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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Auburn

Auburn was about Xavier's worst non-conference loss last year; can the Muskies get revenge in the return leg?

It's statistically probable that he's about to attempt a shot he'll miss.
It's statistically probable that he's about to attempt a shot he'll miss.
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

After the Shootout, Xavier will have a moment to let things settle before hosting Auburn. Last year's trip to the nascent SEC power was a memorable one for Xavier; Remy Abell had a monster game, Brandon Randolph had his last hurrah, and X blew a double-digit lead to go on to lose in double overtime. Now on the return leg of that journey, Xavier has a chance to extract some revenge for one of last year's worst losses.

Coach/style:

Bruce Pearl's first year at Auburn was his first losing season as a head coach since his very first season head coaching. Auburn did make a mini-run in the SEC tournament - knocking off a couple of postseason-bound teams on the way - but that 15-20 record gives them plenty of room to grow.

After three years off, Pearl came back with the same run-and-gun style offensive approach. Auburn shot pretty well and pretty often from three, but there wasn't a lot else they excelled in on the attack. Their shooting from inside the arc was 321st in the nation and their offensive rebounding was 284th. Their up-tempo style and poor efficiency resulted in a lot of misses that they couldn't run down. If the three wasn't falling, they were hurting last year.

Forcing turnovers was a hallmark of Pearl's teams at UT, and that spilled over to his time at Auburn as well. The Tigers were a top-50 team in defensive TO% last year, but their EFG% against and defensive rebounding were both miserable. This season, I'd expect Auburn to try to keep the pace high, shoot a lot of threes, and generally hope to speed up their opponents at both ends. Actually making that work in a way that turns into wins is still very much in progress heading into the second year of the Pearl era.

Departures:

Out the door is leading man KT Harrell, a 6'4" guard who poured in 18.5/3.0/1.5 on .453/.434/.814 shooting in his final year as a Tiger. He led the team in minutes, ORtg, usage rate, three-point shooting, and EFG%. He's going to be hard to replace, as is second-leading scorer Antoine Mason. A grad transfer from Niagara, Mason was good for 14.4/2.4/1.0 in his sole season at Auburn. He shot .415/.402/.727; he and Harrel combined for 143 of Auburn's 252 made threes.

Harrell and Mason were 1-2 on the team in scoring; the number four scorer, KC Ross-Miller is also moving on. He went for 7.1/2.1/2.4. He wasn't especially efficient, as his .362/.300/.766 shooting line attests, but he led the team in assists and assist rate. Also gone are Malcolm Canada, a pedestrian guard who dropped 15 on Xavier, and Trayvon Reed, a 7'2" center who blocked 5 shots against X.

Returning players:

The biggest here is 6'7", 250-pound PF Cinmeon Bowers. Prior to seeing his line, I didn't think I'd ever call a post player a volume scorer, but his 12.1/9.6/1.3 came on .419/.179/.478 shooting, good for an EFG% of 41.7%, which is brutal. He is a top-50 rebounder on both ends, which is why the team abides his insatiable appetite for bad shots.

Also back is 5'9" rising junior guard Tahj Shamsid-Dean; he went for 6.1/1.1/1.5 on .358/.286/.782 shooting and leads all returning players in assists per game. Sharpshooting 6'8" rising senior forward Jordon Granger rounds out the remaining interesting returnees; he shot 37% from deep on the year.

Incoming players:

Auburn welcomes a couple of transfers with whom Xavier fans will be familiar. One is former Providence F Tyler Harris, who averaged 9.9/4.0/1.0 on .421/.286/.734 before using the grad transfer rule to head to Auburn. The other is former Xavier recruit Kareem Canty, who the Muskies stopped pursuing when Semaj signed. Canty put up 16.3/2.2/5.5 at Marshall before transferring out, first committing to Auburn, then USF, then back to Auburn. He wasn't an efficient scorer at Marshall, but he'll have more help around him at Auburn and should fit quite nicely.

Also coming in is JuCo guard TJ Dunans, a 6'5" slasher who can really get into the middle of the defense and create problems. Dunans is an explosive athlete who average 16.1/7.0/4.0 as a sophomore at Columbia State Community College. He's a volume scorer, but he can definitely put up a bunch of points in a hurry when he's on. Adding to all this is four-star freshman Horace Spencer. A 6'9", 215-pound power forward, he runs the floor well and rebounds and defends with high energy. His offensive game is a work in progress, but he'll be an energy guy off the bench right away.

Point guard New Williams is a four-star guard from California. He can play on or off the ball and is a fairly good shooter, but his party piece is a 48-inch vertical jump that allows him to dunk almost as well as JP Macura. Combo guard Bryce Brown is comfortable getting his own shot off the dribble and can hit from deep if given time and space to set his feet.

Auburn has also signed ESPN100 SF Danjel Purifoy, but his eligibility is in question and it doesn't appear he'll be cleared to compete this year.

Outlook:

It will come down to how quickly Pearl can integrate seven talented players into a team that they've not been eligible to represent in the past. Like Xavier last year, they're likely to have some early ups and down. If - like the Muskies - they can figure out how to make their talent play, they've got a chance to be clicking when March rolls around.