Coming into this season, Auburn wasn’t expected to do much on the basketball court.
The Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the Southeastern Conference. Two of their top returning players — NBA Draft hopeful Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy — were suspended indefinitely as a result of the federal investigation into college basketball that also led to the arrest of Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person in late September.
Instead of folding early, Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers have fought their way to the top of the SEC standings. They go into this week — and Wednesday night’s home game against Kentucky — with a 22-3 record, a two-game lead in the conference, and they’re currently projected as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Auburn has done all of this without Wiley and Purifoy — still suspended and expected to miss the entire season — and the cloud of the federal investigation still hanging over the program.
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The Tigers’ leading scorer this season is Bryce Brown, a junior who was ranked as the No. 369 overall recruit in his class coming out of high school three years ago.
Brown’s been great, but — even without former Top 100 prospects Wiley and Purifoy — this Auburn team isn’t some rag-tag bunch of overlooked players. Five of the nine players in the Tigers’ normal playing rotation were Top 100 recruits in high school, and one of those was a five-star prospect.
Here’s how the SEC’s best roster, to this point in the season, was constructed:
Bryce Brown: The junior guard leads the team with 16.6 points and 30.8 minutes per game, though he was among the lowest-ranked high school prospects on the roster. Brown was the No. 91 shooting guard and No. 369 overall recruit in the 2015 class and was committed to Charlotte before flipping to Auburn, the only major-conference school to extend a scholarship offer, during his senior year. He also took official visits to Florida International and Georgia Southern before signing with the Tigers.
Mustapha Heron: The second-leading scorer on this season’s team and the leading scorer as a freshman last year, Heron was the No. 22 overall recruit in the 2016 class and is the only five-star prospect in Auburn’s rotation this season. Alabama, St. John’s, Mississippi State and Marquette were the other finalists in his recruitment. He was also the MVP of the Derby Festival Classic in Louisville two years ago.
Jared Harper: The third-leading scorer on this season’s team and the SEC’s leader in assists, Harper was the No. 90 overall prospect nationally in the 2016 class. He was the No. 21 point guard in the class.
Desean Murray: Not ranked as a recruit in the 2014 class, Murray played his first two season for Presbyterian College — leading the Big South Conference in scoring as a sophomore — before transferring to Auburn. At just 6-3, the junior forward is the Tigers’ leading rebounder this season.
Chuma Okeke: Auburn’s top bench player this season, Okeke is just a freshman and was the No. 46 overall recruit in the 2017 recruiting class. He played in last year’s Derby Festival Classic in Louisville.
Malik Dunbar: He was the No. 61-ranked junior college prospect in the 2017 class.
Horace Spencer: He was the No. 65 overall recruit in the class of 2015.
Davion Mitchell: He was the No. 58 overall recruit in the class of 2017.
Auburn’s roster also includes six walk-on players, though none have played more than 20 minutes total this season. The Tigers also have Samir Doughty, the No. 205 recruit in the 2015 class. He is sitting out this season after transferring from VCU.
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the investigation into college basketball and it’s possible effect on Auburn’s program, the Tigers currently have zero commitments for the 2018 class. They did have a pledge from five-star power forward E.J. Montgomery, who decommitted from Auburn in the wake of the investigation and is now considering Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina, among others.
Wiley is the only player on Auburn’s roster projected as a possible pick in this year’s NBA Draft. He’s the No. 46 prospect on ESPN’s latest Top 100 list for the 2018 draft.