By Wil Crews
The Auburn Tigers are ranked No. 9 in this season’s first AP basketball poll thanks in part to their recent 70-55 victory over then-undefeated LSU.
Against the Bayou Bengals, the Tigers from The Plains overcame 21 turnovers and offensive slumps in both halves to secure the double-digit win.
Their collective reward: being the highest-ranked SEC team in the nation, currently.
Individually, Walker Kessler was named SEC Player of the Week for his 16-point, 11 block and 10 rebound performance against LSU — only the second triple double in program history (The only other was Kenny Gabriel, who scored 24 points, 13 rebound and 10 blocks against Bethune-Cookman in 2012.). The skilled giant — Kessler became the first D-1 player in 25 years to record a triple double against a team that was 10-0 or better.
Additionally, Jabari Smith was named Co-SEC Player of the Week honors, sharing the spoils with Kentucky guard TyTy Washington Jr. Against LSU, Smith played a team-high 30 minutes and had 16 points and four rebounds — extending his streak to 10 straight games with double figures in scoring.
On Tuesday, the Tigers defeated a physical South Carolina team on the road to continue their early rampage through the SEC schedule.
In short, Auburn has arrived.
How so? You may ask.
For starters, the not-so-glaring hole in Auburn’s rotation has been filled by last year’s Second Team All-SEC performer Allen Flanigan. The absence of Flanigan has been mitigated in Bruce Pearl’s team, as junior Devan Cambidge has taken his game up a level and Lior Berman and Chris Moore have provided meaningful, effort-full minutes. The versatile, 6-foot-6-inch guard made his second appearance of the season against LSU — slotting into the starting lineup due to a positive COVID diagnosis for Cambridge —and posted 10 points, six rebounds and one assist in 29 minutes.
Bruce Pearl stated this week that Flanigan’s health is fully intact after playing such heavy minutes in his first game back, although he did miss the S.C. game due to undisclosed medical issues.
At full strength, Auburn now has a 11-man rotation — of which all the players are trusted.
They have size and length, speed and shooting and playmaking galore.
Despite often being the smallest player on the court — and coming off the bench — Wendell Green Jr. is oftentimes the largest presence on the floor. That’s saying something with the potential No. 1 NBA draft pick Smith quietly posting dominant performances night after night. Green Jr.’s vision and execution of passing is second to none; and he must be a subscriber to the Steph Curry shooting technique newsletter with the distance and difficulty of which he shoots (and makes) his three pointers.
The guy who occupies Green Jr.’s spot in the starting lineup — Zep Jasper — has adjusted to the SEC better than elastic waistbands adjust to the holidays, and continues to be one of the best guards in the country in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio.
K.D. Johnson, despite struggling through a shooting slump recently, is struggling graciously, and making his impact on the defensive end and offensively with his finishing ability at the rim.
Backup center Dylan Cardwell is all of 7-foot, 250 pounds, and his new nickname should be “Thrillin’ Cardwell” because of the energy he brings off the bench. Jaylin Williams — who has nobly taken a bench role this season after starting last year — brings a stoic leadership and playmaking ability to the team when he comes off the bench.
As the final man in the rotation, Lior “Bucket Man” Berman is shooting 57.1% on three pointers and well on his way to becoming as big an Auburn cult hero as the highly-recruited Smith himself — for what that is worth.