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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Auburn

Bruce Pearl makes his return to college basketball as the head coach of Auburn. After three years on the sidelines, has he assembled a squad that can slow down Xavier?

Fun fact: Bruce Pearl's natural speaking voice is a yell.
Fun fact: Bruce Pearl's natural speaking voice is a yell.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Heading on the road is axiomatically difficult in college basketball, as is knocking off a power-conference foe, so it stands to reason that going on the road to beat a power-conference team is a pretty big ask from just about any team. When you throw in finals, the upcoming holidays, and the impending conference season, Xavier's trip to Auburn coming off the heels of a road game against Missouri is unquestionably the most difficult turnaround of the non-conference slate. Here's what Xavier will be facing when they head south to take on the Tigers on December 20th.

Auburn's coach is the inimitable Bruce Pearl, fresh off of a show-cause violation he picked up for various recruiting irregularities and the ensuing cover-ups at Tennessee. Regardless of your opinion of him as a coach or a leader, it's undeniable that hiring Pearl is about the biggest move Auburn could have made in terms of grabbing headlines. It will be up to Pearl to make the steak match the sizzle (if you will).

It's hard to say what a three-year break might have done to Pearl's strategic nous, but his best teams loved to get up and down the court in a hurry and could really score the basketball. With the exception of the 19-15 team his final season at UT, all of his teams there were in the top 100 in tempo and EFG% and the top 70 in offensive efficiency. His teams never shot particularly well or often from behind the arc, but they did attack the offensive glass and do a good job at avoiding turnovers.

Pearl is a little harder to fingerprint defensively. Generally speaking, his teams conceded the three-point arc but blocked a lot of shots. They also forced turnovers at rates ranging from above-average to downright elite. Defensive rebounding was so varied through Pearl's tenure at UT that I'm guessing it was more of a function of personnel than strategy.

Colloquially speaking, the biggest loss for Auburn was guard Chris Denson's graduation. He played 80% of the team's minutes and led the team with a 30.4% usage rate. That investment of time and possessions was rewarded with a game line of 19.1/4.3/2.4 on .461/.265/.657 shooting. He wasn't the most efficient scorer you'd find, but the dude got buckets. He also averaged a steal per game and boasted an elite turnover rate.

Forward Allen Payne played an undersized four at 6'6", but he averaged 7.6/5.4/1.7 on .465/.207/.761 shooting and led the team with 1.2 steals per game. Auburn was able to get away with a 6'6" PF (in that a 14-16 team got away with anything) thanks to the presence of seven-footer Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, whose 6 and 6 per game came on 57.5% shooting and a staggering 14.2% OReb%. His DReb% of 16.7 wasn't shabby, either, and he blocked 11% of opponents' two-point shots when he was on the floor.

Curiously, wing Dion Wade transferred out after just one season with Auburn. He had made no noise regarding departure until Bruce Pearl oversigned his recruiting class and needed to make room. Wade takes his 11 minutes and 3 points per game and heads to Miami (OH). Now there's nothing categorically against the rules about oversigning, and the timing of it all may just be a coincidence, but I might try a little harder to look above reproach if I were coming off a three-year show-cause penalty. I'm just some dude who probably still lives in his mother's basement though, so what do I know?

If you can't bring back your top scorer, bringing back his wingman is the next best thing, and Auburn did just that in 6'4" wing K. T. Harrell. Harrell averaged 18.3/4.0/2.1 on .433/.359/.870 shooting, and the only thing keeping him from having a higher efficiency rating than Denson was his relatively poor turnover rate and the fact that Denson lived at the free throw line. Harrell should be the number one option for the Tigers this season.

Also coming back is point guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen. The rising sophomore excelled as a freshman, averaging 9.5/1.5/2.9 on .408/.331/.758 shooting as the team's primary ballhandler. He led the team with a 19.9% assist rate and his TO rate of 15% was better than what could reasonably expected of a freshman. It's slim pickings beyond that. Reserve guard Malcom Canada averaged 11.8 mostly lackluster minutes off the bench, and big men Matthew Atewe and Jordon Granger combined for 586 minutes in Auburn's 30 games.

Incoming players:
It's hard to start anywhere other than Antoine Mason, an immediately-eligible transfer from Niagara University. The 6'1" guard put up a game line of 25.6/3.6/1.5 on .440/.286/.728 last season and is the nation's leading returning scorer. Part of that is because he was playing with the other guys on the Niagara team and against the teams that schedule Niagara, but that's an impressive haul in almost any circumstances. Joining him as an immediately-eligible grad student is 6' guard KC Ross-Miller, late of New Mexico State. Ross-Miller can play both guard positions and shot .437/.393/.820 on his way to 8.3/2.2/3.5 last season.

Incoming freshmen include 6'7" wing TJ Lang. Lang had initially signed with Va Tech, but the Hokies let him out of his LOI when they hired Buzz Williams. Lang averaged 19/8/3 as a senior and can really shoot the basketball from deep and mid-range. Joining him is 6'10" Aussie Jack Purchase (what an Aussie name that is). Purchase is a four who can play pick-and-pop and knock down jumpers from mid-range and beyond the arc. He is a good rebounder but - at just 200 pounds - needs to add some weight to bang at the D1 level.

It gets a little dodgy after that. Cinmeon Bowers is a JuCo transfer from Chipola College in Florida, where he averaged 12.4 and 8.9 last year. He had originally signed with Florida State, but they released him from his LOI after he was arrested for eating marijuana to conceal it from the cops during a traffic stop.

Expected to enroll in December is 7'1" former Maryland signee Trayvon Reed. Reed is a super-athletic center who can run the floor and defend the rim as well as dominating the glass. Reed was released from his LOI to Maryland after he broke a police officer's fingers while resisting arrest. He was being arrested for stealing a Twix ice cream bar valued at $2.11, a four-pack of Reese's Cups also worth $2.11, and a two-pack of king-sized Reese's Cups priced at just $1.37. It's not clear whether or not Reed will be eligible for the Xavier game, but it is clear that he beat up a cop while trying to escape with $5.59 worth of junk food.

I'm all for the concept of second chances, and apparently so is Auburn. I sincerely hope Bruce Pearl has learned a valuable lesson about honesty and that the dudes with checkered pasts that he has brought in all remain on the straight and narrow and go on to lead happy and productive lives. That being said, however, I might have taken a year or two of abstaining from even the faintest hint of trouble after being away from the game for three years if I were Pearl.

Beyond that, Auburn has a couple of key pieces returning and a potential boatload of talent coming in. Mason and Ross-Miller were two of the most coveted names on the transfer market over the summer, and Bowers was a top JuCo player at Chipola. If Reed is eligible and Pearl can get the whole thing to come together, this may be a scary team when they hit their stride. If it all falls apart, however - and there look to be plenty of potential spanners in the works - it could be an ignomious return to coaching for Bruce Pearl.