These are interesting times for the Auburn basketball program as Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers are just about ready to begin what has the potential to be another exciting season. The Tigers are ranked 11th in the AP preseason poll, which means for just the fifth ever they will go into their opening game as AP Top 25 team.
You have to go back all the way to 1999-2000 to find the last Auburn team ranked in AP’s preseason poll. That group, coached by Cliff Ellis, opened at No. 4 after winning the SEC Championship the previous season with an exciting team that returned a good bit of its talent from the previous year.
The 2018-19 edition of the Tigers also returns a lot of talent from an SEC Championship squad, but has key players to replace with guard/forward Mustapha Heron transferring to St. John’s to be closer to home and forward Desean Murray transferring for a second time. His final stop is Western Kentucky where he figures he will get more attention from pro scouts as a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
Despite those losses the Tigers have a chance to not only have a deep and talented starting lineup, there should be more quality depth than we have seen from any of Pearl’s Auburn teams. All of that depth won’t be available when the Tigers open the season on Nov. 6th vs. South Alabama, but if things work out all the pieces will be in place when they begin their league title defense in January.
Austin Wiley, who has a chance to be one of the top big guys in the SEC, has been injury prone and is currently dealing with a foot problem that is expected to keep him out of action for next week’s exhibition game as well as the season opener. If everything heals properly Wiley might see action in regular season game two when 25th-ranked Washington visits Auburn Arena on Nov. 9th.
Another talented player, Danjel Purifoy won’t be eligible to play until the Tigers travel to Birmingham to play at UAB on Dec. 15th.
Even without those guys on the court, Auburn should still have plenty of firepower led by the returning starters at guard, senior Bryce Brown and Jared Harper, who were second team picks at last week’s SEC Media Days where the Tigers were forecast to finish third in the league behind Kentucky and Tennessee.
The guard position should get a boost from talented transfer Samir Doughty, who is ready to go after redshirting last season. New point guard J’Von McCormick looks like he will add quickness to the group.
At center Anfernee McLemore has made a good comeback from his season-ending injury suffered in February and more help on the boards is expected from proven senior Horace Spencer. Throw talented sophomore forward Chuma Okeke and athletic guard/forward Malik Dunbar into the mix and there are plenty of good options for Pearl to put on the court.
The fans have realized that and bought all of the season tickets. They quickly wiped out the supply of the remaining single game tickets for the SEC home contests, which makes sense with the Tigers having a lot of promise and the league loaded with strong competition.
If everything works out this could be a fun season to follow Auburn basketball.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter