SEC Season Preview: Auburn Tigers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on October 30th, 2014

The SEC microsite will preview each of the league teams over the next few weeks, continuing today with the Auburn Tigers.

Strengths. The Tigers should not struggle to put the ball in the basket this year, at least not from the outside. Bruce Pearl’s first team at Auburn will feature not only the SEC’s leading returning scorer, KT Harrell (18.3 points per game), but also the country’s leading returning scorer Antoine Mason (25.6 PPG at Niagara). Only Doug McDermott scored more points per game than Mason did in 2013-14. Whether that translates against tougher competition still remains to be seen, but sophomore Tahj Shamsid-Deen and New Mexico State graduate transfer K.C. Ross-Miller offer support in the backcourt too. Each of these players brings something different to the table: Harrell is a high volume three-point shooter (35.9% 3FG); Mason gets the bulk of his points at the rim or from the free throw line (10.8 free throw attempts per game); Shamsid-Deen has upside (9.5 points per game as a freshman); and Ross-Miller can create for others (3.5 assists per game). Despite the differences, these four should fit well together in Pearl’s up-tempo system, and if nothing else, make for some entertaining games on the Plains.

Tahj Shamsid-Deen could be poised for a breakout sophomore season at Auburn (photo courtesy

Tahj Shamsid-Deen could be poised for a breakout sophomore season at Auburn (photo courtesy

Weaknesses.  Rebounding could be a problem for the Tigers this season. From a straight numbers perspective, Auburn lost Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Allen Payne to graduation, who finished first and second on the team in rebounds per game. These two players weren’t supporting a great rebounding team either, as the Tigers finished 278th in the country in total rebounds last season. It also doesn’t help that Pearl will likely need to give heavy minutes to Mason, Ross-Miller and Shamsid-Deen, all of whom stand at a height under 6’1.’’ The hope for the Tigers is that raw sophomore Matthew Atewe can stay healthy and build on the solid 13.5 percent total rebounding rate he posted last year. JuCo transfer Cinmeon Bowers and freshmen Jack Purchase and T.J. Lang can also help out on the glass.

Toughest Non-Conference Test… Nothing on Auburn’s non-conference schedule jumps off the page at you, but there is some quality here. The Tigers face Colorado and Askia Booker on November 17 and travel to Texas Tech and Clemson over an 11-day stretch in December. Auburn also gets Tulsa, the best-rated opponent on their non-conference schedule (#45), in the MGM Grand Main Event.

Toughest Conference Stretch… It can’t be denied; the SEC schedule doesn’t always offer the stiffest of tests, but when in doubt, always look for the game against John Calipari and Kentucky. Pearl makes his Auburn debut against Coach Cal in Lexington on February 21. The Tigers follow that up with a home game against an LSU team that could be rolling by the end of the year. Pearl then must navigate consecutive road games against Texas A&M and Missouri, two teams that might be better than many think.

Projected Starters

  • PG K.C. Ross-Miller (6’0’’)
  • SG Tahj Shamsid-Deen (5’9’’)
  • SG Antoine Mason (6’1’’)
  • SG KT Harrell (6’4’’)
  • PF Cinmeon Bowers (6’7’’)

As far as I can tell, Pearl hasn’t come out and definitively said that he’ll go with a four-guard lineup, but if you read between the lines it seems like a real possibility. Harrell and Mason are locks to start, and last week Pearl said that Shamsid-Deen has been the Tigers’ best player thus far. He also said he wants to play Shamsid-Deen off-the-ball, making the experienced Ross-Miller the most logical player to slot in at point guard. Bowers likely gets the nod over Atewe given his age and offensive ability.

Projected Bench

  • PG Malcolm Canada (6’3’’)
  • C Matthew Atewe (6’8’’)
  • SF Jordon Granger (6’8’’)
  • SG TJ Lang (6’7’’)
  • SF Jack Purchase (6’8’’)

Canada is a big point guard who could present match-up problems, but he will need to take better care of the ball this season (24.1 percent turnover rate). Atewe has big-time defensive potential, as he posted a 6.7 percent block rate as a freshman. If he can stay healthy there’s a good chance he’ll be Pearl’s choice up front to protect leads late in games. Granger is an intriguing player since his size and versatility should fit Pearl’s up-tempo system. Lang and Purchase should be thrust into contributing roles immediately given Auburn’s lack of depth.

Can Bruce Pearl lead another dramatic first-year turnaround in the SEC?

Can Bruce Pearl lead another dramatic first-year turnaround in the SEC?

If Everything Goes Right… Pearl engineered a tremendous turnaround during his first season at Tennessee, turning a 14-17 team into a 22-8 team that won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Hoping for a similar uptick this season is not realistic, but that doesn’t mean the Tigers can’t jump into the middle tier of the conference. Pearl has two proven scorers in Mason and Harrell who should be able to keep the Tigers in a lot of games. Shamsid-Deen is something of an x-factor: He took excellent care of the ball as a freshman (11.2 percent turnover rate) and flashed scoring potential. If he continues to develop, Pearl might have three guys who can carry the scoring load on a given night. A similarly quick development tract from Atewe would give Auburn a complementary frontcourt that could vault the Tigers into the top half of the SEC, and just maybe, gulp, to the fringes of NCAA consideration.

If Nothing Goes Right… Mason averaged 18.5 shots per game last season, and Harrell put up 13.5 per game of his own. Pearl wants Shamsid-Deen to play a more active scoring role, and Bowers didn’t become the top-rated JuCo recruit by passing out of double-teams. The point is that there are only so many shots to go around and Pearl could have his hands full keeping everyone happy. If the dam breaks, it could lead to an offense that isn’t as good as it could be. The Tigers are thin on the interior and rely on players that are essentially unproven at the Division I level. If the pieces don’t mesh, Auburn fans will shift all their attention to next year’s recruiting class as the 2014-15 Tigers finish at the bottom of the league.

Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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