After play came to a screeching halt last season, the Auburn men’s basketball team is gearing up to play completely for the first time since the start of the pandemic in March.
“It's good to be back,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “We have a lot of new players and we have a lot of young players. So, therefore, I really think that they benefited and made progress physically through the challenges that we were facing through Covid. Our team has done an outstanding job.”
Pearl emphasized that there had only been a few cases of Covid on the squad over the past few months, and praised his team and medical staff for keeping those numbers so low.
Before Pearl addressed what the rest of the season will look like, he made sure to paint a clear picture of how much the Tigers have grown as a team over the past few years.
“It might surprise you that we’re the best team in the SEC away from home,” said Pearl. “We are also one of only four major college basketball programs to win 25 games in each of the last three years. The others are Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and then Auburn. That’s tall timber. That’s great company. Certainly, that’s something we’ve worked really hard to accomplish.”
The Tigers also boast a 47-5 non-conference record over the past three years — the best in the SEC. To continue the tradition of greatness Auburn is beginning to establish, they will have to quickly break-in a lot of new players.
“This is the youngest team I’ve had since I’ve been a Division I basketball coach,” said Pearl. “We’re entering into a league this year that’s returning a lot of good teams and a lot of good players.”
Part of the reason for the return of so many players has been the postponement of the NBA Draft, a move Pearl says may have convinced some players who normally would have moved on to instead stay put.
The 2019-2020 Tigers went 25-6 (12-6) before the season was cut short. From that team, they lost Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Austin Wiley, Danjel Purifoy, Isaac Okoro and Anfernee McLemore, all of whom combined for to score 67.1 points of the team's 78-point per-game average.
Auburn will return Devan Cambridge, Jamal Johnson, Allen Flanigan, Jaylin Williams Tyrell Jones and Babatunde Akingbola, all of whom pitched in a combined 14.3 points a game.
With such severe production loss, the Tigers must rely on some of the incoming freshman. In the past, that may have raised major concerns, but the Tigers signed the No. 9 recruiting class for 2020, the best class ever in Auburn history.
Auburn’s 2020 class includes five-star point guard Sharife Cooper, as well as JT Thor, both of whom are projected to contribute immediately. Other freshman include Chris Moore, Justin Powell, Dylan Cardwell, and Chandler Leopard.
With so much inexperience, Pearl says that player-led leadership will be key to the Tigers success this season.
“Player leadership is everything, especially when it comes to winning championships," he said. "Coaches can lead and win games, but he can’t lead a locker room to be a great team, that has to come from within.”
Auburn will open its season Nov. 30 with the just-announced nonconference matchup on the road against the University of Central Florida. A tipoff time has not yet been announced.