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No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 10 Auburn.


Auburn, last year, had one of the strangest seasons I can recall in my time covering this sport.

No one, and I mean no one, had the Tigers pegged as a surefire tournament team heading into the season. It’s true that Bruce Pearl was coming off of his best season as the head coach of the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean that Auburn was particularly good. The Tigers went 18-14 in 2016-17 and 7-11 in the SEC, climbing out of 13th place in the SEC for the first time in Pearl’s tenure.

So expectations weren’t particularly high heading into the year, and all of that happened before the bombshell of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball dropped right as practices were starting.

Suddenly, Auburn and Pearl were thrust into the middle of a massive scandal. Former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with fraud, part of a bribery scandal where he was paid as much as $91,000 to help funnel money to players on his roster and exert his influence over where they would opt to invest their money once they reached the professional ranks. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two of the most talented players on the team, were ruled ineligible — Purifoy will be suspended for the first nine games of the 2018-19 season as well — while five-star prospect E.J. Montgomery eventually decommitted from the program.

And while all of this was happening, Pearl — who already had an NCAA rap sheet thanks to a barbecue and Aaron Craft — was refusing to speak with Auburn’s investigators; the scuttle was that he might not make it to the new year employed.

What did the Tigers do?

Oh, they just went out and won 26 games, took home a share of the SEC regular season title and reached their first NCAA tournament in 15 years despite losing their best frontcourt weapon in February to a grisly dislocated ankle.

It was a remarkable year, one that likely would have resulted in numerous Coach of the Year awards had Pearl, you know, not been on the brink of being fired.

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AUBURN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

They bring back a number of key pieces from last season’s team, and get a number of key players back that were in street clothes in March.

Let’s start with Anfernee McLemore. He’s not the most well-known player on this team by a longshot, but I think he may be the most important. When he’s healthy, he is the perfect piece to put at the five for the Tigers. He’s only 6-foot-7, but he’s a terrific athlete vertically, he shot 39.1 percent from three last season and he would have led the nation in block percentage had he managed to play enough minutes to qualify. An energetic rim-protector that can rebound the ball and shoot it from distance is exactly what you want in your big man if you are a team that wants to play fast, spread the floor and create mismatches.

McLemore suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in mid-February — think Gordon Hayward — and the Tigers fell off a cliff afterwards. They lost to South Carolina the day he was injured. They lost two of their last four regular season games. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and after struggling to beat a short-handed Charleston team in the first round, they were dropped by 31 points in the second round by Clemson. McLemore is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season. If and when he is, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and the Tigers should be closer to what they were for the majority of last season.

Anfernee McLemore (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other guy that is critical to the way that this Auburn team wants to play is point guard Jared Harper. He led the team in assists last season and is integral to the way that they run that uptempo offense. He — and Bryce Brown, the best shooter in the program if not the SEC — both declared for the NBA Draft before opting to return to school. Like McLemore, Brown should be healthy to start the season; he was slowed by a shoulder injury down the stretch of last season.

With the gut that makes their offense click bank in the fold and the most important player defensively healthy, the Tigers should be back to their uptempo, high-scoring ways once again.

They also bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

ST LOUIS, MO – MARCH 09: Jared Harper (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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BUT AUBURN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that the Tigers were as good as they were last season was due to the fact that they played in an SEC where everyone was just OK.

Look at the teams that finished behind Auburn and Tennessee in the league standings. Florida finished third despite losing 13 games on the season. It took Kentucky four months to figure out who their go-to guy was, and they still managed to finished fourth in the league, tied in the standings with a Missouri team that didn’t have Michael Porter Jr. Texas A&M was a massive disappointment. Alabama finished below .500 in the conference despite having Colin Sexton and one of the nation’s top ten defenses.

The league was deep, there were plenty of teams that were tournament-worthy and winning a league title in a conference that is that balanced is not something that should be overlooked.

That said, looking up and down Auburn’s roster, what is there that is really all that intimidating? I don’t know that they had an NBA player last season, and that was before they lost Mustapha Heron to a transfer.

What made Auburn so good last season was the style they played — super-uptempo, spread out and hard to guard — while doing so with an energy level higher than everyone they played. I’m not sure if there is a coach in the country better at getting a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder to play with that foxhole mentality than Bruce Pearl, and he proved it last season.

Calling Auburn a group try-hards would not be fair, and I truly do believe that playing hard, playing with a motor and playing with the kind of energy that Auburn did is a skill, but at some point, talent in basketball wins out, and Auburn does not have a roster that is as talented as many of the other top teams around the country and in their own league.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

On the court, the key to this season for the Tigers is going to be how they replace the scoring of Mustapha Heron.

