Basketball returns to the plains as Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers group looks to regroup after an up-and-down season.
As is tradition, CBB Review is again ranking the top 100 teams heading into the new college basketball season. Each day, we will reveal the next team until we reach the team slotted at number one. Follow along with #CBBRank on all our social media channels.
Auburn’s loss to Houston in the Round of 32 last season was a fitting metaphor for their season. After starting out strong and leading 41-31 at the half, Auburn was outscored by a 50-23 margin in the second half and would lose 81-64. In the Tigers’ first 13 games of the season, they could have passed as a Top 25 team. Entering New Year’s Day of 2023, they were 11-2. Then, most of the wheels came off over the course of the season.
Starting with a double-digit loss to Georgia, the Tigers stumbled before seeming to bounce back with five straight conference wins to improve to 16-3. (All five opponents finished .500 or worse in the conference.) ‘Twas just a mirage, as the Tigers limped to a 5-10 finish over their past 15 games, landing on the bubble late before a win over Tennessee locked up a tournament bid, where they beat Iowa before losing the aforementioned second-round matchup to Houston.
A drop-off was expected, to an extent, after the loss of Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith to the NBA, but it’s fair to call the season a disappointment. An inefficient backcourt led to difficulty scoring, and a normally stout defense gave up 76+ points 10 times, all losses. There were bright spots like a 33-point win over Missouri, the tournament win over Iowa, and a home win over Tennessee. But for every step forward, a step was taken back, like a 43-46 loss to Tennessee, a debacle on the road against Georgia, getting swept by Alabama in the season series, and getting physically dominated by Memphis.
This year, a handful of reserves transferred out, Wendell Green graduated, and Allen Flanigan left the team to follow his father to Ole Miss, where he is on the coaching staff. This left several holes on the roster for Bruce Pearl to fill, which he did through the transfer portal and a five-star guard recruit.
Jaylin Williams and Johni Broome, two double-digit scorers from last season, return. So does mercurial guard K.D. Johnson, ultra-efficient center Dylan Cardwell, backup point guard Tre Donaldson, and reserve forward Chris Moore. Entering the program is Aden Holloway, the no. 16 overall prospect in the 247Sports rankings, high-scoring transfer guard Denver Jones from Florida International, D-2 guard Chaney Johnson, and JUCO forwards Chad Baker-Mazara and Addarin Scott.
It’s a novel way of roster-building for Pearl, who hasn’t relied on lower-level transfers to such a degree at any point in his career. Let it be known, however, that lower-division and JUCO transfers aren’t necessarily a second-choice option. Baker-Mazara averaged 6.4 PPG at San Diego State the season prior, and Chaney Johnson was named Gulf South Conference player of the year last season. Scott recorded an 18-point, 15-rebound performance for Navarro this past season. Making the jump up to the SEC is always going to come with a learning curve, but all 3 transfers already have the physical traits to match up with defenders.
Holloway and Jones are projected to line up at the 1 and 2 this season, with both being high-volume, quality shooters, something Auburn hasn’t had since their Final Four appearance. Considering the difficulty Auburn had with making shots and shot selection in general last season, switching up the backcourt was a necessity if Pearl wanted to see any improvement. Two solid big men, Broome and Cardwell, are back to man the frontcourt, while the perpetually underrated Jaylin Williams will be starting on the wing. Similar to last year, K.D. Johnson will play a 6th man role off the bench, while Chris Moore and Chad Baker-Mazara will get extended minutes if the starters struggle to score from the perimeter.
Transfers Chaney Johnson and Addarin Scott will provide rotational depth, while Tre Donaldson is a capable backup for Holloway at the point guard spot. Ultimately, if Holloway is the real deal, and the backcourt is competent this season, Auburn could find themselves near the top of the conference. However, if Jones experiences growing pains at the high-major level and Holloway isn’t ready physically for the SEC, this team could end up in worse shape than last year, especially given that 3 starters are gone from last year. Auburn is one of the most unpredictable teams in the conference this year, with a high ceiling and a low floor. An early season matchup with Baylor will be a great litmus test.
Click here to learn more about our preseason top 100 teams heading into the 2023-24 college basketball season.
