Realistic Auburn basketball expectations for the 2021-22 season

No basketball program around the country fired quite the opening salvo that Auburn basketball did when they co-hosted Tipoff at Toomer’s with Johnnie Harris’ Lady Tigers at the intersection of S College St. and where E Magnolia Ave and W Magnolia Ave meet in downtown Auburn.

But that doesn’t single-handedly cut the nets down. Not when the Auburn basketball program has yet to win a championship in its 115 year history.

There’s a first for everything, though.

And judging by the way Bruce Pearl talks about this group–particularly its strengths in the frontcourt–it sounds as though Auburn may have its best shot at one since taking over the helm here on the Plains:

“Between Jaylin Williams and Jabari (Smith) and Stretch (Akingbola) and Dylan Cardwell and Walker Kessler — that’s the deepest and the biggest and the most talented frontline that I’ve had,” Pearl said during a chat with reporters Tuesday. “I’ve always been sort of undersized, playing small ball. Now we’re going to be a lot bigger. We’re going to see, hopefully, if our system can make that adjustment and take advantage of our size.”

Pearl fell short of calling his current backcourt group of Wendell Green Jr., Zep Jasper, K.D. Johnson, and Devan Cambridge the best he’s ever had given what Jared Harper, Bruce Brown, J’Von McCormick, and Samir Doughty contributed on the court to the 2019 Final Four team and what they mean to the Auburn family because of it.

Not only that, but this current group returns only one player from last year’s team (Cambridge). Pearl acknowledged the challenges they will face while optimistically projecting his backcourt to gel:

“It’s going to be challenging, but I think they’ll play together,” Pearl said. “…What makes it difficult is getting whoever it’s going to be, most likely Zep, to play point guard and off the ball. And this being his first year, learning both positions, it’s different.”

The 2021-22 Tigers have a few electric playmakers in the backcourt, but their best players are in the frontcourt.

Jabari Smith, projected as high as #3 in NBA mock drafts for next year, will be the primary scorer in the offense. He could even do some facilitating with his advanced ball-handling for someone standing six-foot-ten.

UNC transfer Walker Kessler could be a game-changer too with his long-range shooting at over seven feet. Then of course there’s the incumbent trio of Jaylin Williams, Dylan Cardwell, and ‘Stretch’ Akingbola, who all showed promise even without the team’s best facilitators Sharife Cooper and Justin Powell for extended stretches last season.

With all of this said, can the frontcourt be the impetus for a deep postseason run even when the backcourt has question marks?

Auburn basketball is a March Madness shoe-in and can do damage once there

These Tigers are built to win in college basketball.

While they won’t be the run-and-gun high-octane offense that last year’s champion Baylor was, they do have the potential to muck things up with strong defense and rebounding with their oversized frontcourt.

The backcourt is not chopped liver, by the way…just so we’re clear.

There is serious microwave scoring in Green, Johnson, and Jasper, who collectively totaled 18 games of 20+ points scored last season.

Green had 10 of those, and while he and Jasper both totaled those numbers for mid-major programs, you have to figure that the attention Smith and the rest of the frontcourt figure to generate will make every backcourt members’ jobs of generating offense on the perimeter easier.

And truly, if the dynamite scoring from the wings isn’t present for the Tigers, second chances from AU’s frontcourt giants could make up for it anyway. That is what wins games in the trenches at the collegiate level, and March Madness is filled with said trenches.

These factors will be what allows Auburn to knock off smaller schools in non-conference play with ease, then compete with anyone and everyone in the SEC. That includes popular preseason title pick Kentucky, Pearl’s former school and similarly trendy preseason pick Tennessee, and an improved Alabama under Nate Oats.

Auburn basketball could win their first national championship, but Fly War Eagle is far more comfortable guaranteeing a finish anywhere from the Round of 32 to the Final Four itself.

And we wouldn’t be saying any of this if Bruce Pearl himself wasn’t so excited about these Tigers’ chances in the grand return of full arenas to the college basketball atmosphere.

His optimism is simply contagious, though.