The departure of two first-round picks, Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler, stings, but the Auburn Tigers have entrenched themselves as a perennial power.
CBB Review is once again ranking the top 100 teams heading into the 2022-23 season. Each day we will reveal the next team until we reach the team slotted at number one. Coming in ranked number 15 are the Auburn Tigers.
Since the 2017-18 season, Bruce Pearl’s fourth season, Auburn Tigers basketball has more often than not found themselves at the top of the SEC after decades of mediocrity. 2018 found the Tigers as a surprise Final Four participant as a five seed. Then, in 2019-20, the Tigers placed second in the conference, proving the previous year wasn’t just a fluke. A lost 2020-21 season in which the Tigers had a self-imposed postseason ban didn’t damper the expectations going into the next year.
Those expectations, as it turned out, were merited. With five-star Jabari Smith and North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler manning the frontcourt, Auburn managed to jump out to a 22-1 record to start the season. Even a 5-4 record over the last nine games before the NCAA Tournament didn’t pull back any expectations for the Tigers. Auburn was given a 2-seed, and the clamor around the Plains was that it could be their year. Sure, they had the Final Four appearance already. But with two projected first-round picks on the roster and a stout defense, this could finally be the year Auburn breaks through.
The Miami Hurricanes had other plans. Auburn’s dream season ended in the second round of the tournament, in a game that wasn’t particularly close, either, a 79-61 defeat. What was accomplished, however, was the staying power of the program as a contender. Now that the Auburn Tigers have churned out four excellent seasons in five years, it looks as if Pearl’s team is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
To those who have not, click here to learn more about our preseason top 100 teams heading into the 2022-23 college basketball season.
Head Coach: Bruce Pearl (19th season overall, 9th season at Auburn)
2021-22 Record: 28-6 (15-3)
2022 Postseason Finish: Lost in second round of NCAA Tournament
Notable Departures: Devan Cambridge (Transfer/Arizona State), Jabari Smith (NBA/Houston), Walker Kessler (NBA/Utah)
PG: Wendell Green (5-11, 175, Jr.)
2021-22 stats: 12.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists
SG: K.D. Johnson (6-0, 180, Jr.)
2021-22 stats: 12.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists
SF: Allen Flanigan (6-6, 220, Sr.)
2021-22 stats: 6.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists
PF: Johni Broome (6-10, 235, So.)
2021-22 stats: 16.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists (Morehead State)
C: Yohan Traore (6-10, 225, Fr.)
247Sports Composite #26 overall rated recruit
6: Dylan Cardwell (6-11, 256, Jr.)
2021-22 stats: 3.0 points, 3.0 rebounds
7: Zep Jasper (6-1, 190, Gr.-Sr.)
2021-22 stats: 5.1 points, 1.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists
8: Jaylin Williams (6-8, 230, Sr.)
2021-22 stats: 5.6 points, 2.7 rebounds
9: Chance Westry (6-6, 190, Fr.)
247Sports Composite #38 overall rated recruit
10: Lior Berman (6-4, 215, Sr.)
2021-22 stats: 2.0 points, 0.7 rebounds
11: Tre Donaldson (6-2, 190, Fr.)
247Sports Composite #132 overall rated recruit
12: Chris Moore (6-6, 230, Jr.)
2021-22 stats: 1.7 points, 1.4 rebounds, 0.2 assists
Team MVP: Johni Broome
Broome, one of two transfers into the program, the other being Jalen Harper from Shelton State Community College, is an immediate plug at a gaping hole for Bruce Pearl’s squad. Talented on the offensive and defensive end, Broome will likely hold down the power forward spot for the Tigers.
Last season at Morehead State, he averaged 16.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 1.2 assists. Broome improved in almost every stat category for the Eagles last season compared to his freshman year, save for his foul and turnover numbers, which can be attributed to a more advanced role on the court with more minutes. A premier defensive stopper, Broome averaged 3.9 blocks per game, third in the nation. (Just behind former Tiger Walker Kessler.)
While it could take time to adjust to a tougher schedule compared to the OVC regular season, Broome is a solid bet to fill in most of Walker Kessler’s shoes. While it’ll be impossible for any player to replicate what Kessler did last year, Broome’s a good bet to at least make sure the Auburn Tigers are a force down low once again.
Make-or-Break Player: K.D. Johnson
The Jekyll-and-Hyde results of K.D. Johnson show the high-level player he can become and the unproven project that shows up on the court sometimes. Take, for instance, the first loss of the season against UConn, and the loss to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. Against UConn, a marvelous multi-overtime game, Johnson at times looked like the best player on the court. A 27-point performance included getting to the line *16* times, grabbing five steals to just one turnover, and shooting 44% from the field.
