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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

Sunday’s Three Things To Know: Michigan rolls, Gafford shines, Virginia Tech beats Purdue

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Some believe that Sunday is fun day.

Others think of Sunday as a day for football and nothing else. 

But Sundays are also for college hoops, as Michigan, Daniel Gafford and Virginia Tech showed us.

Here are the three things you need to know:

1. NO. 18 MICHIGAN CONTINUED TO DOMINATE

Fresh off of a 27 point blowout win at Villanova, the Wolverines went to the Mohegan Sun casino and rolled over both George Washington and Providence. The win over the Friars came on Sunday, as Iggy Brazdeikis scored 20 points and Jon Teske added 17. Providence shot just 28 percent from the floor in the loss, as a late first half surge from the Wolverines more or less put this one out of reach before the second half started.

I’m not sure what else there is to say about Michigan at this point in time. The Wolverines are already one of college basketball’s elite defensive teams, and given the new look they can run out this year — playing Brazdeikis and Isaiah Livers, both of whom are strong, 6-foot-8 athletic combo-forwards, at the four and the five — makes them all-the-more versatile. There are still kinks to work out on the offensive end, but if there is anyone that I would want to give four months to figure out how to make offense work, it is John Beilein.

2. NO. 16 VIRGINIA TECH LANDED A COME-FROM-BEHIND WIN OVER NO. 23 PURDUE

The best game of the night was Virginia Tech’s win over Purdue in the title game of the Charleston Classic.

Purdue jumped out to a 12-point lead thanks to a hot start from Carsen Edwards and some timely play-making by Evan Boudreaux, but the Hokies came roaring back in the second half. Nickeil Alexander-Walker was terrific while Justin Robinson and Ahmed Hill made big play after big play in the second half.

There is a lot to like about Tech this season, and it looks like Buzz Williams has them lined up for their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

3. ARKANSAS CENTER DANIEL GAFFORD WAS DOMINANT

Gafford looked every bit the part of a future lottery pick, as he went for 27 points, 12 boards and three blocks in a win over Indiana in Fayetteville on Sunday evening. This is exactly the kind of performance that Arkansas fans were expecting out of their star center when he announced that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season. It is also the kind of performance that could end up getting Arkansas on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.

There is still so much time left this season, but Indiana has looked good at times this year. This result had quite a bit to do with a young Indiana team missing two starters while playing on the road for the first time this season. That ended up being a great combination for the Hogs, and it earned them a win that is going to look better two or three months from now than it does today.

VIDEO: Purdue’s Carsen Edwards with a Dunk of the Year candidate

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Carsen Edwards entered the season as an all-american and has played like one over the course of the first two weeks of the season.

While No. 23 Purdue did not get a win over No. 16 Virginia Tech on Sunday night, Edwards did find a way to make a highlight that is going to be on every reel this season:

The best part of this dunk?

Purdue was playing 4-on-5 at the time. Evan Boudreaux, their power forward grad transfer from Dartmouth, was at the other end trying to get his shoe put back on.

No. 16 Virginia Tech rallies past No. 23 Purdue

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Justin Robinson saw his Virginia Tech teammate Ahmed Hill coming off the floor after a disappointing first half.

“We’re going to need you to win,” Robinson told him.

Hill certainly listened and was instrumental in the 16th-ranked Hokies’ first in-season tournament title in coach Buzz Williams’ five seasons with an 89-83 victory over No. 23 Purdue at the Charleston Classic on Sunday night.

Hill scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half and had the three-point play that put the Hokies (4-0) ahead for good at 80-77 with 3:50 remaining.

Hill followed with a 3-pointer to extend the margin. The Boilermakers (4-1) could not respond.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker had 25 points to lead Virginia Tech. He was named tournament MVP.

Robinson also had 23 points as the Hokies came from 50-38 down in the second half to win.

The Hokies jumped around in celebration when the horn sounded, giddy about the championship.

“It’s an experience that money can’t buy,” Alexander-Walker said.

Purdue’s dynamic guard Carsen Edwards finished with 26 points, the fifth time this season he’s had 23 or more points in a game.

The 6-foot-1 junior rose high for a left-armed jam and tied things a final time at 77 with his layup after stealing the ball from Robinson.

But he said there were too many late breakdowns that cost the Boilermakers.

“The good thing is that it’s early and we can work on this before we get into (Big Ten) conference play,”

It didn’t look like Purdue would have much to work on early on.

Edwards jumper late in the first half put his team ahead 41-29 while the Hokies struggled to find shots.

But, as Virginia Tech did in earlier Charleston wins over Ball State and Northeastern, the team roared back.

