Tomorrow morning, the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ 2020-21 campaign will kick off against the Kansas Jayhawks. On Friday morning at 8:00 am PT, they will host the second game (and possibly earliest game in school history) against the Auburn Tigers.
To learn more about Auburn, we chatted with Wililam McLaughlin from SB Nation’s Auburn blog College and Magnolia. Please note, all of these answers came in before Auburn’s self-imposed post-season ban for this season.
TSSF: Auburn and Gonzaga have never faced each other before, so let’s start at the very beginning. Who is still left on this team after losing the entire starting lineup to graduation or the draft?
WM: It’s going to be a much different looking Auburn team this season compared to the last 2 years. Every player that was on the 2019 Final Four team has either graduated or gone pro. Devan Cambridge is the leading scorer returning at just over 4 points a game, but he had a couple 20+ point games last season. Jaylin Williams is the guy I’m most excited about. He didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play until late in the year after Isaac Okoro’s injury but made the most of his opportunity and is primed for a big year. Other returning players include Point Guard Tyrell “Turbo” Jones, guard Jamal Johnson along with forwards Allen Flanigan & Babatunde “Stretch” Akingbola.
TSSF: 247 Sports ranked Auburn’s Class of 2020 as the ninth-best in the nation. Who are the big freshman names to watch out for?
WM: Sharife Cooper is the headliner of this recruiting class who (until Jabari Smith signed last week), was the highest ranked recruit to ever sign with Auburn. Cooper is expected to run the Point for Auburn this season and is expected to take on a lot of the scoring load that was lost after last season. Forward J.T. Thor reclassified into the 2020 class but was a fringe Top 10 prospect in 2021. Guard Justin Powell is a sleeper in my opinion. He hasn’t played much the last 2 seasons for various reasons but he’s an excellent 3-point shooter which is desperately needed this season. Chris Moore and Dylan Cardwell are forwards that round out the recruiting class.
TSSF: Incredibly, there isn’t a single senior on Auburn’s squad. Who will provide leadership for this team? Who do you expect to be the face of the squad?
Not only are there no seniors on this roster, but guard Jamal Johnson is the only junior. This is an extremely young basketball team that is extremely talented but lacks experience. Johnson has apparently been one of Auburn’s most improved players this offseason as the Memphis transfer primarily was a 3-point shooter last season. I think Cambridge will be one of the leaders on this year’s roster along with Williams. They were able to learn from the group of seniors from last season. As for the face of the squad, it’s Cooper. How Sharife handles things this season will go a long way in determining how good of a season Auburn has.
TSSF: Auburn is picked to finish middle of the pack in the SEC this year. Do you think this team will outperform or underperform expectations?
Before the postseason ban, I was ready to answer this question with outperform expectations. A lot of people have them finishing around 7th-8th in the SEC this season. I was a little bullish at times thinking that this team might turn the corner once SEC play rolls around and perhaps finish 4th-6th. Now, I’m not so sure. The timing of the news is definitely questionable and we’re just now learning about it. But for this to happen 4 days before the first game is something..... I think these guys will play hard every night but it’s hard to gauge how they’ll respond knowing there’s no postseason this year and for the sophomores, that’ll be 2 straight years thanks to COVID.
TSSF: Bruce Pearl brought Auburn the NCAA Tournament in 2018 for the first time in 15 years. With what would have been three-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances if last year’s happened, is it safe to say he has turned the program around?
Auburn fans love Bruce Pearl and I know he gets a bad rap from a lot of people (and that’s fair to a point), but he’s done a lot of good for the Auburn program. He’s brought relevancy to the basketball program, a program that was for all intents and purposes the worst Power 5 program before Bruce arrived on campus. It took a couple of years and recruiting classes to build the program, but what’s he done at Auburn is quite remarkable. With Isaac Okoro being drafted 5th last week, it’s the first time ever that Auburn has had consecutive years of 1st Round Picks (Chuma Okeke last year). Neither of those guys were McDonald’s All-Americans. He brought in guys like Jared Harper and Bryce Brown who were overlooked coming out of High School and turned them into stars.
TSSF: Just based on rankings, Gonzaga is the favorite heading into this game. What do you think Auburn needs to accomplish to pull off the upset?
Considering how bizarre this offseason has been, it’s hard to know what to expect on Friday. I’ll have a much better idea once we get a game under our belt, and I feel like you guys will feel the same way after playing Kansas. Auburn’s going to need a make a lot of 3s to have a shot in this one. They will also need to get Kispert and Timme in foul trouble as well. Even then, I just think Gonzaga has more talent and experience and will win this game, 83-71.