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Know Your Non-Conference Opponent: Auburn

Auburn looms as a sneaky good team out of the SEC as Xavier’s schedule toughens.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Auburn vs Clemson
“Have you tried just cheating, son?”
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The tune-ups are out of the way by the time Auburn rocks into the Cintas. Bruce Pearl’s boys were a four seed in the NCAA tournament and while, like Xavier, they got eliminated in the second round, they put together an impressive season. Given Pearl’s sometimes Caliparian approach to recruiting (I mean paying players, if that was too subtle an allusion), the Tigers would be expected to fill in any gaps in their returning roster with high profile incoming players.

This game will also feature on ESPN2. Any Xavier players not used to the bright lights will be either rapidly adapting or floundering by this point. Call it a hunch, but I expect this to be the game where Naji Marshall has his first Naji moment of the year.

Key Departures:

How does the best player on the team leaving grab you as key? Mustapha Heron left Auburn for St. John’s this offseason. While Heron’s decision making can rightly be questioned, there’s no question that this is a huge blow to the Tigers. Heron went for 16.4/5.3/1 last year and led the team in usage rate. Davion Mitchell dipped out for Baylor after an unimpressive 3.7/1.1/1.9 freshman year. That’s two ESPN top 100 recruits out the door

Key returnees:

Bryce Brown, Sr, 6-3, G (15.9/2.0/1.7, .401/.382/.775)
Jared Harper, Jr, 5-10, G (13.2/2.4/5.4, .360/.355/.822)
DeSean Murray, Jr, 6-3, G/F (10.1/6.7/1.7, .455/.321/.840)
Chuma Okeke, So, 6-8, F (7.5/5.8/1.1, .458/.391/.673)

If Anfernee McLemore comes back from injury ready to get back to his rim protecting best, he can be added to this list as well. Brown is a legitimate SEC player of the candidate and Harper initiates the offense right there with the nation’s best. This core coming back may not have Heron, but it has loads of talent.

Key Additions:

There’s only one incoming freshman for Auburn, and he’s mildly unimpressive 6-8 freshman Myles Parker. Parker is a two star forward who has the body to grow into something better. If that seems odd for Pearl, that’s because it is. The reason for that is the FBI investigation. Shockingly, Pearl and since fired fall guy assistant coach Chuck Person were caught up in the net the federal government cast. That cost them players last season and likely hampered efforts to bring in players for this campaign.

The FBI takes, but the FBI also gives. Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley both rejoin the Tigers this season after missing all of last year under suspension. Purifoy is a 6-7 shooter who stroked 37% of his three pointers as a freshman in 2016-17 on his way to 11.5/4.7/1.8. Austin Wiley played nearly 20 minutes that same freshman campaign, averaged 8.8/4.7/0.2, and used his 6-11 frame to put up an 8% block rate.

Ultimately, Auburn is still a talented team. Had Heron and Mitchell not left they’d be a legitimate challenger to the semi-pro squad out of Lexington. As it stands, they harbor serious NCAA aspirations and could equal last year’s run with Purifoy and Wiley back. Xavier goes from frying pan to fire in back to backs with Wisconsin and then these guys.