Exhibitions and scrimmages are over. On Tuesday, head coach Bruce Pearl and Auburn basketball will begin their 2023-24 season against Baylor.
A team that Pearl believes is deep. A team that knows how to score in bunches. A team with ambitions and a chance to run another one in March.
And it’s a group with some important questions. We have mentioned a few of them here:
Can Auburn finally, FINALLY, make another 3?
Last year, Auburn was 309th in the country in 3-point field goal percentage. Also ranked 218th in 3-pointers attempted per game. Auburn hasn’t had a team shooting percentage from beyond the arc better than 226th in the country since going to the Final Four in 2019.
Shooting has been a major weakness the past few years, and in order to win against a team that may not be great defensively (more on that below), Auburn will need to make more 3s.
That’s why Denver Jones is here. The FIU transfer scored more than 20 points per game last year and has a very natural shot. He was brought in to be Auburn’s three-point shooter. After Auburn’s exhibition against Auburn-Montgomery on Nov. 1, he said Pearl encourages him to keep shooting.
Although the show wasn’t the best start for Auburn. Jones shot 4-8 on 3-pointers. The entire team scored 1-17. Auburn had a lot of open shots, so some of the shooting struggles on display were just a little unfortunate. That open look will come back to normal at some point. And Auburn still scored more than 100 points, though it far outscored AUM.
“We didn’t shoot it well tonight,” Pearl said Wednesday. “Perhaps the worst thing is that we have been shooting it for a long time. I’m not worried about it; we will give it a good shot. Most of the shots we got were good shots and balls that I think will go in. I’m not worried about our shooting from the free-throw line or the three-point line.”
Jones just needs help. If someone can help him, Auburn’s offense has the potential to be elite.
What is Auburn’s minimum defense?
Auburn’s offense can be elite, yes. But the defense has raised concerns.
“Our defense is really challenging,” Pearl said after the showdown. “So I’m disappointed about it, and we’ll have to keep working on other things – otherwise we won’t stop.”
Auburn had only allowed 33% shooting from AUM, but that didn’t tell the whole story. Auburn’s defense was inconsistent but came down, especially late in the first half.
This is a list full of athletes. Auburn can play a fast game. Has speed and length to protect. Auburn hasn’t put it together in the preseason and it’s probably been the biggest concern Pearl has raised during press conferences this fall.
The defense will take time to come together. Losing Zep Jasper from last year’s team after graduation certainly hurt Auburn’s defense. Jones and senior KD Johnson were considered the team’s two best defenders.
Auburn doesn’t appear, at least at this point, to ever have a level defensive end it can fully rely on. But what level of protection will be the minimum to make things happen? The defense, hopefully, will get better as the year goes on and if Auburn can figure things out before March, this could be a team that can make a run.
Auburn should be able to score. Will that be enough?
How does Auburn’s streak continue to look at the end of non-conference play?
Auburn has one of the most challenging non-conference slates in the country. Not every team name is exactly a big name, but there are plenty of teams that should qualify for the upcoming NCAA tournament.
Auburn will play Baylor, USC, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State or St. Louis. Bonaventure, and Indiana all before Christmas. There is a trip to Boone, North Carolina, to play a strong Appalachian State team and matchups against two of the best programs in the middle in UNC Asheville and Chattanooga. March Madness team after March Madness team.
This will be an important time for Auburn to firstly, be tested against good teams before entering the depth of the SEC in previous years, and secondly to build its own NCAA tournament again.
Working through a tough non-conference schedule often ends up being a big talking point on Selection Sunday. What may be equally important is avoiding bad losses. That could be to one of Auburn’s Quad III or IV representatives, or losing to a power conference team.
Auburn won’t break the season on the non-conference slate, but it can. There is momentum to be gained here, and if Auburn can enter the SEC playing with confidence, a strong record and improved play then the will of the conference gauntlet will be set.
With how tough the SEC looks, Auburn would like to ease the workload it has to do to get back on track in January and February.
Matt Cohen covers Auburn’s games for AL.com. You can follow him on X at @Matt_Cohen_ or send an email to email@example.com