xavier, they will meet the winner of Duke and San Diego State. That one could end up being a lot of fun.

As mentioned earlier, Auburn traveled up to Dayton last season and came out with a win, 73-60. Head Coach Anthony Grant leads a team that finished 14-17 a year ago, and on December 8th the Flyers will travel to The Plains to have a chance at a rematch.

Some key players to keep and eye on will be Josh Cunningham, a redshirt senior, who was selected to the 3rd team all-Atlantic 10. Cunningham finished with 15.6 points and 8.4 rebounds last season, and was also 5th in the NCAA in field goal percentage.

Now that we’ve looked through some of the key non-conference games, we will turn our attention to the conference schedule, where the SEC will once again be loaded top to bottom.

I am not going to talk about every SEC opponent for this year right now. I am going to give you the 3 teams most likely to challenge Auburn for the conference championship.

SEC teams that will challenge Auburn

The first team I will talk about is Tennessee. The Vols shared last season’s SEC title with Auburn and they are back for more.

Coached by Rick Barnes, they will return two of the better players in the league in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Williams won last year’s SEC Player of the Year, but it was in large part due to the fact that Auburn didn’t have one single star to give the trophy to.

Not only did Tennessee share the SEC title with Auburn, they made it to the same round of the NCAA tourney as the Tigers, advancing to the 2nd Round before Loyola Chicago added to their storybook postseason by hitting a shot at the buzzer to down Rocky Top, 63-62.

The regular season SEC championship may come down to one game when on March 9th the Volunteers will visit The Plains to cap off the regular season. This matchup is likely to be one of the best college basketball games of the entire season.

Next up, Kentucky. John Calipari has one of the most talented squads he has ever had coming into the 2018-19 season. Another top-5 recruiting class mixed with some experience will prove beneficial to this season’s club.

Although they are very young, the ‘Cats have significant leaders coming back from last year’s team.

PJ Washington, Quade Green, and Nick Richards all played vital roles for a team last year that was upset in the Sweet 16 by Kansas State, 61-58. Washington and Green are expected to become the unquestioned leaders for an uber-athletic team.

Enough about the freshman, though. Another name stepped on campus and is expected to become a household name. Reid Travis is a graduate transfer from Stanford who averaged a double-double last year and was expected to be this season’s Pac-12 Preseason Player of the Year.

He was named to the preseason SEC first-team all-conference and should be a great addition to an already loaded team.

Mississippi State is another team on the rise. They were voted preseason 4th in the conference at the annual SEC Media Days and also #18 in the preseason AP poll.

Ben Howland is in his 4th year in Starkville and led the Bulldogs to a 25-12 record last season and made it to the Final Four of the NIT.

State returns its top 6 scorers from last year headlined by the Weatherspoon brothers, Quinndary (14.4 ppg) and Nick (10.8 ppg), along with Aric Holman who dropped 10.9 points per game last season.

A Top 25 recruiting class comes in led by McDonald’s All American Reggie Perry. DJ Stewart and Robert Woodard will be exciting young players to keep an eye on moving forward as well.

Predictions

Here are my predictions for how this season will go for our Auburn Tigers.

I believe they will not only win the regular season conference title for the second year in a row, but they will also have the player of the year in Bryce Brown, and the coach of the year in Bruce Pearl.

Auburn will lose in the SEC Tournament championship game to Kentucky, but go on to receive a top-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

I also believe Auburn reaches their first Elite 8 in school history since 1986.

Bruce Pearl
Auburn men’s basketball vs College of Charleston after the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, March 16, 2018, in San Diego, Calif.
Photo by Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics

Now is the time to give my personal prediction on how the league will shape out. Here is my predicted order of finish:

1. Auburn

2. Kentucky

3. Tennessee

4. LSU

5. Mississippi State

6. Vanderbilt

7. Florida

8. Alabama

9. South Carolina

10. Missouri

11. Texas A&M

12. Arkansas

13. Georgia

14. Ole Miss

Regular Season Champ: Auburn

SEC Tournament Champ: Kentucky

Player of the Year: Bryce Brown, Auburn

Coach of the Year: Will Wade, LSU

It is good to note that while these predictions may seem biased, they are based on how much faith I have in this roster and coaching staff, as well as how I view other teams in the league. 

Injury Update

As you may have heard, Auburn could be a little short-handed heading into the season, as Austin Wiley is still recovering from a foot injury and will miss a few weeks. Word coming out of Auburn is that recovery is going good and he should be back fully healthy as early as opening night.

Transfer Samir Doughty is also dealing with a high ankle sprain, and will miss some time but could end up being ready to go in the opener against South Alabama.

As always, War Eagle!