While he has hit warts as a player, Heron was certainly capable of being a guy that could get a bucket when Auburn needed a bucket. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and popped off for more than 20 points eight times.

And that brings me to what is arguably the bigger question mark for this program moving forward: How will they reincorporate Purifoy and Wiley into the mix?

Like I mentioned earlier, the reason that Auburn had as much success as they did last season was because they had a group of guys that bought into the collective and fit into the way that Pearl wants to play. Wiley is a former five-star recruit that was once projected as a first round pick, but he’s also a lumbering 6-foot-11 center that is over 250 pounds even when he’s in shape. He is the polar opposite of McLemore, and it is hard to figure how a dude like that is going to play in that offense.

The same can be said for Purifoy, who is a talented wing but, again, is not a player that is necessarily the ideal fit for Auburn’s style of play. Can he fill the scoring void left by Heron?

And can Wiley co-exist on a roster that wants to play fast? What happens if McLemore and Chuma Okeke take over the starting roles? How will the program’s chemistry be if Samir Doughty ends up starting over Purifoy?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I don’t see Auburn winning a second straight SEC regular season title.

Kentucky is absolutely loaded and might be the best team in the country. Tennessee, who won a share of the title last season, returns everyone from that team. They are going to enter the season in the top five of some preseason rankings, and deservedly so. Auburn, as much as they bring back, has more question marks and more risk than any of the other teams sitting at the top of this league.

That said, it’s hard to ignore the success they had last season or the importance McLemore’s return.

The Tigers should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and they should do so as a top four seed.

They’re good.

But given what they lost — and, in a way, what they’re getting back — I think it’s more likely that the bottom falls out and this group ends up outside the top 25 than they find a way to win the SEC.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Ivy League calls off fall sports due to outbreak

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The Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to say it will not play sports this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The league left open the possibility of moving some seasons to the spring if the outbreak is better controlled by then.

The decision was described to the AP by a person speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the official announcement.

Although the coalition of eight academically elite schools does not grant athletic scholarships or compete for an NCAA football championship, the move could have ripple effects throughout the big business of college sports. Football players in the Power Five conferences have already begun workouts for a season that starts on Aug. 29, even as their schools weigh whether to open their campuses to students or continue classes remotely.

The Ivy decision affects not just football but everything before Jan. 1, including soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross country, as well as the nonconference portion of the basketball season.

Power Five conferences told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were still considering their options. But it was the Ivy League’s March 10 decision to scuttle its postseason basketball tournament that preceded a cascade of cancellations that eventually enveloped all major college and professional sports.

“What’s happening in other conferences is clearly a reflection of what’s happening nationally and any decisions are made within that context,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the chair of the Big Ten’s infectious disease task force, adding that there is no “hard deadline” for a decision.

“Clearly, regardless of what happens in the fall, sports are coming back eventually,” he said. “So we want to make sure that whenever that time (is) right to return to competition, that we have the infrastructure and the recommendations in place to be able to do so safely for the student-athletes, staff, coaches, fans, students.”

Ivy League schools are spread across seven Northeastern states that, as of mid-July, have seen some success at controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. But most of those states still ban large gatherings; under the Massachusetts reopening plan, Harvard would not be allowed to have fans in the stands until a vaccine is developed.

Harvard has already announced that all classes for both semesters will be held virtually; dorms will be open only to freshmen and seniors. Yale said it would limit its dorms to 60% capacity and said most classes would be conducted remotely. Princeton will also do most of its teaching online, with dorms at half capacity.

Coaches 4 Change: Siena’s Carmen Maciariello spearheads social justice initiative

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Carmen Maciariello found himself in the same place so many of us did in the days after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.

Devastated by what he was seeing. Motivated to find a way to use his platform as the head coach at Siena College to enact change. Struggling with how, as he puts it, “a white head coach from privilege at a school in New York,” can have real, honest, open dialogue with his majority-Black roster.

So he picked up the phone. He called Louis Orr, his former college coach and now an assistant coach at Georgetown. He called his closest friends in the coaching business. He called his advisor, Brad Konerman, an entrepreneur who connected him with a couple of talented website designers. By early June, 25 like-minded people from all walks of life were on a zoom call.

“I’ve never been pulled over and feared for my life for not using my blinker,” Maciariello, who is white, told me. “We had those conversations. How are we talking to our teams about that? What are we doing with the police? How can we help our young people navigate through these tough times?”

That’s how Coaches 4 Change was born.

Maciariello has grand plans for the organization. On a zoom call with nearly all of the 43 coaches that have committed to the group to date, he said he wants “to try to change the world. Let’s not think small, we’ve gotta think big with this.” He is not lacking for ambition.

But Maciariello also understands that something like this has to start small and it has to start locally. It’s why he limited the first group of invitees to coaches that are “doing this for the right reasons.”