The Hokies held Purdue to 1-of-8 shooting in a six-minute stretch as they went from 12 points behind to 58-56 ahead on Alexander-Walker’s 3-pointer.

Williams said the Hokies began to put pressure on Purdue’s inside players and make sure when Edwards shot, it was not an easy, open attempt.

Edwards was 9 of 21 overall and made only three of his 11 attempts from beyond the three-point line.

The game’s pace the final 12 minutes after Virginia Tech’s rally was frenetic, a high-level display of basketball typically on display in a later postseason tournament in March.

It’s way too early for that kind of talk, Alexander-Walker said.

“We try not to get ahead of ourselves,” he said. But “we’re happy to see our work come to light.”

Williams was happy for his players and staffers Virginia Tech could taste some early success after the word the team had done in the offseason.

“I’m thankful for our kids, I’m thankful for their parents who believed in us and allowed us to have an opportunity like this,” he said.

No. 10 Kentucky survives persistent VMI 92-82

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — These early weeks haven’t been easy for No. 10 Kentucky, but coach John Calipari sees an upside in how his team is working through growing pains to win.

Perimeter defense will no doubt be a focal point for improvement after Bubba Parham nearly shot VMI past the Wildcats.

Quade Green came off the bench to score a season-high 17 points, including five in the final 90 seconds, to help Kentucky hold off the Keydets 92-82 on Sunday night.

Statistically, the Wildcats (3-1) appeared to do a lot right against VMI (3-2). They controlled the boards (43-22), the paint (42-14) and missed just 6 of 35 free throws, numbers that should’ve added up to a solid victory.

Instead, they ended up being just enough to offset VMI and sophomore guard Bubba Parham. He scored a career-high 35 points and made 10 of the team’s 19 3-pointers, the most ever against the Wildcats. Parham also created late-game anxiety for Kentucky.

Leading by 19 midway through the second half, the Wildcats had to work to put away the stubborn Keydets, who made 12 second-half 3-pointers and got within 85-79 with 1:49 remaining.

“They made five, six, seven shots that you’re like, ‘dude, that’s almost at half court,'” Calipari said of VMI and Parham. “But we had hands down, and we’re talking at every huddle, you have to have your hands up on the guy. But hands were down and the kid was feeling it.”

Green answered with a 3-pointer 19 seconds later and Ashton Hagans made a free throw for a 10-point edge.

Tyler Creammer responded with the Keydets’ final 3 to get within 89-82 before Green made two free throws with 33 seconds left. PJ Washington (19 points, career-high 18 rebounds) made a free throw with 17 seconds left to seal Kentucky’s third consecutive win.

“We’ve always got to find a way to win,” Green said. “They came out on fire tonight because we’re Kentucky. However, we came back with some fire as well.”

Reid Travis matched a season high with 22 points for the Wildcats, who won their second game of the Ohio Valley Hardwood Showcase. That total included 10 in the second half while playing with protective glasses after being poked in the eye in the first.

Parham finished 10 of 16 from long range to double his previous high of five 3s last December against Western Carolina. He also surpassed his previous scoring best of 26 points in January at Chattanooga. Garrett Gilkeson and Creammer each added 13 for the Keydets with three 3s.

“It helps that (Parham) kind of went crazy and made a bunch of shots,” VMI coach Dan Earl said. “I thought we really spread the ball and got some open shots in the second half.”

The matchup was the first between the schools since the Keydets upset the Wildcats 111-103 in the 2008-09 season opener.

THE BUBBA SHOW

Parham seemingly couldn’t miss from where he launched deep shots, to the point that even Kentucky players and fans reacted in amazement. Of the 10 he made, one from near the UK insignia at half court and a high, arcing attempt from the right corner seemed to stand out.

“I’ve been shooting like that for a while now,” Parham said. “Some people call it a rainbow shot, but I practice that each and every day, so it’s my form now.”

Parham scored the most points against Kentucky and in Rupp Arena since Texas A&M’s Elston Turner dropped 40 on Jan. 12, 2013.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Kentucky should maintain its spot in the top 10 despite a win that was closer than expected.

BIG PICTURE

VMI: The Keydets entered the contest having made 25 of 51 3-pointers the past two outings and started hot with 6-of-9 shooting from long range. They couldn’t match Kentucky in the paint or on the boards, and sure couldn’t keep the Wildcats off the foul line. And yet, they were within seven in the final minute before missing the final three from behind the arc.

Kentucky: The Wildcats shot 49 percent and converted frequent chances at the line. They also dominated rebounding and paint and bench points, all of which were needed to offset the Keydets’ perimeter game and Parham.

Gafford’s career high lifts Arkansas over Indiana 73-72

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — An overtime loss in the season opener might have proved instrumental for Arkansas in a narrow win against Indiana.

The Razorbacks squandered a late lead in a 73-71 overtime loss to Texas, and the same fate loomed large again Sunday as the Hoosiers erased a double-digit Arkansas lead in the second half.

This time, the Razorbacks (2-1) found a way to hang on as Mason Jones’ free throw with 2.5 seconds left provided Arkansas a 73-72 win in the Hardwood Showcase.

Daniel Gafford scored a career-high 27 points for Arkansas, but it was Mason who delivered the big rebound and free throw that secured the win. It was a little redemption for Mason, who missed the front end of a one-and one with 1:01 left and Arkansas clinging to a 72-69 lead.

“I knew I was going to make that free throw,” Mason said. “I like the pressure.”

In a similar situation against Texas, Mason missed a late shot and Texas rallied to tie and force overtime. Mason said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told him he’d get another chance, and Sunday it presented itself.

“We learned a lot from that Texas game,” Jones said. “I just knew to be ready when the chance came again and I was ready this time.”

Indiana (3-1) had a chance to take the lead with under 15 seconds left, but two shots under the Hoosiers’ basket would not fall and Jones rebounded the second miss and was fouled by De’Ron Davis with 2.5 seconds left. It was a foul Indiana coach Archie Miller did not totally agree with.

“We had a shot to win the game, had a tap to win the game and had an unfortunate call that put them on the line,” Miller said. “It was a 50-50 play. I don’t know if he fouled him or not, but I know it was a tough call.”

Jones hauled in the key rebound, but Gafford did not let Jones take all the credit in the post-game interviews.

“I tipped that rebound out, by the way,” Gafford laughed.

Jones made the first free throw to give Arkansas a 73-72 lead. Indiana called a time out after Jones’ free throw, and Anderson instructed Jones to deliberately miss the second free throw.

“I have been harping on guys to make free throws, so asking him to miss one, I don’t remember asking a player to miss a free throw in a while,” Anderson said. “It was a perfect miss.”

Indiana only had time for a desperation heave as the buzzer sounded.

Arkansas rode the second half play of Gafford, who also grabbed 11 rebounds. At one stretch in the second half, Gafford scored 10 straight Arkansas points to help the Razorbacks hold on against a furious Indiana rally.

“I wasn’t playing weak like I usually do,” Gafford, who passed up entering the NBA Draft to return to Arkansas for his sophomore season, said. “Today I let the game come to me instead of trying to just go and take it. Letting the game come to you, it comes more smooth.”

Anderson said Gafford was a force at both ends, as his blocked shot just seconds after the opening tip set an early tone.

Miller said his team would benefit from playing against Gafford later in the season.

“He’s a very good player,” Miller said. “He was a really tough handle for us today. He pretty much neutralized the game. He was dominant. That is something that is going to help us moving forward and defending the caliber of big like that.”

Arkansas led 38-35 at halftime on Gabe Osabuohien’s 3-pointer from the right perimeter. Then Isaiah Joe, who finished with 13 points, opened the second half with a 3-pointer for a 41-35 lead. The Razorbacks would stretch the lead to 10 points twice — 45-35 with 17:08 left on Gafford’s dunk, and 51-41.

Indiana rallied with an 11-2 run fueled by freshman Romeo Langford, who finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and eventually took a 58-57 lead on Juwan Morgan’s layup with 8:58 left.

Arkansas recaptured a five-point lead at 63-58 on Gafford’s inside shot, before Indiana surged again to twice tie the game late.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: The Hoosiers played just eight players as they have battled some early season injuries. Six of the eight logged more than 20 minutes including Langford, who played 38 minutes.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks had all nine players reach the scoring column Sunday, getting contributions off the bench to help the scoring. Jones also delivered a huge performance with 11 points and seven assists without a turnover.

TURNING POINT

Arkansas appeared to be rolling to a big win when Jones completed a three-point play to give the Razorbacks a 10-point lead at 51-41 with 14:16 left. But the Hoosiers rallied by outscoring Arkansas 17-6 over the next five-plus minutes to take a 58-57 lead.

Juwan Morgan and Langford fueled the run, scoring nine of the Hoosiers’ 17 points with Morgan’s inside bucket giving Indiana the lead.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Langford is projected to be a high lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and he lived up to that lofty status Sunday. Langford a 6-foot-6 guard in just his fourth college basketball game, showed off a variety of skills with slashing drives and long range. His back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half helped Indiana erase a 10-point deficit.

TIP-INS

This was just the third meeting between the two teams, and first since 2008 when Arkansas defeated Indiana in an NCAA Tournament game. . Arkansas is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its 1994 national championship under former coach Nolan Richardson. Anderson was a longtime assistant coach and former player for Richardson.