Head coach: Bruce Pearl (30th season, 10th at Auburn)
2022-23 record: 21-13 (10-8)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to Houston, 81-64, in second round of NCAA Tournament
Notable departures: Wendell Green (Graduated), Allen Flanigan (Transferred to Ole Miss), Zep Jasper (Graduated)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Baylor (Nov. 7, in South Dakota), vs. Virginia Tech (Nov. 29), vs. Indiana (Dec. 9 in Atlanta), vs. USC (Dec. 17)
PG: Aden Holloway (6-1, 178, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 16 rated recruit
SG: Denver Jones (6-4, 205, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 20.1 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.0 APG, 89.6 FT% (FIU)
SF: Jaylin Williams (6-8, 245, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 11.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.2 APG, 35.4 3P%
PF: Johni Broome (6-10, 240, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 14.2 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.3 APG
C: Dylan Cardwell (6-11, 255, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 3.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.1 APG, 74.7 FG%
6: K.D. Johnson (6-0, 190, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 8.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.3 APG
7: Chris Moore (6-6, 220, Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 3.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.6 APG, 40.9 3P%
8: Tre Donaldson (6-3, 200, So.)
2022-23 stats: 2.5 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.2 APG
9: Chad Baker-Mazara (6-7, 180, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 46.9 3P% (NW Florida State – JUCO)
10: Chaney Johnson (6-7, 220, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 15.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.6 APG (UA-Huntsville – D2)
11: Lior Berman (6-4, 210, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 2.2 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.1 APG, 9.4 MPG
12: Addarin Scott (6-9, 207, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 9.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 0.5 APG (Navarro College – JUCO)
13: CJ Williams (6-2, 175, So.)
2022-23 stats: 1.0 PPG, 0.5 RPG, 0.0 APG, 2.7 MPG (Texas Tech)
Auburn Tigers MVP: Johni Broome
Broome was quietly one of the better big men in the SEC last season. A rebounding machine, he delivered 10 double-doubles, including a 19-point, 18-rebound performance against Georgia. Broome, transferring in from Morehead State, didn’t take long to acclimate to the SEC, scoring in double-figures in all but 3 conference games. 2nd on the team in offensive box plus/minus behind Jaylin Williams and 3rd in defensive box plus/minus behind Dylan Cardwell and Tre Donaldson, Broome got it done on both sides of the court and quickly became Auburn’s most valuable player.
With a win shares per 40 of .191, first on the team, Broome produced almost double the average mark. The analytics love him, and the 6-10 power forward is on a shortlist of best big men in the conference. He could improve from the line, however, as he attempted 3.8 free throws per game and only converted at a 56.0 FT%. He’s also not a threat from a distance, but he’s so good inside that floor spacing shouldn’t have him on the perimeter anyway.
An excellent interior defender, Broome averaged 2.4 BPG last season and was 2nd on the team in block percentage at 9.6%, behind Dylan Cardwell, an extremely impressive player in his own right. Broome placed 25th nationally with 0.09 blocks per minute, (Cardwell was 15th) and while he couldn’t replicate Walker Kessler’s numbers, he came a lot closer than any publication or preview thought he could. Improving as the season went on, his top-8 highest-scoring games all came against Power 6 competition.
Despite team struggles at times, Broome was all-around extremely valuable and is the Tigers’ best, most trusted option offensively right now. It’s possible Broome is the best power forward in the SEC. If this team didn’t have him last year, it’s likely they wouldn’t make the tournament. He’s that valuable, and it could ring true again this year.
Auburn Tigers make-or-break player: Denver Jones
Auburn needed a change at the guard spot after two seasons straight of inefficient shooting. Jones comes to the plains with a career 35.9 3PT%, improving from 34.5% as a freshman to 37.1% last season. Upping his scoring average to 20.1 PPG, he scored in double-figures in all but two games, including 30 points against Rice and 29 against a very good UAB team. Shooting 55.7% from inside the perimeter, Jones is able to score from distance as well as a midrange or up close with his 6-4 frame.
If there are knocks to be found, it’s on defense, questions about translating to high-level basketball, and a changing role. Jones’s defensive prowess isn’t the most impressive part of his game, and he’s produced a negative defensive box plus/minus each year in Miami. While he had good games offensively against NC State and Florida Atlantic, playing teams at the level of Arkansas, Baylor, or USC week in and out is much different than the C-USA slate. Additionally, he was one of only two players in double figures last year at Florida International, and it was a very Jones-centric offense. Will he be able to quickly adapt to less of an on-ball role with Holloway, Williams, and Broome on the court at the same time?
While it won’t be hard to improve from last year’s backcourt efficiency woes, Jones has pressure on him to succeed, whether warranted or unwarranted. Sharing the backcourt with a five-star talent like Holloway and having Broome down low has created expectations from the Auburn faithful. With Holloway possibly being a one-and-done candidate similar to Sharife Cooper, the fanbase is clamoring for now-or-never success from these two guards. Jones certainly has the talent to score in bunches for Auburn, and it’ll be oh-so-important for Pearl’s backcourt experiment to work this season. Three straight seasons of average guards would raise questions on the plains, but Jones is one of the best transfers Pearl could’ve grabbed to solve shot-selection woes.
