BY WIL CREWS
What happens when a college basketball team sets a program record for wins in a season, sees its best player selected No. 3 overall in the NBA draft and loses a 7-foot-2-inch defensive anchor who led the NCAA in blocks?
You call them the Auburn Tigers and rank them No. 15 overall in the first AP Poll of the next season, of course.
Now, unlike that joke, the 2022-23 Auburn basketball journey will be anything but straightforward.
Losing five-star freshman Jabari Smith and UNC transfer center Walker Kessler to the NBA draft after just one spectacular season on the Plains, the Tigers have some big shoes to fill heading into the new season.
The transfer of three-year role player Devan Cambridge to Arizona State also leaves a void, but the Tigers return a number of last season’s lineup staples to help guide the team this year.
Starters K.D. Johnson (SG) and Zep Jasper (PG) return as last year’s starting guard duo; Wendell Green Jr. (PG) came off the bench last season and is touted as one of the top-20 point guards in all of the NCAA; Allen Flanigan (SF) is injury-free and looking for a bounce-back year; and key rotational players Jaylin Williams (PF), Dylan Cardwell (C) and Chris Moore (SF) are in-line for increased playing time.
The returners from last year’s team alone are enough to compete in the SEC and for a berth into the NCAA Tournament, but Auburn is in the business of chasing banners, championships. In truth, it’s the newcomers to Auburn which raise this team’s ceiling and expectations.
Most notably, sophomore Johni Broome comes to the Plains as one of the most coveted transfers in all of the NCAA. The 6-foot-10-inch Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year last season averaged 16.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.85 blocks (ranked No. 3 in the nation) per game. While it’s inherently hard to replace someone with the defensive capabilities of Kessler, Broome is about as close as it gets. Plus, the former Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year (2020-21) brings with him an offensive game that is more well-rounded than Kessler’s, and suits head coach Bruce Pearl’s system well.
The other high-impact additions appear to be the talented freshmen who were recruited to the Plains this offseason. Both highly rated four stars, Yohan Traore (PF) and Chance Westry (SG) boast the versatility to play multiple positions, and will be a major part of Auburn’s hypothetical success this season. Freshman Tre Donaldson was also a highly rated recruit, but the point guard may find it difficult to break into the lineup year, with Green Jr., Jasper and Johnson firmly ahead of him at the guard spots.
The Tigers face a few important questions as they near the season opener on Nov. 7 at home versus George Mason. One pressing matter is the lineup – who starts and who sits. Realistically, Pearl has 11 guys who will expect to get impactful playing time in his rotation: Broome, Green Jr., Johnson, Jasper, Cardwell, Williams, Moore, Traore, Westry, Flanigan, Donaldson. And that might be leaving out a couple of guys. Pearl has a good problem on his hands with a strong mix of returning, transfer and first-year players – many of whom would be immediate starters on lower-caliber Division 1 schools.
With all this talent, however, there comes an issue with determining the leader of the team, the Alpha. Who is the closer? There was no debating Smith was that guy last season, but the smart money is on either Green Jr., Johnson or Broome to be the guy with the ball in their hands when it matters most this season. But it may be that this team doesn’t simply have one “Alpha” … and that’s OK… for now, at least. The Tigers will need that “go-to guy” when the it matters most.
The time of Auburn surprising its opponents with its quality and vaunted home-court advantage is over. The Tigers are getting everyone’s best shot, each game. As the fourth-highest ranked SEC school in the initial AP Poll, behind Kentucky (No. 4), Arkansas (No. 10) and Tennessee (No. 11), Auburn basketball expects to compete with the nation’s best.