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Auburn basketball: Pearl used transfers to fill Tigers' biggest needs

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Auburn vs. Memphis

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl speaks with his team during a timeout.

A self-imposed postseason ban wasn't the only reason Auburn basketball didn't play in the NCAA tournament this year.

The Tigers went 13-14 (6-11 SEC), their first season under .500 since Bruce Pearl's second year as coach in 2015-16. There are multiple factors that contributed to that.

Auburn struggled at point guard when it didn't have Sharife Cooper, which was the case in 15 of 27 games. Defense was a problem throughout, as the Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC allowing more than 76 points per game.

And when things did go wrong, there weren't many veterans to turn to for guidance — freshmen and sophomores accounted for nearly 85 percent of the team's minutes played.

That's why adding transfers Wendell Green Jr., Zep Jasper, Desi Sills and Walker Kessler — the last of whom signed Wednesday — was so important for more reasons than just depth. They provide the things the Tigers lacked last season.

Green will help settle the point guard position now that Cooper is off to the NBA. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound sophomore started 25 of 29 games for Eastern Kentucky last season, averaging 15.8 points per game and ranking 15th nationally with 146 assists.

"Auburn basketball has a history of doing special things with very special undersized point guards," Pearl said. "He's a fierce competitor and he makes everyone he plays with on the floor better."

Jasper can provide more scoring at either guard position — he averaged 20.1 points over the final eight games of his junior season at College of Charleston — but the most important thing he'll bring to Auburn is his defensive ability, which earned him the nickname "Honey Badger."

"Zep is a hard-playing, athletic guard who wants to defend the other team's best player," Pearl said. "He can score with or without the basketball and is excited about the opportunity to prove that he can play at the highest level."

Sills provides the experience the Tigers lacked last season. In fact, he's slated to be the most experienced player in the conference — the senior shooting guard played nearly 2,240 minutes over 98 games in three seasons at Arkansas, which included a trip to the SEC tournament semifinals and NCAA tournament Elite Eight last season.

He's averaged only 7.7 points in his career, but in games against Auburn, that number jumps to 17.

"Desi is a proven winner," Pearl said. "He's a fierce competitor and a tough, physical defender. He's got the ability to create for himself as well as others. Playing in our up-tempo system should bring out the best of him. If he plays as well against others as he did against us, we hit the jackpot."

Those three signings filled needs at guard after Cooper declared for the NBA draft and Justin Powell and Jamal Johnson left as transfers. The argument could be made that the addition of Sills cost the Tigers four-star 2020 signee Trey Alexander, who reopened his recruitment days after the Arkansas transfer committed. But building depth at guard was crucial, and still is.

Kessler, on the other hand, was a luxury. Auburn's frontcourt was already pretty crowded with Jaylin Williams, Babatunde Akingbola and Dylan Cardwell returning and five-star power forward Jabari Smith joining them, and will be even more so if JT Thor removes his name from the draft pool.

But when you get a chance to add a 7-foot-1 former five-star center who can do things like nearly triple-double with 16 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks for North Carolina against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, you do it every time.

"Sometimes things take time and they are better with patience," Pearl said. "We were recruiting Walker since he was a sophomore and we were one of the first schools to offer him.

"Kind of like an artist, I'm just excited to get my hands on a piece of clay. He's a 7-foot-1, stretch 5-man who will be a joy to play-call for and utilize as a mismatch."