Key analytics: Fouls per game, 3PT%
Auburn found themselves in foul trouble often last season. Too often. And when that caused deficits in games, they couldn’t quickly respond with threes because they weren’t making them. With six players averaging 2.0 or more fouls per game, Auburn was excellent at sending their opponents to the line. Ranking 327th in the country with 19.3 fouls per game, Auburn hacked their way to losses often.
In an overtime loss to Alabama, in which Auburn led by as much as 17 with 10 minutes to go, the Tigers committed 29 fouls. That’s more than one every two minutes of game time. Alabama made 24 free throws, the difference in a heart-breaking rivalry loss. Three starters ended up fouling out of that game. In other close losses to Texas A&M and Southern Cal, they recorded 27 and 25 fouls, respectively.
When recording 20+ fouls, Auburn went 5-of-8. What’s horrifying is the consistency at which Auburn fouled their opponents. The national median was 16.9 FPG for a team. Auburn didn’t record A SINGLE GAME with less than 16 fouls. Every 33 games they played resulted in at least 16 fouls against the Tigers. That’s unheard of. And it’s not some referee conspiracy. No one from the SEC office is paying refs to call fouls on the Tigers. They were just so extremely prone to fouling their opponents, and it came back to bite them so often in what turned out to be a frustrating season. Even Portland State, who averaged 23.0 fouls per game, managed a couple of games where they didn’t reach the 16-foul threshold. Auburn had exactly zero.
After giving free points to an opponent, an easy way to get back is through a good perimeter shooting run. Unfortunately for Auburn, it wasn’t so easy last season, mostly due to shot selection. For example, in a 46-43 loss to Tennessee, Auburn shot 3-of-27 from outside. That’s 11.1%. If they even went 4-of-27, still horrifically inefficient, that’s still a shot to win in overtime. The two guards who attempted the most tries from outside the arc, Wendell Green and K.D. Johnson, shot at a clip of 29.5% and 33.3%, respectively. That’s not a great look, and it placed them 6th and 7th-best on a team that placed 320th in the nation with a 31.5% rate from three. Not a great look.
Despite the low success rates, Auburn still chucked up 20.6 attempts from outside per game. With inside talent like Broome and Cardwell, both with a +50.0 FG%, it was inexcusable to continue to shoot from outside with such inconsistent rates. Two Tigers (Chris Moore and Tre Donaldson) actually managed higher than a 40% rate from three, and yet, combined, attempted less than half the amount of threes per game that Green threw up last season. For a team that struggled so mightily to score at points, it would have made sense to tinker with the lineup and give Moore and Donaldson more opportunities, but for the most part, that never arrived from Pearl, who consistently committed coaching malpractice by continuing to try to toss a square peg into a circular basket.
Jaylin Williams, who ranked 2nd in 3PA last season, actually was productive from behind the arc, connecting at a 35.4% rate. However, out of the five players who shot more than 2 3PA per game, only Williams shot higher than 33.3%. Whoever was to blame, either Pearl’s insistence to his team to continue shooting from three despite horrible percentages, or guards being allowed the responsibility to shoot from wherever on the court, Pearl seemed to have gotten the message that it needed to improve. Holloway and Jones might be the best shooting duo from the 1-2 that Auburn has had since the 2018-19 season.
How does one respond to such an undisciplined season such as last year? Well, there’s nowhere to go but up. Averaging closer to 15-17 FPG instead of the dreadful 19.3 last season would be quite welcome. Shooting the three at a clip higher than 35.0% is needed, but if it doesn’t happen, then the Tigers need to STOP SHOOTING THREES or change into a lineup that can. This year’s fortunes hinge on three scenarios. One, if the Tigers can stop fouling their opponent. Two, if they can hit threes. Three, if the second scenario does not happen, then Coach Pearl must run the offense through Williams, Broome, and Cardwell down low, all of whom are more than capable of putting the ball through the hoop. The first scenario has to happen, and the next two don’t matter if it doesn’t. But if the second doesn’t happen, the third can happen and Auburn can still be fine. The second could happen and render the third scenario meaningless, they are intertwined. But if none of the scenarios happen, it’ll be a long season in Auburn.
Auburn Tigers 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 8th in the SEC
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Sweet 16 Exit