It’s been a rough ride for the sport of college basketball, but for Auburn, the season is finally about to begin. The Tigers return to the hardwood on Thanksgiving Day at 3:30 p.m. for a neutral site contest against Saint Joseph’s in Fort Myers, Florida.
Auburn’s success over the last three years will bring high expectations. The Tigers have won at least 25 games in each of the last 3 seasons, one of the only teams in all of college basketball to do so. Still, fans should understand that Auburn will field one of the youngest teams in America this season.
The top six scorers from last year’s team have moved on, including first-round pick Isaac Okoro, the first one-and-done player in Auburn history. Prior to the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tigers were on a major hot streak much like the one that saw them win the SEC Tournament Championship and advance all the way to the Final Four.
But that’s in the past. Head coach Bruce Pearl has built a force on the recruiting trail, leading Auburn into recruiting battles that the program has never even sniffed before. The result was the 9th-ranked recruiting class in the country, and the crown jewel is the highly anticipated Sharife Cooper, a 6-foot point guard out of Powder Springs, Georgia. Cooper boasts a rare combination of lethal speed and a devastating basketball IQ. As a high school senior, Cooper averaged over 30 points per game.
Cooper figures to start alongside a number of underclassmen. The three returning scorers from last year’s team—Devan Cambridge, Jamal Johnson, and Allen Flanigan—combined for just 10.9 points per game. Of those three, only Jamal Johnson is an upperclassman.
Devan Cambridge has the chance to be one of Auburn’s most exciting players this season. Though he averaged just 4.2 points per game over the season, he delivered two breakout performances last winter, scoring 26 points against South Carolina and 21 points against LSU. In those games, the sophomore showed the potential to be a hot 3-point shooter, something that the Tigers will sorely need after shooting just 30.6% as a team from beyond the arc. Most anticipate him earning the starting spot at small forward.
As for the rest of the roster, 13 of the team’s 16 players are either freshmen or sophomores. Fans should expect there to be a learning curve, and the going will not be easy as the Tigers navigate non-conference play. After the Thanksgiving Day game vs Saint Joseph’s, Auburn will find themselves facing off with Gonzaga the very next day. The Bulldogs are the consensus #1-ranked team in the country.
Other non-conference contests include UCF, South Alabama, and Memphis—all teams that finished with winning records last season. Auburn also has a road matchup with the #2-ranked Baylor Bears as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge at the end of January.
Conference play looks to be a gauntlet. Auburn will face Kentucky twice for the third-straight year, and many ranking algorithms see the SEC as a deep conference this year. Upstart programs like Arkansas and Alabama will only continue to get better, and games against LSU, Florida, and Tennessee loom large in the wings.
Sadly, there will be no postseason schedule to look forward to this year. News broke on Sunday that Auburn had decided to self-impose a postseason ban in the wake of allegations involving former assistant coach Chuck Person. Person was caught accepting bribes in exchange for steering players to certain individuals for their future careers.
With so little returning experience compared to their competition, Auburn will have to play smart and avoid allowing games to get away from them. The team’s 3-point shooting will have to improve. Justin Powell, a three-star guard from Louisville, Kentucky, shot 59% from the floor in his high school career. If Powell can prove himself to be a consistent shooter at the college level, he’ll be a force coming off the bench in relief for Sharife Cooper.
The big bodies of Jaylin Williams, J.T. Thor, Chris Moore and Dylan Cardwell will also need to provide consistency on both ends of the court. Bruce Pearl’s Auburn teams have employed high-pressure defensive attacks to create turnovers and generate more points through fast breaks.
Overall, this year’s basketball team likely has more raw potential than any Auburn squad in recent memory. But the schedule is littered with landmines, and a brand-new, inexperienced core will have to rise to the challenge and avoid setting them off. If these young Tigers can pull out tough, confidence-building wins and avoid being tripped up by lesser opponents, Auburn fans may well be in for another thrilling season.