With Tipoff at Toomer's taking over downtown Auburn tonight, basketball season is near.
Despite losing five players off last year's Final Four team who are now playing professional ball, the Auburn men's basketball team enters the 2019-2020 season amid high expectations as the Tigers return five seniors and welcome a wealth of inexperienced yet talented newcomers.
Auburn will have to replace the core of last season's squad as Chuma Okeke, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown all left early and signed NBA contracts, and heavy contributors Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer graduated and are now playing professionally in Germany and Argentina, respectively. Those five accounted for 54 of the Tigers' 79.7 points per game and more than 54 percent of the team's rebounds last season.
The Tigers will now lean heavily on a strong group of seniors in what is promising to be a new-look Auburn team, including power forward Danjel Purifoy, point guard J'Von McCormick, shooting guard Samir Doughty, power forward Anfernee McLemore and center Austin Wiley.
Doughty, who averaged 7.3 points and 3.5 rebounds last year, will have the unenviable task of replacing Auburn's all-time leading three-point shooter in Brown. Last season, Doughty never really looked to be a shoot-first contributor, preferring to get his teammates more involved. Pearl is expecting Doughty to step up and become more of a shooter this season.
"Samir’s got ability," said Pearl. "He’s going to be one of our top offensive options. He’s a leader. It’s just that he’s going to get a lot more attention than he did last year. He’s going to get the kind of attention that Jared got or that Bryce got as you would expect."
McCormick will take over as the starter at point guard, a position he played last season in a reserve role. He averaged about 12 minutes a game, 4.1 points and 1.4 assists.
Purifoy, who is featured on Page B1, will be counted on to step into a leadership role and provide a reliable option on the perimeter and a big body that can crash the boards.
Whereas last year's team relied heavily on the quick three-point shot, the 2019 Tigers will likely turn more often toward establishing the inside game behind Wiley and McLemore.
Wiley only averaged 13 minutes a game over 29 contests last season. Expect that number to rise significantly, as should his averages for points (6.9), rebounds (4.0) and blocks (1.28) per game.
While there are five seniors on the team, the Tigers will also feature a large number of newcomers, including heralded true freshman Isaac Okoro, who seems poised to earn starting role at small forward to open the season after impressing both his coaches and teammates in practices.
"He doesn't look like a freshman on the floor," said Doughty of the 6-6, 230-pound Okoro. "He is working on his game. He is one of our hardest workers. He is shooting the ball a lot better than people would expect and more than I expected, but that comes from working hard every day. He is definitely a standout freshman."
Pearl agreed with Purifoy's assessment of Okoro when he compared the newcomer to former Tiger Mustapha Heron.
"Mustapha was probably a better scorer. Isaac is a much better defender. They’re both good rebounders. I think it’s a fair comparison," said Pearl. "Physically, he’s got the ability to step in earliest amongst the newcomers. A lot of it is simply going to be based on opportunity, like the guards have the better opportunity because we lost Jared and Bryce, so there’s more opportunity there."
True freshman Tyrell Jones is also expected to see the floor as the backup at point guard.
"I keep telling Tyrell, 'There are a lot of things right now you're doing better than Jared Harper did when Jared was a freshman,' " said Pearl.
Other newcomers, like center Babatunde Akingbola, guard Allen Flanigan and forwards Jaylin Williams and Javon Franklin, who transfered from Homles Community College in Mississippi, are also expected to contribute.
Auburn fans will get the chance to welcome the Tigers at the Tipoff at Toomer's event this afternoon.