It was easy to see how a self-imposed postseason ban took the wind out of Auburn's sails in 2021.
On paper, head coach Bruce Pearl's young squad had enough talent to be competitive in the SEC, but the absence of a postseason opportunity, plus eligibility issues that limited five-star guard Sharife Cooper to only 12 games, led to Auburn struggling to a 13–14 record. Cooper left early for the NBA, as did fellow freshman JT Thor, but there's reason for optimism that this season will be a return to form for the Tigers, who made the Final Four in 2019.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Bruce Pearl
2020-21 RECORD (SEC): 13-14 (7-11)
2020-21 POSTSEASON: None
G Sharife Cooper (20.2 ppg, 8.1 apg)
G Jamal Johnson (9.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
G Justin Powell (11.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
F JT Thor (9.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
Pearl worked hard to give his frontcourt an infusion of talent, and he delivered in a big way.
Auburn signed 6'10", 220-pound power forward Jabari Smith Jr., the highest-ranked recruit in Auburn basketball history. The five-star talent, who could be an immediate starter, is known for a nice scoring touch that extends outside the paint; his style has been compared to that of former Michigan State star Jaren Jackson Jr.
If Smith struggles at all with the transition to the college game, Pearl can turn to Jaylin Williams, who averaged 10.9 points and 4.7 rebounds last season. Williams should be the first frontcourt player off the bench if Smith is the starter.
Walker Kessler, an incoming 7'1" transfer from North Carolina, should be the starting center. Kessler, a five-star recruit out of high school, averaged less than 10 minutes of playing time for the Tar Heels but showed flashes of real talent when he was on the court. Auburn is hoping that with more playing time, Kessler will deliver more performances like the one he had against Florida State in late February, when he scored 20 points and tallied eight rebounds and four blocks in 24 minutes. Returning big men Babatunde Akingbola and Dylan Cardwell give Auburn solid depth at the position.
Allen Flanigan is the only returning starter in the frontcourt after emerging as one of the SEC's most improved players last season. Flanigan boosted his scoring average to 14.3 after averaging only 3.2 the previous year, and he helped carry the team before Cooper became eligible.
Devan Cambridge, who averaged 8.9 points last season, should get at least 20 minutes at the forward spot, too.
Gone are leading scorer Cooper (20.2 ppg, 8.1 apg), promising freshman Justin Powell (transferred to Tennessee) and veteran guard Jamal Johnson (transferred to UAB).
Auburn hit the transfer portal hard with three transfer guards to replace the outgoing trio, who combined to average 41.3 points per game.
The crown jewel of the incoming guards could be Eastern Kentucky guard Wendell Green Jr., who averaged 15.8 points and should be the Tigers' starting point guard this season. As a freshman, Green earned All-OVC honors after guiding EKU to a 22–7 season.
Pearl could pair Green in the backcourt with either College of Charleston transfer guard Zep Jasper or Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson. Jasper averaged 15.6 points in the CAA last season and could provide a needed scoring boost as the first guard off the bench. Johnson shot 38.7 percent from 3-point range as a freshman in 2020-21 and gives Auburn needed shooting versatility.
No guard on the roster can replicate what Cooper did last season as one of the SEC's top players, but a committee approach with the three transfers should make up most of the production.
Pearl added a lot of talented pieces to the puzzle, but it'll take time to see just how well they all fit together. Auburn should finish in the upper half of a deep SEC this season, but it feels like a team that has a wide range of possibilities. Still, the floor of outcomes should be as an NCAA Tournament team.
Postseason Prediction: NCAA Tournament Round of 32
SEC Prediction: 5