The Stretch 4: Auburn doesn't know its starting 5 yet. That's a good sign.
Bruce Pearl has some tough lineup decisions to make ahead of the Tigers' opener, but he sees the entire situation as a real positive.
HC Bruce Pearl (SEC)
MOUNTAIN BROOK, Ala. — Last Thursday, Bruce Pearl said he would let his team know sometime this week who would start on opening night for Auburn.
On Wednesday afternoon, at SEC Media Days, Pearl said he hasn’t made that decision yet.
But he’s not panicking. He actually sees the stretched-out process as a good thing.
And it’s not like his players are bugging him about it, either.
“I've not been asked by one player,” Pearl said with a smile. “We've got so much parity, so much competition in each position, I'm not sure they want to know — which I think is a good thing.”
Pearl, first-team All-SEC center Johni Broome and fifth-year senior forward Jaylin Williams all made the quick flight from Auburn to the Birmingham suburbs Wednesday to speak at the league’s annual media event.
The Tigers are now less than two weeks away from their exhibition opener against sister school AUM. In less than three weeks, they’ll open the season in South Dakota against a top-20 Baylor team that’s just a few seasons removed from a national title.
To borrow a well-known phrase around the program, it’s ‘bout that time.
In this week’s edition of the Stretch 4, let’s break down the tough lineup decisions Pearl is about to make, what that opening game against Baylor means for the program and a lot more of what we heard from Auburn at SEC Media Days.
PG Tre Donaldson (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
Almost everybody in Auburn’s deep rotation thinks they could start
If you’ve followed Auburn basketball in the last several seasons, you probably have heard Pearl say “the greatest strength is our depth.”
It’s been the Tigers’ calling card, and Pearl has played deeper-than-average rotations to great effect in championship-winning campaigns and more trips to the NCAA Tournament. While other coaches shrink their bench ahead of the postseason, Pearl leans on it all the way.
And Pearl has built his 2023-24 Auburn team to reflect that. The Tigers returned six rotational pieces — more than most teams in major college basketball, hence the extra love from ratings system such as KenPom when compared to human polls — in Broome, Williams, K.D. Johnson, Tre Donaldson, Chris Moore and Dylan Cardwell.
Then they added four pieces in the offseason: 5-star point guard Aden Holloway, FIU transfer shooting guard Denver Jones, JUCO wing Chad Baker-Mazara and Division II transfer forward Chaney Johnson. All four were brought in to play right away, but breaking through into the starting lineup wasn’t a guarantee for any of them.
“We will have a 10-man rotation,” Pearl said. “Yeah, I've got some tough decisions to make, I literally have, I would say, almost nine guys out of the 10 that would really anticipate that they're going to be the starter.”
Pearl didn’t name the odd man out — and it’s not blatantly obvious, either.
Conventional wisdom would say that Broome is a lock to start as the first-team All-SEC center over Cardwell. That’s most likely the case, but Broome has spent the entire preseason talking about how much Cardwell has pushed him. He even said he’s not worried about the starting five.
“I don't think anyone really cares about that,” Broome said. “This team is so together. They want to see the next man win. They want to see the next man go out there and do well.”
Others could point to Williams, a fifth-year senior who is a single victory away from becoming the winningest player in Auburn basketball history. But Williams has already said this preseason that he’s not concerned about Chaney Johnson starting over him.
“At each position, it's really close,” Williams said. “You don't necessarily know the starting five. I have no clue what the starting five will be. Everybody is very competitive. Everybody is in the gym.”
There’s competition everywhere. Neither K.D. Johnson or Moore were regular starters last season, yet they are competing hard for their respective jobs at shooting guard and small forward. And Holloway and Donaldson are battling it out for the starting point guard spot, which is the only area on the team where the Tigers will be young.
As Pearl said Thursday, Auburn’s starting five might not be as good as a number of teams they play this season. However, the Tigers believe they’re going to be able to swap in and out with no drop-off in quality, and that’s rare in modern basketball.
“We have something people don't have, and that's depth,” Broome said. “We have two people at every position. It doesn't matter who's on the court. Our 10 is better than your 10.”
PF Jaylin Williams (SEC)
Why Auburn scheduled a massive opener vs. Baylor
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Auburn Observer to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.