In a college basketball season that is seeing no ‘true’ dominant team, several teams across the nation have been putting together a silently strong season. One of those teams includes the Auburn Tigers who rank third in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and rank 11th in the nation with a 20-2 overall record.
You may be asking, how can a team that isn’t first in their own conference be expected to win the SEC and get an automatic bid into the 2020 NCAA Tournament? Also, if you believe that Auburn is the team to beat in the SEC, how far can they go in the tournament?
In order to answer those questions it is important to break it down into two categories:
Remaining schedule and Roster make-up/talent
The Tigers have had it somewhat easy for the first part of their season, but it is safe to say the second half of their season won’t be as easy. It starts with their next opponent, the 18th ranked LSU Tigers. LSU currently is atop the SEC standings and it will be only the second ranked opponent that Auburn will have played thus far.
The LSU match-up will be a home game for Auburn, where they are an undefeated 12-0. They are the only one to not lose a game at home in the SEC.
After that, the only other ranked opponent they face is number 15th ranked Kentucky Wildcats on the road, who right now are a spot above Auburn in the SEC. The Tigers defeated Kentucky 75-66 in a tough fought game that saw Doughty have success versus the young Kentucky backcourt just about a week ago.
The Tigers have seven other games aside from those two marquee match-ups, three of which take place on the road. The only one that MIGHT be circled on their schedule is the Alabama Crimson Tide game, who gave Auburn their first loss of the season last month.
If the Tigers can beat both Kentucky (again) and LSU, they will have proven they can beat the best that the SEC has to offer.
What will truly make Auburn a dangerous team going into the NCAA tournament is if they win the remainder of their games and don’t have any let downs. In doing so, they will be heading into the SEC tournament on a 14-game winning streak.
Credit goes to head coach Bruce Pearl for replacing several players that have left after the miraculous Final Four run last season. Namely, the top three leading scorers for the Tigers Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke, and current Phoenix Suns guard Jared Harper.
He has replaced them with returning players like backcourt duo Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick (who is fourth in the SEC in APG with 4.5) who are combining to average 26.0 PPG. Throw in freshman, and the 40th ranked player in the ESPN top 100 for the class of 2019, Isaac Okoro, and you have a skilled trio of players.
Not only are those three players a big reason as to why the Tigers have had such success this season, but players like big man Austin Wiley who is second in the SEC in rebounds per game with 8.9 has contributed greatly to this team.
Rounding out the starting five for Auburn is returning player Danjel Purifoy who is a big bodied forward who is looking to recapture the success he had after his redshirt freshman year where he averaged 11.5 PPG.
This is a senior led-team with four starting seniors and a very skilled shooter in Anfernee McLemore coming off the bench. With that leadership that all these players possess, they are much more experience than their competition in LSU and Kentucky.
Kentucky starts no player beyond their sophomore year and only has three juniors and one senior on the roster, including Nick Richards. That is not saying that Kentucky’s youth is not skilled, they are insanely talented, especially Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey.
LSU carries one senior which happens to be their tremendously skilled leading scorer in Skylar Mays and four juniors, two of which play meaningful minutes. Only one junior is getting legitimate playing time, Charles Manning Jr. who averages 23.3 MPG. That youth has proven to be successful thus far, but begs the question of whether or not it can be sustained.
Auburn has both the skill and the talent that got them to have postseason success last season and the same formula and template can be followed this season for Pearl’s bunch.
It is safe to say that Auburn will make the NCAA tournament come ‘Selection Sunday’. When the brackets are released the Tigers will most likely be in the mix for a one-seed given their success in the SEC tournament as well as their glowing regular season record.
With a favorable schedule coming up and the experience that Pearl has under his belt along with the roster of the Tigers, we are likely to see Auburn as champions of the SEC.