BY HARRISON TARR
FOR THE OBSERVER
It has been two years since fans of the Auburn basketball program have been able to see their team compete in postseason play. Since the Tigers’ appearance in the 2019 Final Four, the orange and blue faithful has experienced a global pandemic — which cancelled the 2020 SEC and NCAA tournament — and a self-imposed postseason ban on competition which restricted the orange and blue from a tournament appearance in 2021.
With the 2021-22 season now in full swing, there is buzz around the loveliest village on The Plains regarding a nearly guaranteed return to the NCAA tournament in 2022; Bruce Pearl’s squad is red hot, highly talented and seems to be capable of going toe-to-toe with any program in the country.
After being robbed of potential deep-tournament runs led by one-and-done athletes Sharife Cooper and Isaac Okoro, the Tigers are poised to make another deep run in this year’s installment of March Madness.
Before embarking on the 2021 campaign, Pearl reconstructed his squad to set himself up for success. With the departure of Cooper and standout freshman forward J.T. Thor for the NBA, the decision by guard Jamal Johnson to transfer to UAB and junior forward Alen Flanigan’s injury, the seventh-year head coach had the opportunity to redefine his team. He did just that.
The Tigers picked up the highest-graded signee in program history in forward Jabari Smith and maneuvered the transfer portal flawlessly, picking up sophomore guards K.D. Johnson (UGA) and Wendell Green Jr. (EKU) while also adding seven-foot-one center Walker Kessler (UNC). All three have become household names in Auburn, Alabama.
After enrolling at Auburn as a nearly guaranteed lottery pick in the 2022 NBA draft, Smith has proven to be a walking bucket and continues to make his argument for consideration as the No. 1 overall pick. At 6-foot-10-inches, the forward leads his team in average minutes of play time (26.9), points per game (17.3) and three-point shooting — a staggering 44%.
Green, Johnson and senior transfer guard Zep Jasper have provided the Auburn coaching staff with the opportunity to have an even more dynamic backcourt than ever anticipated. Green — who’s favorite pastime is shooting from different zip codes — has knocked down 36.2% of his shots from range.
Johnson, noted defensive menace, is averaging 2.4 steals per contest to go along with his 15.1 PPG average. Jasper has molded himself into the starting role, providing six points on 3.8 assists per game. After concerns about guard play plagued the team’s preseason, the Tigers find themselves with the blessing of two ball handlers and three shooters.
As for the orange and blue frontcourt, Pearls squad is — yet again — exceeding expectations. UNC transfer Kessler has thrown a number of block parties to this point in the season, averaging 3.1 swats per contest, and has been nearly impossible to outrebound, leading the Tigers with seven rebounds per game; his efforts have been contagious.
Sophomore Dylan Cardwell has morphed himself into a rotational role, posting just north of 11 minutes per game; he continues to develop as the ‘hype man’ coming off the bench and never fails to create an atmosphere which pulls the crowd in as an impactful factor for the orange and blue.
To put things in an overly-simplified way: Pearl has assembled what might just be his deepest team since the beginning of his tenure on The Plains and it is difficult to imagine a world which the Tigers do not will themselves to an appearance in — at least — the sweet sixteen.
It’s not unreasonable to believe that Auburn could find itself in the conversation to compete in the big dance for the second time in four years — especially once Allen Flanigan comes back. As always in college basketball, there will be a number of factors that need to fall in the Tigers favor — and March is certainly a long ways away — but there might just be something about this team that gives them what it takes to bring a championship back to the Loveliest Village on the Plains.