Auburn heads into the new year as one of just two unbeaten major college basketball teams and for the most part Coach Bruce Pearl’s team has been winning because of its defense.
If the Tigers continue to play with the defensive intensity we have seen through their first dozen games they are going to have a chance to do well in the 2020 Southeastern Conference race.
There is still a big question about whether or not this group has enough offensive firepower to win the SEC regular season title or the postseason tournament in Nashville, but I have no doubt the Tigers can handle any opponent on the schedule in games they shoot reasonably well.
One of the big reasons the Tigers have joined San Diego State in the unbeaten ranks is depth. Four starters are averaging in double figures for scoring and the other, Danjel Purifoy, is scoring 9.5 points per game. Also, the four players coming in off the bench have made significant contributions with the defense, rebounding and scoring.
One of those players, redshirt sophomore Jamal Johnson, is a long-range shooting threat the Tigers really need to be a major factor when conference play begins. My expectation is the Tigers will see plenty of zone defenses in January, February and March so it will be a big deal if the son of former University of Alabama star Buck Johnson can consistently score from three-point range. He is the closest thing the Tigers have to former stars Bryce Brown and Jared Harper when it comes to long-range shooting.
Closer to the basket, the Tigers are stronger than they were last year thanks to seniors Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore being healthier along with the emergence of newcomer Isaac Okoro at forward. Okoro may be just a freshman, but he is a full grown man when it comes to playing basketball, especially defensively.
One of the keys to making a strong run in the SEC is keeping point guard J’Von McCormick healthy. Last season as a transfer from Lee junior college in Texas he helped spark Auburn’s run to the SEC Tournament title and the NCAA Tournament Final Four. When he is “on” offensively McCormick is a matchup nightmare with his exceptional quickness.
Another key to success is the continued development of freshmen Devan Cambridge and Allen Flanigan in reserve roles. Cambridge has tremendous leaping ability and a good shooting touch. Flanigan has the physical toughness to defend good scorers and can help with the rebounding.
Pearl even has talented guys outside the nine-man rotation who are good enough to step in and help if there are injuries so this has the potential to be another fun SEC season for AU basketball fans, who have been doing a great job of showing up at Auburn Arena to support the home team.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter