The Auburn men's basketball team hit the practice courts last week to begin preparations for the 2019-20 season amid mixed expectations for a team that will try to follow up the best year in program history without some of its key players from last season.
The Tigers will miss stars Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke, who all left for NBA contracts, as well as the leadership of Horace Spencer and Malik Dunbar.
While those losses will be hard to overcome, the Tigers will field a team bookended by five seniors and a host of talented underclassmen.
Seniors Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Samir Doughty, Danjel Purifoy and J'Von McCormick will form the core of the team, while coaches hope newcomers like Isaac Okoro and Babatunde Akingbola will emerge as immediate impact players.
"With five seniors and nine newcomers, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a roster that was so experienced on one end and so inexperienced on the other end," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. "The seniors are ready to go and a lot of the newcomers are still trying to learn where to go. That’s going to be an interesting challenge as we get started."
With so many newcomers, Pearl said the biggest obstacle to progress in practice right now is the learning curve.
"The interesting thing as we get into the heart of our practice season is whether or not we’re going to be able to build, on a daily basis, on the successes and failures that we have in practice. In other words, so far I’ve had to continue to go back and reteach with some of the same mistakes that we’ve been making where we have to be able to move forward."
The most exciting newcomer who will be relied upon heavily this season is McEachern (Ga.) High forward Isaac Okoro, a 6-5, 200-pound standout who was the No.36 overall player in the class of 2019. Okoro has the skillset, both on offense and defense, to even push into the starting lineup for the Tigers.
"Isaac is a physically dominating player. He's a winner," said Pearl. " He wants to be defined by his defense, his physically and his rebounding. He's working really hard on his outside shooting. That's the one area where people would say 'Well, can Isaac shoot the ball from the perimeter?' The mental hurdle of being able to be so dominant off the bounce and in other ways, shape or form, and the willingness to just let it go and understand that he can shoot the basketball, that's going to be a process for him. He's extremely coachable, high basketball IQ, incredible motor and one of the best athletes in our league."
Akingbola, also known as "Stretch," is a 6-8. 220-pound center who could provide good depth off the bench behind Wiley and other frontline players like Purifoy and McLemore.
"His defense is ahead of his offense. He's got ridiculous length, changing shots, impacting us on the defensive end, but he's been out of basketball for nine months. He's obviously got some catching up to do," said Pearl.
Auburn fans will get a chance to check out the new look Tigers on Oct. 17 when the team hits a court set up downtown for the Tipoff at Toomer's event.