AUBURN, Ala. — This was supposed to be a time of great hope for Auburn basketball.
Auburn was going to be talked about as a potential NCAA Tournament team for the first time in 15 years. The hype levels were set for all-time highs after the high-scoring stars of the best recruiting class in program history returned for another season, boosted by much-needed transfers and additional blue-chip freshmen.
But Auburn basketball will enter its 2017-18 season Friday night against Norfolk State with a lot of uncertainty.
Two of its top three sophomores — United States U-19 national team captain Austin Wiley and versatile small forward Danjel Purifoy — are out indefinitely with eligibility concerns following a scandal that rocked college basketball.
Program legend and assistant coach Chuck Person has been arrested, fired and indicted on federal corruption charges that included giving Wiley and Purifoy’s family thousands of dollars in cash. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl’s job is reportedly in jeopardy for not cooperating with Auburn’s investigation into the Person scandal.
And that’s just the uncertainty happening off the court.
Auburn dropped an exhibition game to Division II school Barry last week because of the same problems it had last season, even with Wiley and Purifoy — poor defense and rebounding. Barry dropped 100 points on Auburn, which finished the previous season ranked 321st nationally in scoring defense.
“I think some years, as you start the season, you’ve got a better idea of what you have than others … while I’m excited about the tip, I’m also anxious about it,” Pearl said Thursday. “We did not play well in our exhibition game. Our opponent played very, very well. They exposed a lot of our weaknesses, and we’ve been working on those weaknesses with some mixed results.”
Without Wiley and Purifoy, Auburn should still be able to score efficiently. Mustapha Heron, the first 5-star signee in program history, is back after averaging a team-high 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season.
Heron has the ability to take over with his all-around offensive game, but defense continues to be a problem for him and the team as a whole.
“We know we can score the ball with anybody in the country, but it’s going to be the defense and the rebounding,” Heron said.
Point guard Jared Harper returns as another double-digit per game scorer (11.4), and he has more help at the floor general position this season. Freshman Davion Mitchell, who probably has already established himself as Auburn’s best defensive guard, can play both guard roles as an impressive young shot creator.
At shooting guard and small forward, the Tigers have junior Bryce Brown — a streaky shooter who can be a strong 3-and-D wing at times — and athletic transfer Malik Dunbar. Those two, along with Heron, will take most of the minutes at the wing positions with Purifoy out.
Auburn’s front court has drastically changed without Wiley, who would dominate minutes at center if he returned to action. At the moment, power forward minutes will be split between 4-star freshman Chuma Okeke — who camped with Wiley for the U-19 national team this summer — and 6-foot-3 Presbyterian transfer Desean Murray.
Murray is an interesting case for the Tigers this season. He has the size of a wing, but he plays power forward because of depth concerns and rebounding needs. Murray averaged 20.2 points per game and 7.4 rebounds per game two seasons ago for the Blue Hose, and he’ll be an opening night starter for Auburn.
Auburn has practiced Murray at the 3, or small forward, position some this offseason. That would open the door for Okeke, a stretch 4 with plenty of upside, to take over most of the minutes.
At center, Auburn will use junior Horace Spencer, who mostly backed up Wiley last season, and sophomore Anfernee McLemore. Both players are athletic and have expanded their jump shot range this offseason. However, at 6-8, they will be the front line of a deeper but still undersized pace-and-space Pearl team.
“I still think we’re in a situation where I’ve got two guys at every position, and I think you’ll start seeing a little bit of separation at the minutes,” Pearl said. “For example, in the overtime situation I think Bryce Brown and Mustapha both played 35 minutes in the game. … But I would anticipate playing 10.”
If Wiley and Purifoy can come back this season, Auburn would have 11 scholarship players who are expected to contribute in some fashion.
But as of right now, Auburn will hit the season opener against Norfolk State with more questions than answers. A potential postseason run seems only possible if the Tigers can both take the next step on defense and get two of their top 3 players back in time to play against an improving SEC schedule.
Neither of those are guarantees, especially for a program that hasn’t finished outside of the bottom four in the SEC since 2009.
“We’re focused on the first game, home opener, focused on going to Charleston next week and winning some games,” Heron said. “So, we’re just focused on what we can control.”
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