By Wil Crews
In the grand scheme of things, the 2021 Auburn men’s basketball season was always going to be a wash.
Some fans’ interest levels may have dipped with the Tigers’ self-imposed post-season ban promising to keep them out of the SEC Tournament and “The Big Dance.”
However, for those of us who were watching intently, this season possessed as many thrills, disappointments and surprises as any other year.
It’s never too early to look ahead to next season and with Auburn out of the ensuing ‘March Madness,’ the Observer thought it would be a good time to look ahead at the Tigers’ 2021 prospects.
Auburn was one of the least experienced teams in the nation in 2020-21. They were also one of the deepest and tallest, regularly playing a nine-to-ten-man rotation and averaging a national-best six blocks per game. They had one of the best freshmen – if not players – in the country in point guard Sharife Cooper. And despite him missing essentially half the season due to what can be politely describe as “questionable” reasons, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers still gave “intent” fans something to look forward to next year.
Now, with the recent news of guards Justin Powell and Jamal Johnson entering the transfer portal, and the foreseeable departure of Cooper by way of the NBA draft, Auburn’s ambitions for next year may need to be tempered. Or do they?
The loss of Cooper will hurt. But the Tigers played half a year without him anyways – guys were there before and will be there after. Fans need to assume Cooper is gone to the NBA; if he comes back, Auburn is a shoe-in for a deep tournament run. Plan accordingly…
The surprisingly hurtful loses are that of Powell and Johnson. Powell was unexpectedly Auburn’s best player to begin the season, admirably and adequately handling the point guard duties in Coopers stead.
Johnson played a similar role down the stretch when Cooper was out; he was slated to be sixth man and the only senior on the team next season. All of his experience, perimeter defense, timely shot-making and basketball IQ will be missed.
Even so, the Tigers – sans Cooper, Powell and Johnson – are poised to be SEC contenders in 2021.
The Tigers return Allen Flanigan, Jaylin Williams, JT Thor*, Devan Cambridge, Chris Moore, Dylan Cardwell and Stretch Akingbola.
The soon-to-be junior trio of Flanigan, Williams and Cambridge were as consistent as the USA and debt this season, often carrying the Tigers through dry spells both offensively and defensively, picking each other up on their off days. All three improved in the right areas in one humble sports journalist’s opinion.
Then there’s Thor, who’s name speaks for itself. If he bulks up in the offseason and gains more confidence off the dribble, the fury of 1,000 Mjölnir’s will come crashing down on the SEC.
Cardwell has shown flashes – think young Austin Wiley with the energy levels of a kid after 12 Reese’s cups on Halloween night. Moore and Akingbola will serve just fine as energy players off the bench too.
Point is: the bones are there with this team.
And if the bones are already there, the incomers can be considered the muscle.
The Tigers have two highly-rated freshmen in the 2021 class. Smith is a 6-foot-10, do-it-all power forward, rated as the fifth best prospect in the nation according to 247 Sports. Alexander is a 6-foot-4 shooting guard and is a four-star, but the No. 1 prospect at his position in his state. Smith alone would be an outrageous get for the Tigers, but with such a thin backcourt rotation, Alexander may be just as crucial to the teams’ success.
College of Charleston transfer point guard Zep Jasper – a contender for the all-name national team and Auburn’s starting point guard position should Cooper leave – figures to play a key role in the 2021 backcourt as well.
With three unexpected scholarship positions available (forward Javon Franklin entered the portal last week) Pearl and his staff will be aggressively pursuing more players to fill the teams’ needs. If he picks up a few more pieces, Auburn will be officially re-loaded. But hey, if Cooper comes back, at least one humble sports journalist will be buying his plane ticket to the Final Four in New Orleans on April 2, 2021 – expecting madness, of course.
* Thor has entered his name for the NBA draft and can now sign a NCAA-certified agent, receive feedback and still return to school.