Last year, Bruce Pearl’s squad withstood injuries and eligibility issues in a crawl to the program’s first losing season in five years. That unimpressive result didn’t even mark the worst of it, as the team then lost two of the nation’s best freshmen in springy forward J.T. Thor and Muggsy Bogues impressionist Sharife Cooper to the NBA Draft. Somehow making matters even worse, the Tigers’ third-best recruit from the 2020 class, Justin Powell, transferred across the SEC to Pearl’s previous employer, Tennessee.
Regardless of how Pearl’s offseason recruiting strategy was executed, one way or another, this would be an Auburn team with an entirely new look from the previous season. Fortunately for him, it seems the team is in a much better place to succeed as a result of the newcomers added to the Tigers roster this season.
Perhaps most important is Jabari Smith, Jr., a consensus 5-star recruit who ranks No. 6 overall on the 2021 rankings on ESPN, Rivals, and 247. The elder Jabari Smith played four NBA seasons as a big man, and while they have a similar size and build, the younger Smith plays a more modern style befitting his athleticism and shooting range.
Along with the potential one-and-done lottery pick, Pearl acquired four transfers who will all likely have a major impact. Sophomore center Walker Kessler is the biggest name, owing to his status as a major recruit for North Carolina, deciding to transfer only when Roy Williams announced his retirement. Kessler is a stocky 7-foot-1, adding some bulk to a Tigers frontcourt that often lacked strength last season.
The perimeter will feature a rotation of transfer guards in Wendell Green (Eastern Kentucky), Zep Jasper (College of Charleston), and K.D. Johnson (Georgia), all of whom have plenty of playing experience. Green was a first-team all-Ohio Valley player as a freshman last season, and will likely benefit from teammates capable of taking some weight off his shoulders. Jasper’s age may prove to be a benefit, as the only senior on an Auburn team that last season had the youngest roster in Division I, and his tenacious defense and excellent free-throw shooting will likely keep him on the floor down the stretch. Johnson is perhaps the team’s best scorer — he scored 21 against Auburn and shot 38.7 percent from three.
The Huskies do catch a break from the Tigers in the form of an offseason injury to talented wing Allen Flanagan, who is expected to be out until at least December while he recovers from surgery. In the meantime, the Tigers’ weakness may be their depth, though Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell are also available to provide some versatility to Pearl’s rotations.
One of UConn’s biggest strengths this year will be its versatility, and if Auburn is down to eight playable athletes for this matchup, that’ll be a big advantage for Dan Hurley’s side. As an old cliche goes, college basketball is about matchups. If that’s the case, the Huskies appear to be the favorite on paper, given Auburn’s shallow bench and lack of proven production at this level of competition.
Keep an eye on Flanagan’s injury status leading up to this game, as well as if one of those transfer guards breaks out as a leader; if either of those change from what we know now, it could turn the tide in Auburn’s favor in the first important matchup for both teams.