COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Get excited, Auburn basketball fans. The Tigers are going to have some serious firepower in Bruce Pearl’s fourth season on The Plains.
That much is clear after four days of training camp for USA Basketball’s under-19 World Cup team. Returning sophomore Austin Wiley and incoming freshman Chuma Okeke didn’t just make the initial 18-player cut, they looked every bit as good as some of the best young players in the nation.
“It’s kind of a combination of feeling honored and blessed, because we’re trying to build a men’s basketball program at Auburn and it’s just been a while since we’ve been competitive,” said Pearl, who flew to Colorado to watch the first two days of camp like a proud papa. “To have two young guys represent us in that competition is a significant step — but we’re not surprised.
“We knew that Austin had an opportunity to be with us a short period of time but help get us started, and we knew how special Chuma was.”
Wiley, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound center with a 7-foot-5 wingspan (per USA Basketball’s official measurements), put college basketball on notice with his work in Colorado this week. He was easily the most physically imposing player in Team USA camp and unleashed the power of his redefined, muscle-bound body in Wednesday night’s scrimmage.
Repeat: Austin Wiley is a problem. Mercy. pic.twitter.com/L490yapFRo
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 22, 2017
Wiley went for 17 points and 8 rebounds (all offensive) in roughly 20 minutes of playing time. He threatened to rip the rim off with a couple of jaw-dropping dunks that other former and current 5-star recruits were powerless to prevent.
“I just said, ‘What am I doing? I’m going to take a kid and prepare him to beat us. It’s crazy,’ ” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is also the Team USA coach. “But I’m OK with it. He’s been terrific.”
It would be a shock if Wiley doesn’t make the 12-man roster when final cuts are announced Thursday afternoon. Sadly, Okeke won’t be on the team because he tweaked his left knee in Monday night’s scrimmage, where he earned praise from Calipari. Okeke sat out Tuesday’s practices, had an MRI on Wednesday and made plans to travel back to Auburn for more evaluation Thursday.
Okeke and Pearl are hopeful the injury is not series, but Calipari urged him to leave camp because “Auburn’s season is too important.”
Indeed, Okeke playing alongside Wiley — plus all the returning Tigers talent like former 5-star shooting guard and leading scorer Mustapha Heron, former top-50 forward Danjel Purifoy and point guard Jared Harper — would be a potent combination. At 6-foot-7 and 233 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Okeke is strong enough to battle in the paint but skilled enough to shine on the perimeter, as he did in USA camp.
“He was truly one of the most underrated guys in last year’s class,” Pearl said. “Hat’s off to the selection committee there for inviting him, because he clearly belongs.”
While Okeke was a top-50 recruit in the Class of 2017, not many thought of him as a truly elite prospect. He looked like one this week in Colorado.
“It helped build my confidence a lot, coming in here really unknown and now most of the people know me,” Okeke said. “I think we could shock a lot of people this year. We could make the (NCAA) tournament, for sure.”
Pearl shares that belief, and he’s not afraid to say it out loud. The man who coached Southern Indiana to a Division II national title, Milwaukee to a Sweet 16 and Tennessee to an Elite Eight has found the sledding tougher at Auburn. The Tigers are 44-54 overall and 16-38 in SEC play in his first three seasons, although an 18-14 overall mark and 7-11 league record last year were big improvements.
Now, it feels to him like a breakthrough is imminent at last.
“We are two-deep at every position. This will be as deep as I’ve been. This is a roster that’s good enough to get into the NCAA Tournament. That’s a very realistic expectation for this team,” Pearl said. And it starts with Wiley. “We’re going to build a system around him, because he’s that much of a threat.”
Wiley was still 17 when he joined the Tigers in December — in the middle of the season — and held his own. The former 5-star recruit started 22 games, averaged 8.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in just 18 minutes per game. But he said he was not in great shape — he weighed the same as he does now, but a few body fat percentage points higher — so this offseason has been about changing that.
There is no one in Team USA camp who can handle Wiley’s strength or aggressiveness now.
Austin Wiley: a problem, part two. pic.twitter.com/Apd6ADvXV1
— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_SEC) June 19, 2017
“Straight out of high school, my body wasn’t caught up to everybody else,” he said. “Shout out to my strength coach, [Damon Davis]. He got me right and he’s still getting me right. It is a confidence-builder to be doing so good here. It just makes me want to work harder and harder, because I see some guys who have a part of their game that I don’t have, so I just want to work on that.”
But he’s seen enough to be on board with Okeke and Pearl predicting Auburn’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 15 years.
“A lot of people are going to count us out,” Wiley said. “We’re going to shock a lot of people.”