No. 11 Auburn opens the season with every reason for sunny optimism instead of last year’s dark cloud of concern.
Not only do star guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper return but so do 6-foot-11 center Austin Wiley and forward Danjel Purifoy, both of whom were forced to sit out last season for NCAA rules violations .
As a result, the Tigers have their highest preseason ranking since 1999. Auburn still managed to win a share of its first Southeastern Conference regular season title since 1999 and break a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought despite the troubling backdrop of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’re trying to make history and keep it going,” coach Bruce Pearl said. “It’s easier to get it going than it is to keep it going.”
But that’s the challenge Pearl is now facing after a breakthrough season for a long-struggling program. Auburn managed that feat even with uncertainty about Pearl’s job security because of the violations involving former assistant coach Chuck Person .
The Tigers must replace leading scorer Mustapha Heron , who transferred to St. John’s, and top rebounder Desean Murray, who left for Western Kentucky.
Brown is a first-team All-SEC shooting guard on target to be the program’s top 3-point shooter after averaging 15.9 points. Harper is one of the league’s top point guards.
He averaged 13.2 points and 5.4 assists and now adds significant scoring options with Wiley and Purifoy.
It’s possible neither player will be available to start the season. Purifoy’s NCAA suspension extends through the first nine games, while Wiley is recovering from a foot injury. Pearl hasn’t ruled him out for the season opener Nov. 6 against South Alabama.
Former VCU point guard Samir Doughty also is eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer.
For all of Auburn’s success last year — including the second-most wins (26) in program history — what resonates for returning players was the finale. The Tigers fell 84-53 to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s a score that is etched in their minds, with Harper calling it “probably one of the most embarrassing games that I’ve played in my life.”
“We used to have it written on the board,” Brown said. “We’re using that as motivation. We never want to be in that situation again where the score looks that bad. We felt like we let our fans down in that game.”
Here are some things to know about this Auburn team:
Only Auburn’s 1999-2000 team opened a season with a higher ranking, at No. 4. This is only the program’s fifth AP preseason ranking.
WILEY & PURIFOY
Wiley was the biggest recruit — literally and figuratively — of Pearl’s tenure in Auburn. He enrolled in midseason as a freshman and started the final 22 games, averaging 8.8 points and 4.7 rebounds.
Purifoy started 25 games as a redshirt freshman and averaged 11.5 points. “Danjel Purifoy has got as pure a jump shot as there is in the league,” Pearl said.
Auburn struggled over the final eight games following Anfernee McLemore’s season-ending ankle injury, going 3-5. He was the SEC’s top shot blocker while averaging 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“It’s/ like a one-two punch,” McLemore said. “Austin has a different playing style. He’s more around the rim, so when I come in I’m going to be a different kind of threat.”
Pearl won’t have to field an undersized team for a change. It could mean a tweak to the Tigers’ up-tempo style at times.
“I do anticipate our roster still playing fast,” Pearl said. “We may not be as small, we may not be as quick, we may not be as difficult a matchup as we were last year.”
Auburn faces Washington in its second game before heading to the Maui Invitational. The nonconference schedule includes a trip to North Carolina State on Dec. 19.
Source: The Associated Press