AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn basketball’s roster looks different just a few weeks into the offseason.
The Tigers lost a guard with significant experience and a graduate transfer who did a bit of everything. While there is time for changes and additions, coach Bruce Pearl is getting a better understanding of what he will have in his fourth season on the Plains.
Changes to this point seem to be helping Auburn inch toward its established goals. That’s a good thing considering there is plenty of time until the 2017-18 season and countless ways Pearl’s squad can improve.
Expectations — in and outside the program — are high for Auburn basketball. When explaining why his team wouldn’t pursue a College Basketball Invitational bid this spring, Pearl said the Tigers’ goal every year will be the NCAA Tournament.
After offseason changes, how does Auburn’s roster match up with Pearl’s lofty goals?
Pearl didn’t lose much after Auburn put together its first winning season since 2008-09.
Graduate transfer Ronnie Johnson played a crucial role last season, especially in several victories. He averaged 7.8 points and 2.3 assists per game. Still, Johnson knew he was looking at a short stay with the Tigers.
TJ Lang announced his decision to transfer for his senior season in March. Lang averaged 29 games a season over 3 years with the Tigers, but he had 4.3 points per game last season while dealing with minor injuries.
Johnson and Lang were elder members of Pearl’s guard unit, but they didn’t always provide necessary leadership or production.
Enter Mustapha Heron.
Despite rumors Heron might transfer, Pearl’s first 5-star signee remains with the Tigers. A 6-foot-5 guard, Heron led the Tigers in scoring at 15.2 points per game and scored in double digits through Auburn’s first 25 games. That broke a freshman record. For Auburn to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament, however, Heron must take on a bigger role.
Heron was among Tigers leaders in field-goal percentage last season and showed the ability to take over games. En route to being a freshman All-SEC selection, he took more than 20 shots in 1 game — 22 attempts in front of his hometown crowd when Auburn played at Connecticut.
Heron is a threat whether behind the 3-point line or slashing to the rim, but he must do more while maintaining his level of consistency.
Mustapha Heron stats
|32||28.2||152-344 (44.2)||44-104 (42.3)||137-178 (77.0)||15.2||6.1||1.3|
Danjel Purifoy had a tougher time. After sitting out a season, an ankle injury caused this redshirt freshman to lose momentum just as the Tigers began SEC play. Purifoy struggled to recover. He also took the SEC Tournament upset loss to Missouri perhaps harder than anyone on the roster — and that’s not a bad thing.
Pearl has said Purifoy is the Tigers’ most pro-ready player. For Auburn to reach the postseason, Purifoy must score more than 11.5 points per game and be willing to score in places other than the 3-point line. Worth noting: His scoring predominantly came from there after his injury.
Danjel Purifoy stats
|29||28.7||97-244 (39.8)||59-160 (36.9)||80-91 (87.9)||11.5||4.7||1.7|
Auburn’s list of young playmakers continues with Jared Harper. After starting ahead of grad transfer Ronnie Johnson, Harper will fight to keep his position. Harper’s contributions were needed, and his poise will be a significant element for a young team.
Jared Harper stats
|32||24.2||104-270 (38.5)||54-157 (34.4)||103-146 (70.5)||11.4||1.9||2.9|
Auburn will have an upperclassman in its back court. Bryce Brown, a junior, is the closest thing the Tigers have to a pure shooter. Better still, his defensive contributions were vital as he worked through a shooting slump.
Bryce Brown stats
|28||21.1||68-189 (36.0)||56-140 (40.0)||18-27 (66.7)||7.5||2.0||1.2|
Things changed for the Tigers as soon as Austin Wiley walked through the doors of Auburn Arena. Wiley was thrown into Division I basketball as a 17-year-old fresh from high school — and it didn’t matter.
The best thing about Wiley’s play through the SEC season was that it only got better. Wiley’s 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds were a foundation for double-digit averages in 2017-18, and his presence in the paint will grown stronger.
Austin Wiley stats
|23||18.0||73-125 (58.4)||56-114 (49.1)||8.8||4.7||1.3|
No player got much better than Anfernee McLemore. This high-flying forward added weight last summer and figured out how to play with it as the season progressed. The offseason will be key for McLemore, who will be a sophomore.
Meanwhile, sophomore Horace Spencer recovers from shoulder surgery.
Anfernee McLemore stats
|32||15.1||69-101 (68.3)||35-58 (60.3)||5.4||4.5||1.1|
Horace Spencer stats
|19||16.3||37-66 (56.1)||18-36 (50.0)||4.8||3.4||1.4|
New kids on the block
DeSean Murray sat out last season after transferring from Presbyterian, but he could be an active player as a junior. Auburn was overpowered on the boards. Murray, Pearl believes, can change that. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound forward might not be the tallest player Auburn puts on the floor, but he has a knack for tracking down rebounds — and the Tigers will need plenty of those to be playing in March.
Incoming freshman Davion Mitchell is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound point guard who could have a significant role. He’ll fight for a starting spot after averaging 23.8 points and 5.2 assists per game at Liberty County High in Hinesville, Ga.
Chuma Okeke is 6-7, 225 pounds and will strengthen Auburn’s forwards. Okeke was Mr. Basketball in Georgia. During his senior year at Westlake High in Fairburn, Okeke had 24.4 points, 15 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. He and Wiley hope to bond this summer and build off each other’s abilities.
Depth won’t be as big a concern for Auburn’s big men. Lang’s departure provided Pearl the opportunity to land a transfer. And that addition is Malik Dunbar from College of Central Florida.
“One of our biggest weaknesses last season was defense, rebounding and physical play,” Pearl said in a statement. “Malik brings a toughness and a winning attitude to Auburn. He didn’t spend years out on the AAU circuit as a younger player and developed into a dominant player under Tim Ryan at Central Florida.”
A 6-6, 230-pound guard/forward, Dunbar averaged 15.6 points, 6.4 rebounds as a junior college sophomore. Pearl must determine where he fits best, but Dunbar should make an impact on defense.
So is the NCAA Tournament realistic?
Definitely. Pearl last season put 4 freshman on the floor for the first time in his coaching career. The group took a beating, especially on defense, but the 2017-18 Tigers will be better for that experience.
Auburn added players who should help throughout the season, particularly in practice. A lack of depth didn’t help matters last season. Still, circle March on your 2018 calendar and expect to see Pearl’s squad make a postseason appearance.