By Wil Crews
Losing two of their first three games, Auburn has rattled off five straight wins as they enter conference play on Wednesday with a 6-2 record. The Tigers are set to face the 8-0 Arkansas Razorbacks, who are led by freshman point guard Moses Moody.
Auburn is still without its freshman point guard Sharife Cooper, as questions about the prize recruit’s eligibility still linger. Picked to finish 7th in the SEC in CBS’s preseason basketball poll, Auburn has started the season strong.
This team is different – literally and stylistically – from most of Bruce Pearl’s Auburn teams of the past. To offset the loss of all of last season’s starters, Pearl has enlisted the confidence of freshman point guard Justin Powell, the playmaking of Allen Flanigan and the athleticism of one of the tallest teams in the nations.
It’s taken the Tigers just a couple of years to morph from undersized and punching above their weight class in the 2019 NCAA tournament run to one of the household names in college basketball and one of the tallest teams in the nation this season. And the impressive thing is: they’ve done it without sacrificing their high-tempo, gun slinging, three-point-shooting style.
Coming into the season, it would have been easy to predict that the program that lost five seniors – six starters – from last year would have a leadership-deprived team that is headed for an inevitable drop-off in form. Add that the Tigers were expecting to have a five-star point guard who has now been relegated to a super-fan role at best, and one could understand if expectations were low.
But Bruce Pearl has these boys cooking. Auburn is playing team-first basketball, evident in that four different players (Flanigan twice, Powell twice, Jaylin Williams twice and Jamal Johnson) have already led the Tigers in scoring in a game this season. Guys who barely saw the floor last season are making crucial impacts.
Flanigan has evolved from a raw freshman with a nervy but athletic skillset to an alpha-dog playmaker and lockdown defender. He’s made the jump from 3 points and 2.7 rebounds per game to 13.8 points and 4.4 rebounds. The biggest change has been his aggressiveness and shooting. While taking 3.2 shots per game last season, he shot 39.4% from the field and just 14.3% from three. This year, he’s shooting and making way more often, averaging 51.4% from the field and 39% from three.
Similar to Flanigan, Williams has thrived in his expanded role, taking his averages from 2.4 points and 1.8 rebounds per game last season to 10.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game this year. Williams has gone from an energy guy who was overshadowed by other bigs Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore to a focal point in the offense. The addition of a three-point shot has helped his confidence and comfort in half court offensive sets, and he’s also a leader on defense with a team-high 1.4 blocks per game.
The shooting contributions of Johnson and Devan Cambridge do not go unnoticed – especially if the shots aren’t dropping – and four-star freshman forward JT Thor has a kitchen-sink-skillset and, in flashes, makes plays that no one else on the team can. Additionally, freshman center Dylan Cardwell looks like he could have a career in professional wrestling with the energy he brings to the team, and he’s already earned the Pearl’s trust, evidenced by more minutes. Chris Moore looks undersized and under skilled, but that means he plays harder than anyone. And “Stretch” Akingbola went from garbage time big man to key rotational piece in a matter of months. Crucial impacts.
Finally, there’s Powell: 6-foot-6-inch shooting guard by trade who has been forced into full-time point guard duty thanks to the NCAA’s ineptitude with Cooper’s case. He’s been a revelation. He’s earned the nicknames Vanilla Killa’ and Vanilla Bryce for his hot shooting – a ridiculous 51.4% from three-point territory. He’s far and away the best passer on the team. He is a matchup nightmare for defenses as he towers over other traditional point guards. He leads the Tigers in scoring (13.9), rebounding (6.4) and assists (4.5). Pearl is asking him to do a little bit of everything, and Powell has been up to the task. Auburn goes as far as Powell takes them.
In reality, this team still has flaws. The rate at which three-pointers are shot will never change under Pearl, but they just aren’t falling as often. The offense stalls in the half court because there aren’t enough playmakers on the floor. The defense struggles because the team is invariably young and lose their heads on occasion. They miss a shameful number of free throws. But all those things are to be expected.
What the Tigers have shown thus far is honestly the ideal pattern of development that fans will have wanted to see. They’ve exceeded expectations – especially the likes of Flanigan and Powell – and are on a five-game win streak heading into conference play. There’s nothing too impressive with wins over Saint Joseph, South Alabama, Memphis, Texas Southern, Troy and Appalachian State and loses to No. 1 Gonzaga and UCF. But the Tigers have an opportunity to show what they are all about Wednesday against the undefeated Razorbacks at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.