For just the sixth time in program history but the second year in a row, Auburn will carry a Top 25 ranking into its season opener when it hosts Georgia Southern on Tuesday night.
The No. 24 Tigers face some key losses from the team that opened the 2018-19 season ranked 11th and finished in the Final Four. Gone are guards Bryce Brown (15.9 points per game) and Jared Harper (15.3 ppg), forwards Chuma Okeke (12.0) and Horace Spencer (4.0 rebounds per game) along with guard/forward Malik Dunbar (33.9 percent 3-point shooting).
But coach Bruce Pearl has a veteran group of five seniors to build around, starting with J'Von McCormick at point guard. McCormick particularly impressed with 8-of-13 shooting for 20 points in the Tigers' 97-53 romp over Eckerd in an exhibition game last week.
"He's been really good," Pearl said. "It's almost like I don't want to jinx him. He's taking control. He's leading well. He's leading by example. I asked that position to do an awful lot. He's growing up before your eyes. It was really good to see."
Guard Samir Doughty, who logged 27 starts, also had a good preseason game with 14 points. The Tigers look in solid shape up front with the return of forwards Danjel Purifoy (3.7 ppg) and Anfernee McLemore (34 starts, 6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and center Austin Wiley (five starts, 6.9 ppg and 4.0 rpg).
A freshman class headed by forward Isaac Okoro, a member of the gold-medal winning 2018 USA U17 World Cup team, will join those veterans.
"He doesn't look like a freshman on the floor," Doughty said of Okoro. "He's talking like he's been here. He's working on his game and is one of our hardest workers. He's shooting the ball a lot better than anyone's expected. He's definitely a standout freshman and this season will be playing a lot more than what people think."
Freshman guard Devan Cambridge also looks ready to contribute. He had foot surgery for a stress fracture in mid-October and was expected to miss three to four weeks, but he played in the exhibition win, scoring 11 points and sinking two 3-pointers.
The opener against Georgia Southern could prove to be more of a test than what might usually be expected. Eagles guard Ike Smith, a three-year starter, returns after gaining a medical redshirt year for the knee injury that limited him to just 10 games in 2018-19. He averaged 14.7 ppg and 5.7 rpg in that limited time.
"Having Ike back healthy with his experience is just unbelievable for our team," Eagles coach Mark Byington said. "Right now, he's looking like his old athletic self. He's moving on the court really well and having fun playing."
Quan Jackson was second on the team in scoring to guard Tookie Brown (17.3 ppg) and is the leading returning scorer (14.8 ppg) from a 21-12 team. Forward Isaiah Crawley (11.6 ppg) and guard Calvin Wishart (5.2 ppg) also are returning starters.
--Field Level Media