Then, however, was the loss to Texas A&M. Johnson was held scoreless over the entire length of the game, and not due to lack of trying. He finished the day 0-14 from the field. Johnson did not score a single point, despite having a team-high 30.3% usage rate. His offensive rating for the game, a measure of how many points a player would produce for his team in 100 possessions, was just 9. Kessler and Smith’s ratings sat at 165 and 108, respectively. The game ended at 67-62, a close contest. One could imagine what the result could’ve been had just two or even three of Johnson’s shots gone in.
On the other hand, in a win against Florida in January, Johnson put up 23 points in a 7-13 shooting performance. With a similar usage rate, 29.3% this time, Johnson put up an offensive rating of 144 while leading the team in points. The skills are there, and the talent that made him a top 100 recruit is there, but it needs to be an everyday presence for the Tigers, not an every-other-game sort of appearance on his part. Especially with the losses of Kessler and Smith, opposing defenses will focus on the team’s guards more. Which version of Johnson will the Tigers receive? The best bet is a large dose of both versions.
Analytics to Know: 304th in fouls per game / 1st in blocks per game in 2021-22
Auburn sent its opponents to the line at an extremely high rate last season, ranking below over 300 teams in fouls committed. The team’s leader in fouls? K.D. Johnson at 2.6. Wendell Green, who averaged 2.0 fouls per game, also returns. It’s concerning enough that Auburn’s starting guards are among the team leaders in FPG, but six players in total with over one FPG return. The Tigers’ opponents scored 22.1% of their points from the charity stripe last year, good for 336th nationally. Not a good look for a team that was known for its defense last season. If Auburn continues to foul opponents at such a high rate, a good free-throw-shooting team could make Auburn pay in March.
One stat, however, that Auburn excelled at, was blocks. Auburn led the nation by almost 1.6 blocks per game, pacing the league at 8 BPG. That mark, of course, was with Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith. This year, Bruce Pearl will need some players to step up to even sniff that mark. A combination that could sink Auburn’s season? Continuing foul problems combined with the new issue of an inconsistent frontcourt on the defensive side.
Fouling can be dealt with when the two first-round bigs swallow up anything that comes in the paint. Fouling becomes a problem when that frontcourt can’t stop the opposition the way it used to. This is where transfer Johni Broome, freshman Yohan Traore, and returnee Dylan Cardwell come in. Broome, 2021-22 OVC DPOY, averaged 3.9 BPG for Morehead State last year. Traore, as a five-star prospect, projects to fill in the frontcourt spot next to Broome.
But the missing piece here could be Cardwell. Although he only averaged 11.5 minutes per game due to Smith and Kessler’s presence, he finished with outstanding per-40 minute numbers. In terms of blocks per 40 minutes, he actually finished the year with 4.3. That’s over three times what Smith ended up with: “just” 1.4.
And it’s not just blocks. Per 40 minutes, Cardwell’s steal numbers were 1.8, behind only Johnson and Green. Rebounds? 10.4 per 40 minutes. That’s behind only Kessler and ahead of Smith. Turnovers per 40 minutes? Just 0.9. That number ranked lowest on the team in terms of players who recorded 10 minutes or more per game.
The point is, while the Auburn Tigers will likely turn to Broome and Traore to man the frontcourt most of the time, Cardwell could be the best option *defensively*. While he did have the highest FG% on the team last year, (again, Cardwell’s underlying statistics point to a starter on a high-level Power-6 program rather than a benchwarmer), most of his value is going to come on the defensive end.
The Auburn Tigers likely won’t be as good as last season’s team, but the possibility that they go further in the NCAA Tournament is certainly there, given the early exit by last year’s Tiger squad. Bringing in Johni Broome from Morehead State is huge, and the trio of him, Yohan Traore, and Dylan Cardwell should mean the frontcourt is still strong.
The outlook of the Tigers, however, is going to depend on guard play. Inconsistency plagued the Auburn backcourt last season, and with the departure of Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith, the guards will be asked to carry more of the offensive load. Wendell Green and K.D Johnson are crucial for this team’s success. If everything goes right, the frontcourt doesn’t lose a beat, Johnson and Green develop into more well-rounded players, and Traore and Westry contribute immediately, the Tigers could make a deep run.
However, the SEC is deep this year, as it has been recently. If the guards don’t develop, Broome takes longer than expected to adjust to SEC play, and shooting woes, this could be a team that finishes closer to the middle of the pack in the conference. Johnson shot 29% from the arc last season. Green shot 31.7%. Only one player averaging over 10 minutes per game and 32% from downtown returns, in Zep Jasper.
The rest of the team from last season is either in the NBA, hits less than a third of their threes, or will play minimal time off the bench. Williams shot 29.4% from three. Flanigan’s mark sits at just 20.5%. Broome hasn’t hit a three in his collegiate career, and the incoming freshmen aren’t known for three-point shooting prowess. Without Smith and Kessler, the defense can afford to put more energy on Auburn’s guards. And without Smith, who’s going to shoot, or rather make, the threes? Someone needs to step up, and if no one does, it could be a problem for Auburn.