T.J. Dunans and TJ Lang respectfully disagree with the media.
Auburn’s starting perimeter players spent 10 minutes on SEC Now during the annual SEC Media Day in Nashville. Prior to their segment, the SEC media’s preseason polls and all-conference teams were released. It didn’t favor Auburn.
The Tigers were pitted 11th out of 14 in the SEC. Zero players made the preseason first- or second-teams. But that’s now how Dunans feels about Bruce Pearl’s 2016 squad.
“I say we’re going to be one of the top 3 teams in the SEC,” Dunans said. “I think we can put a team together that can compete in the SEC.”
The Tigers have captured plenty of momentum for the future. They’ve landed several top recruits in the next three recruiting classes and have the No. 1-ranked class right now for the 2017 recruiting cycles.
Still, it’s hard to look past Auburn’s NCAA Tournament absence since 2013. There still appears to be doubts, as conference polls go, about the squad currently on campus — but it’s all external.
“I feel the same thing (as Dunans). I feel like we have so many weapons offensively and defensively with our 10 guys that we should be able to match up with any team in the SEC and hold our own,” Lang said.
To be slated 11th — but to have top-3 expectations — Auburn must answer several questions about itself.
Auburn struggled rebounding the basketball last season, to stay the least.
The Tigers finished the season 11th in the SEC with 36.6 rebounds per game. They lost their two-leading rebounders from a season ago in Cinmeon Bowers and Tyler Harris. The year’s personnel, on the surface, doesn’t look particularly equipped to full-scale fix that problem.
But Bruce Pearl has put an emphasis on that, his players said. Here’s what they said about rebounding.
Dunans: “He preaches to us to be more physical at all times. We send five to the glass on defense. On offense, we’re sending four to the glass … What he tells you is you’ve got to have that dog in you. Either you want it, or you don’t. Got to make game-winning plays.”
Lang: “It makes me step up every aspect of the game. Cinmeon was averaging a double-double. We’re losing him. We all, as a team, have to continue to come together and make up those rebounds we’re going to miss and continue to share the ball. We’re just trying to do our best to fulfill everything we lost when they left … We’ve got to treat every rebound like a game-winning play. We’ve got to go in there with reckless abandonment and just try and get as many things as possible from our point guards down to our centers. Everybody has got to rebound this year.”
Auburn’s recruiting train is gaining steam for years to come. It all started with the addition of 5-star Mustapha Heron, 4-star Jared Harper and 3-star Anfernee McLemore.
All three guys have a chance to contribute, but Heron and Harper will be called upon immediately to be an integral part of the rotation. How much will they add?
Dunans: “I just talked to them. When we’re off the court, you’re freshmen. When you’re on the court, you’re not freshmen — you’re ballplayers. They’re going to play major roles on our team this year. Both of them can score. Both of them play defense. We need them to play their game.”
Lang: “You’re going to see them on the floor a lot. They’re not going to be the typical freshmen this year. We’re going to rely on them to handle a lot of responsibility on our team. They’re both super talented and two of the hardest working players I’ve ever been around. I feel like they’re going to be able to hold their own from the beginning of the season.”
Buying into ‘the process’
You hear the phrase ‘process’ all the time on the football side of things. It doesn’t apply as much to college basketball with the one-and-done culture. That doesn’t so much apply to Auburn basketball for the time being.
The Tigers are building an extended foundation through recruiting, and the 2016-17 is the base for actually seeing results on the court. Over a decade since a national tournament appearance, it’s not always easy envisioning a Tigers tournament run.
But the players? They believe in Bruce Pearl.
Lang: “He’s somebody we can trust. He’s been there. He’s won at some of the highest levels you can possibly win in. His track record kind of speaks for itself. When he tells us this is what we need to do to be successful, it’s not hard to buy in to it. We can look in the past and see he’s successful.”