The Huskies took care of business at home against Western Kentucky on Tuesday but now face an even steeper test traveling to #11 Auburn on Friday night. We exchanged questions with our Auburn sister site College and Magnolia to find out more about the Tigers’ basketball team and get a prediction for the game. You can see my responses to Will’s questions here.
UWDP: When Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested in the FBI investigation it seemed almost certain that Bruce Pearl would be fired going into what was expected to be a 4th straight losing SEC season. But then Auburn rebounded to earn a #4 seed in the NCAA tournament and Bruce Pearl earned a contract extension this summer. What is the general sentiment about Pearl among the fan base now?
Will McLaughlin: Bruce Pearl loves Auburn and Auburn loves Bruce Pearl. From the day he got to Auburn in 2014, Coach Pearl has brought energy, passion and excitement to this campus and reignited the fan’s passion for college basketball. Pearl is always around on campus marketing not only the basketball team, but urging people to support the other sports on campus. The cupboard was extremely bare when Bruce got here but over time, Coach Pearl has not only recruited great players to campus, but he has also coached and developed them to become all-around better players.
I thought the team last year was going to be pretty good but losing arguably 2 of the team’s best players in preseason looked to put a huge damper on that. Instead, Coach Pearl took the pieces he still had on that roster and the team completely exceeded expectations. Making the NCAA Tournament was a huge deal for Auburn and winning a game there was icing on the cake. That team’s lack of depth really caught up with them at the end of the season, thus the blowout in the Round of 32. As this season is about to start, there’s quite a buzz around this team and Coach Pearl that I don’t know if Auburn has seen or witnessed in a long time. Now that the FBI stuff seems to have gone away, Auburn fans hope that Pearl is here to stay for a long time.
UWDP: The SEC has made a major effort to improve their standing in the college basketball world after several years of Kentucky, Florida, and everybody else. Has a more competitive SEC led to greater passion for college basketball or is college football still 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the majority’s hearts?
Will: Personally, I get more excited for basketball than football, but I think football will always be king in this part of the country. I will say though that having so many good teams in the SEC has helped catapult people’s interest in college basketball. A lot of that has come with great coaching hires made over the past 4-5 years and thus resulted in better players coming to the league. In 2016, only 3 SEC teams made the tournament. In 2017, the SEC had 3 teams make the Elite Eight with South Carolina going to the Final Four. Last year, 8 teams made the tournament and I think that SEC Basketball will be even better this year. I think the SEC will be the toughest conference in basketball this year looking at the depth from top to bottom. There are no easy games in the SEC this year and I would expect 8-9 teams to have a great chance of making this year’s NCAA Tournament.
UWDP: The Tigers lost a pair of starters in Desean Murray (10.1 ppg. 6.7 rpg) and Mustapha Heron (16.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg) to transfer (interestingly the Huskies just missed Murray in the opener versus Western Kentucky because of a suspension). Auburn also won’t get back F Danjel Purifoy from suspension in time for this game and C Austin Wiley is questionable for the UW game coming off a foot injury. Who do you expect to step up and take their place?
Will: I think this is going to be a breakout year for Chuma Okeke. Okeke looks to take Murray’s place in the starting lineup and his ability to take the ball into the paint as well as his ability to shoot the 3 ball will be a nightmare for opponents. He played a bigger role on last year’s team once Anfernee McLemore went down with injury. McLemore will likely start at center if Austin Wiley is unable to go. McLemore did an incredible job holding down the center spot last season. He’s a great shot blocker, excellent defender and like Okeke, has also become a good 3-point shooter. We will see how he looks early coming off a gruesome injury that really hurt Auburn as it limped to the finish last season. Depth will likely be an issue for Auburn going into this matchup as there will be no Purifoy, maybe no Wiley and possibly no Samir Doughty, the VCU transfer who is battling a high ankle sprain and may also miss this game.
Editor’s Note: Doughty played in the opener against South Alabama on Tuesday with no ill effect so he’ll almost certainly play. Wiley’s status is still unknown.
UWDP: The Huskies last year adopted the 2-3 zone from Coach Hopkins and his time at Syracuse. Did Auburn play against much zone last year and how do you think they’ll be able to handle that defensive system?
Will: I think Auburn played a little bit against the zone last year but it wasn’t something Auburn saw a ton of last year. However, I will say that no matter what defense opponents play, Auburn is going to shoot a high volume of 3-pointers. Almost everyone on Auburn’s roster can shoot the 3-pointer and they shoot it so well that the zone may leave Auburn with several open looks. How well Auburn shoots the 3-pointer against Washington’s great 3-point defense will go a very long way into determining who wins Friday.
Will: The thing about Harper and Brown is they are always out to prove people wrong. They weren’t recruited by many of the big name basketball programs and both use that motivation each time they play. They both went through the NBA Draft process and I’m sure they have taken the feedback they got from the NBA to make their games better this year. Regarding Harper, think of Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard. His work with him last offseason really propelled him to have a great sophomore season at Auburn and I expect his game to continue to get better.
As for Brown, he has the ability to take over a game. He was a predominant 3-point shooter when he got here but in addition, he’s a great defender (he usually guards the opponent’s best player) and he started taking the ball into the paint more last year which got him to the free throw line a lot more. Both guys aren’t afraid to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court so don’t be surprised to see either guy, especially Harper, pull up from the Auburn logo at some point during the game. Coach Pearl trusts both guys to take the best possible shots and while it may seem like they are bad shots to people on the outside, Bruce trusts his guys to take and make those shots. Both will once again average double figures this year but I see Harper becoming even more of a distributor last season as he has a great frontcourt to get the ball to (once everyone is healthy).
UWDP: What is your prediction for the game on Friday which will be the first big test for an Auburn squad with high expectations?
Will: I have to say, what a difficult 1st week for the Huskies starting off with Western Kentucky before travelling to Auburn 3 days later. That might be the toughest 2 game stretch by any team in the country to start the season. Other than the Champions Classic, this game is the only matchup in the country this week that features two ranked teams facing off against each other. Auburn Arena has quickly become one of the tougher places to play in America and it’s a big deal to Auburn fans to have a Power 5 school coming to play in Auburn. Both squads are stacked with veterans so the big game atmosphere shouldn’t be an issue for either team. A lot of this will depend on whether or not Wiley plays but I really think one of Harper and Brown is going to score at least 25 points. If this game is close, free throw shooting will be key. The Tigers were a 78% free throw shooting team last year, one of the best marks in the country. I think it’s going to be a fantastic game but I have to go with the home team here. Auburn 86 Washington 81
Thank you to Will and the folks at College and Magnolia for helping to arrange this! We’ll certainly hear from them again next year when it’s time for Auburn to visit Seattle on the other side of this home and home.