South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.
Oct. 31 Alabama
Nov. 1 Arkansas
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Bruce Pearl (15-20, second year; 477-165, 21st year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 15-20 (4-14)
2014-15 postseason: None
He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Malcolm Canada (5.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg), G K.T. Harrell (18.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg), G K.C. Ross-Miller (7.1 ppg 2.1 rpg), G Antoine Mason (14.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg), F Alex Thompson (transferred to Samford, 2.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg), F Matthew Atewe (transferred to Washington, did not play), F Jack Purchase (transferred to Hawaii, 1.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg), G C.J. Holmes (quit, 1.2 ppg, 0.0 rpg), G Stephen Bass (no longer on team, did not play), C Trayvon Reed (redshirting after not enrolling for fall due to personal reasons, 1.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-10 F Tyler Harris (Sr., transferred from Providence), 6-9 F Horace Spencer, 6-3 G Bryce Brown, 6-2 G Zach Allison, 6-9 F Cole Blackstock, 6-2 G New Williams, 6-3 G Jonathan Walker (Sr., walked on after lettering in track and field the last two years), 6-5 G T.J. Dunans (Jr., transferred from Columbia State (Tenn.) CC)
Top returners: 6-7 F Cinmeon Bowers (12.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg), 5-9 G Tahj Shamsid-Deen (6.1 ppg, 1.1 rpg), 6-8 F Jordon Granger (4.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
Last year was all about Auburn’s great stories.
Cinmeon Bowers became one of the best rebounders in the nation after overcoming a lot of hardships as a youth (including getting shot five times in his right leg). Bruce Pearl came back to the SEC and immediately gave second chances to several players, trying to find the right mix to succeed on one-year contracts for transfers. A patchwork team overcame a rotten regular season with a gutsy run to the SEC tournament semifinals. C.J. Holmes was a player while also being a sportswriter for the school paper. Stephen Bass was on the team after first gaining fame by sinking a half-court shot for $5,000 worth of tuition.
People were excited about Auburn basketball again after the listlessness of the Tony Barbee Era. The wins weren’t there, but they would come – Pearl has already started writing those chapters with verbal commitments from top recruits in each of the 2016 and 2017 classes.
This year, though, may be about finding more great stories than seeing better results. The Tigers are again a collection of largely unproven talent.
The good news is Auburn has Bowers back. He’s lost weight and shouldn’t have to play as many minutes as he did last year since there are backups, and after a suspension for a potential rules violation knocked him out of last season’s finale, he’s been cleared. Bowers will be an all-star candidate, and has already won respect for his ferocious rebounding (and one of his tattoos that reads, "God forgives. I don’t").
The bad news is there isn’t a lot of experience back with him. The Tigers were counting on 7-foot-2 center Trayvon Reed to supply an impact, but he didn’t enroll in the fall due to "personal issues" and will redshirt the season.
Still, Pearl’s first full recruiting class features the No. 1 JUCO player in the country (T.J. Dunans), the No. 61 national prospect (Horace Spencer) and New Williams, an aerial acrobat who put on a dunking clinic at Auburn’s preseason tipoff ("Pearl Jam.") Although Danjel Purifoy is still ineligible (with Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere being cleared, perhaps a decision comes soon?), the Tigers look to have a young mix of future stars to put around Bowers and Tahj Shamsid-Deen (who’s out for a month with a separated shoulder). Kareem Canty, who sat out last year after transferring from Marshall, averaged 16.3 points per game with the Thundering Herd and was the best player on the court in Auburn’s practices.
The Tigers are already dealing with the injury bug. Besides Shamsid-Deen, T.J. Lang sprained an MCL and Bryce Brown has a sore back. Auburn is going to start the season with three healthy scholarship guards. The second regular-season game is hosting UAB, which beat Iowa State in the NCAA tournament last year.
Pearl walked into a great situation at Tennessee and won big. But he’s no stranger to building. It’s why Auburn took a chance on a guy with noted NCAA issues and it will eventually pay off.
"Eventually" probably won’t be this year.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Terri Williams-Flournoy (51-48, fourth year; 194-156, 11th year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 13-18 (3-13)
2014-15 postseason: None
She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Hasina Muhammad (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg), G Kiani Parker (2.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg), F Asia Robeson (transferred to Western Michigan, 2.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 5-8 G Tiffany Lewis (Jr., transfer from Clemson, will sit out this year), 5-10 G Erica Sanders, 6-0 F Jonika Garvin, 5-6 G Janiah McKay
Top returners: 5-10 G Brandy Montgomery (12.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg), 6-3 F/C Tra’Cee Tanner (11.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg), 6-1 G/F Katie Frerking (7.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
A bad year got a nice little bow at the end. Auburn spun its wheels to an 0-13 start in the SEC, but won its final three (including the finale over Alabama, knocking the Crimson Tide into last place) and its first SEC tournament game.
Terri Williams-Flournoy was looking for much more than a good ending to a bad season when she took over.
Going into her fourth year, coach Flo’s rebuilding project took a step back last season. Back-to-back WNIT seasons dissolved into last year’s dud, and for a coach that reached the big-time at Georgetown, she wasn’t used to watching TV during March.
The Auburn view is probably, "Hey, as long as there’s no NCAA trouble and the team’s not epically terrible, is there anybody out there who really cares?" Flo does, surely, and I’m sure Auburn wouldn’t mind getting back to the days when it was winning SEC titles, advancing to three straight Final Fours and winning 68 straight home games.
It may be a while before Flo can get the Tigers to that point, if ever. Right now, she’ll try to keep her head up by returning a lot of talent from a bad team and hoping the experience has paid off.
There are only two seniors. Three freshmen and a junior who’s ineligible this year (former Clemson guard Tiffany Lewis) are in town. Auburn has some scoring ability and Flo likes up-tempo quick defense, but the improvement of the league and the SEC schedule may not yield many positive results. Six of Auburn’s first seven league games read like the script of a Wes Craven film – Kentucky twice, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Arkansas. All of them made the NCAA tournament last year while USC and Tennessee represent the last two SEC regular-season champs, the reigning SEC tournament champ, a Final Four squad and the preseason pick to win the SEC this year.
There was no help from the league office, not much from the recruiting trail … but there doesn’t seem to be any looming bad news. Perhaps the best thing Williams-Flournoy has going for her is she’s at Auburn – that athletic department can’t afford any more bad press. Just run a clean program and keep players from publicly airing any dirty laundry, and we’ll see you next year.