“I didn’t want to have a donate link and bring in coaches that felt like, ‘I donated money, I did my part supporting it,” he said. “It was about the time commitment and the vision. We have to focus on one thing first.”

That first thing?

Voting.

C4C developed a sleek, interactive website to help educate young people about social injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement, things as basic as the difference between systemic and systematic racism and Jackie Robinson’s impact on sports. But the site also provides users with all of the information necessary to vote in this year’s elections, information on what makes voting so important in a democracy and — most importantly — a tutorial for how a person in every state can register to vote, where their polling stations are and whether or not they are eligible for mail-in voting. Their website also has a ‘Keep Learning‘ page that links to all documentaries, podcasts, audiobooks and literary resources available on all streaming platforms, including content for children.

C4C has partnered with Vote.org with a goal of “100 percent voter registration for all college athletes” regardless of the sport they play, Maciariello said.

Currently, the only coaches involved with C4C are men’s college basketball coaches, but that will change. They are in the process of reaching out to counterparts on the women’s side, and will eventually invite staff members from other sports as well. One of the barriers to entry to become a member will be ensuring that every player on a coach’s team is registered to vote.

Eventually, Maciariello envisions C4C developing community outreach initiatives. He wants the members of C4C to connect with their campus communities and put together voter registration drives for students. He wants to eventually connect with lawmakers and work on changing legislation that helps systemic racism continue to exist.

No one ever said he wasn’t ambitious.

But he knows he has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is this platform.

“I want to engage people in issues,” he said. “Educate them, empower them to change, encourage them to grow and evolve.”

CBT Podcast: Pat Chambers, moving the season up, Running Back Buddy Hield’s 46 points at Kansas

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In the latest edition of the Run It Back podcast, Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan recap Buddy Hield’s memorable 46-point outburst in a three-overtime loss to Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 1 back in 2016. The game was unbelievable. Before they dive into the game itself, the boys talk through Pat Chambers’ noose comments to Rasir Bolton and the potential for the college basketball season to get moved up.

Michael Jordan, Roy Williams among UNC greats to condemn systemic racism

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Roy Williams and Michael Jordan joined numerous North Carolina luminaries in condemning systemic racism and voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in a video that was released by the school on Monday.

“Systematic racism has to stop now,” Jordan said in the video. “We must take the time to listen and educate our family, our friends, our children on social injustice and racial inequality. Black Lives Matter more now than ever before. We have to get this right, so please take time to educate yourself and improve the lives of many people, many Black people. Thank you.”

James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Tyler Hansbrough, Luke Maye and Sean May were among the former players that appeared in the video.

Williams led by discussing Charlie Scott, who was the first Black scholarship athlete in UNC’s history.

“Some of the greatest to play our game have been Black players, but here we are more than 50 years later and our country is still fighting systemic racism and police brutality against Black men and women,” Williams said. “The North Carolina basketball program, our family, our current and former players believe Black lives matter, and it’s critically important that we don’t just believe it. We must stand together and loudly and clearly demand that we as a country and the world embrace the fundamental human right that Black lives matter.”

Former Penn State guard Rasir Bolton left program after coach Pat Chambers made noose comment

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Former Penn State point guard Rasir Bolton has accused of Pat Chambers of making racially insensitive remarks, including a reference to a noose.

According to Bolton, who tweeted about the incident on Monday morning, midway through his freshman season in 2018-19 with the Nittany Lions, Chambers made a reference to a “noose” about Bolton’s neck.  Bolton described the encounter in an interview with the Undefeated, and said that the phrase was a result of Chambers talking about easing the pressure on his freshman’s shoulders. “I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck,” Bolton recalled.

Bolton also alleged that after his parents went to the Athletic Director with their concerns about this statement, Chambers told him during an exit interview that he was impressed by how “well-spoken” and “organized” his parents are. Remarks like this are considered racially-insensitive because they are based on the underlying assumption that Black people are not expected to be either organized or articulate.

Chambers, to his credit, admitted his wrong in making the noose comment.

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“I’ve realized the pain my words and ignorance caused Rasir Bolton and his family and I apologize to Rasir and the Bolton family for what I said,” Chambers’ statement read. “I failed to comprehend the experiences of others, and the reference I make was hurtful, insensitive and unacceptable I cannot apologize enough for what I said, and I will carry that forever.”

Bolton left Penn State after his freshman season and transferred to Iowa State. He was given immediately eligibility with the Cyclones after mentioning the noose comment when applying for a waiver. He averaged 14.7 points this past season with Iowa State. He also alleged that after he came to the Penn State athletic department with this claim, they offered him a meeting with a sports psychologist who told him how to “deal with Coach Chambers’ personality type.”