By HARRISON TARR
FOR THE OBSERVER
For fans of Auburn athletics, this weekend will be one of atypical stillness. Football is on a bye week, the volleyball program takes on UGA in Athens and soccer is headed to Oxford, Mississippi, to take on the Rebels on Sunday.
Narrator: The Loveliest Village on the Plains will be unusually quiet.
With that said, the break in action from fall sports gives the Auburn faithful an opportunity to look forward upon what has become a centerpiece of Tiger culture: Bruce Pearl and the men’s basketball program.
After the Tigers’ announcement as the No. 22 team in the AP poll on Monday, preseason hype surrounding Auburn basketball is high and fans have already gotten a taste of what the team dynamic might feel like at this year’s installment of “Tipoff at Toomers” — they’ve even had the privilege of seeing a shirtless Pearl and Dylan Cardwell on the jumbotron at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Tiger fans have a right to be excited about this team. Pearl’s squad looks like it will be able to compete with anyone it squares off against.
Here are a few things the orange and blue faithful should expect out of the 2021-22 Auburn basketball program.
1. NEW FACES FILLING NEW ROLES.
Sharife Cooper is an Atlanta Hawk, JT Thor is a Charlotte Hornet and Auburn enters this season with a roster consisting of four transfers alongside five-star freshman Jabari Smith. There is no hiding that this team is going to look significantly different than it did last year. UNC transfer center Walker Kessler brings both talent and a massive frame to replace Thor’s presence under the bucket. Transfers K.D. Johnson (UGA) and Wendall Green Jr. (EKU) seek to fill the gap in the backcourt with Cooper gone and Flanigan (temporarily) out.
2. EXPANDED ROLES FROM RETURNERS.
Sure, there is a slew of new talent on the Tigers roster. But, what about the guys who have been a part of Pearl’s system thus far? While Kessler will likely be the starting center, Auburn fans should not forget about the valuable role Babatude Akingbola and Dylan Cardwell will play coming off the bench. Jaylen Williams and Devan Cambridge should provide valuable minutes, especially if either or both are shooting well when they receive playing time.
3. GUARD PLAY UNLIKE THAT OF YEARS PAST.
As previously mentioned, the absence of junior guard Alan Flanigan will likely pose a significant obstacle in Pearl’s offensive scheme as the Tigers will enter 2021 without a returning player in their backcourt. With that in mind, Pearl has long been a coach who places heavy emphasis upon having faith in his guys. Look for a possible conservative approach and concentration on slow-paced offensive possessions in the early going with expanded freedoms as the season progresses.
4. TRANSITION OFFENSE. A LOT OF IT.
For the first time in what likely feels like an eternity to Auburn fans, Pearl’s team is big. Extremely big. The size of the Tiger backcourt ranges from 6’7” to 7’1”. This unit is going to be tough to shoot over and even more difficult to penetrate down low. Turnovers will likely be more plentiful than in years past and rebounding should be a category in which the orange and blue feasts. With turnovers, comes transition offense. Expect Auburn to live off of opportunities to score in these situations.
This might be the most broad — and is definitely the most obscure — expectation I’ve ever included in a column but it felt necessary to include. Auburn is coming off a 13-14 season in which its best player was withheld from competition for 12 games. The self-imposed postseason ban is now lifted and the Tigers have a plethora of doubters to prove wrong. Pearl has always placed emphasis upon getting his fans to buy into his program and this year will be no exception. The Auburn family thinks it has something to prove.