South Carolina Auburn Basketball

Auburn guard Bryce Brown celebrates after cutting down the net after an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina, Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Auburn, Ala

The Auburn men’s basketball program will enter the 2018-19 season with expectations unlike any it has faced in a long time.

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers are coming off a 2017-18 campaign during which they won 26 games (second-most all-time), claimed a share of the SEC regular-season championship (the program’s first since 1999) and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.

Auburn hasn’t won 20 games in back-to-back seasons since 1998-2000 and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years since those same campaigns. It has never gone fewer than 19 years between regular-season conference crowns, let alone won two straight.

But this team appears to have the right pieces in place to snap at least the two former streaks. Maybe the latter, too. Mustapha Heron, Desean Murray and Davion Mitchell are gone, but the Tigers are set to bring a ton of production back and add to it this season.

Here’s a look at five factors that could decide if Auburn repeats as SEC regular-season champions:

1) The continued ascension of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown

When Harper was a freshman during the 2016-17 season, he averaged 11.4 points and three assists per game, while Brown averaged 7.5 points and hit 56 3s as a sophomore. Last season, Harper averaged 13.2 points and 5.4 assists per game, and Brown averaged 15.9 points and hit 107 3s. Both earned second-team coaches’ All-SEC honors in the process. Now that both have gone through the pre-NBA Draft process and decided to return to school, they could be ready to make another leap. If they do, Auburn will take one with them. When Harper and Brown were healthy and playing at their best last season, the Tigers were hard to beat.

2) The addition of Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley

Two of the biggest problems that plagued Auburn down the stretch last season were a prolonged shooting slump and a lack of depth in the front court. It had the answer to those problems on its roster — they were just ineligible to play as a result of the actions that led to the arrest and dismissal of former associate head coach Chuck Person. Purifoy (who will be eligible after the first 30 percent of the upcoming season is complete) shot nearly 40 percent from the floor and led the team in made 3-pointers as a redshirt freshman during the 2016-17 season. Wiley is a 6-foot-11, 260-pound center who averaged 10.3 points and 10.9 points per game for Team USA during the FIBA U19 World Cup last summer. Purifoy, who played out of position at power forward two years ago, should pick up the lion’s share of the minutes vacated by Heron at small forward once he’s eligible, and Wiley (who is eligible to play immediately) will likely start at center. How those two mix back in with the rest of the team after a year confined to the sideline will be crucial to Auburn’s success.

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UConnAU10.jpg

Auburn's Austin Wiley (left) and Danjel Purifoy (right) watch a game against UConn from the Bench on Dec. 23, 2017, in Auburn, Ala.

3) The health of Anfernee McLemore

The worst moment of Auburn’s 2017-18 season might have been Feb. 17 in Columbia, S.C., when McLemore landed awkwardly on his left leg and suffered a season-ending ankle injury. The sophomore center had starred in the absence of Wiley, averaging 7.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and a ridiculous 2.7 blocks in just 19.4 minutes per game. All indications are that he’s been on track with his recovery, which means he should be 100 percent cleared well before preseason practices begin. Auburn has a lot of centers to give minutes to between him, Wiley and Horace Spencer, but there’s no doubt the defense will be raised to another level anytime McLemore is on the floor.

4) The emergence of Chuma Okeke

Murray’s decision to transfer came as a bit of a surprise after he started 34 games at power forward and led Auburn with 6.7 rebounds per game last season, but it does pave the way for Okeke to make a sophomore leap into a starting — and perhaps starring — role. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound former Georgia Mr. Basketball averaged 7.5 points on 45.8 percent shooting (39.1 percent from 3) and 5.8 rebounds per game in just 21.6 bench minutes per game as a true freshman last season, but there were times where flashed potential for so much more. During a four-game stretch late in the season (starting with the game that ended McLemore’s season), Okeke double-doubled twice and averaged 11 points and 9.8 rebounds per game while hitting 16 of 35 shots from the floor and 6 of 15 from beyond the arc. A full offseason at Auburn could do wonders for him, especially if he plays starter’s minutes as a sophomore.

5) The rest of the SEC

This certainly has to be considered. No matter how good the Tigers are in 2018-19, they’re going to have to go through 13 other SEC teams if they’re going to finish at the top of the standings again. The hallmark of the conference last season was how balanced it was top to bottom, but it looks like it could be a little more top-heavy this year. Auburn will be in that mix, but so to will Kentucky and Tennessee, the latter of which shared the regular-season crown with the Tigers this past season. John Calipari’s Wildcats lost seven players but will reload as they always do, mixing the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class — which includes former Auburn commit E.J. Montgomery — with top returners PJ Washington and Quade Green. The Volunteers return virtually everybody, including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish has Kentucky at No. 1, Tennessee at No. 4 and Auburn at No. 10 in his latest top 25 for the 2018-19 season. The Tigers won’t be sneaking up on anybody this season after being picked to finish ninth in the SEC last year.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Opelika-Auburn News. You can follow him on Twitter at @AUBlog. To reach him by email, click here.

Auburn beat writer

A Connecticut native and University of Maryland graduate, Josh has been covering Auburn University athletics for the Opelika-Auburn News since the summer of 2016.

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