No. 15 Auburn opens its 2022-2023 basketball campaign at home against George Mason with aspirations of defending last year’s SEC regular season title and making a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

But if Bruce Pearl’s team wants to achieve those two goals, veteran guards K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green Jr. are his crutches early in the year while the Tigers’ coaching staff figures out how to replace the production of first-round draft picks Jabari Smith (16. 9 points per game, 7.4 rebounds) and Walker Kessler (11.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.6 blocks) in the post.

Smith and Kessler played key roles in Auburn going 28-6 overall and 15-3 in conference play last season. But the roster remains healthy and littered with talented players who still have one goal in mind: winning championships.

“Everybody else that won a championship came back,” Green said. “We have a championship mindset. We know we have a lot of special players no matter what anybody says.”

Johnson (12.3 ppg) and Green (12.0 ppg) consistently provided the Tigers with scoring oomph and scrappy defense in the backcourt. Green only started five times last year but ranked third in the SEC in assists per game (5.1).

Zep Jasper (5.1 ppg), Allen Flanigan (6.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and highly touted freshmen signees Chance Westry and Tre Donaldson are also backcourt options.

Versatile forward Jaylin Williams (5.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg) has a lot of potential and could be in line for a major uptick in production after a strong finish to last season.

Morehead State transfer Johni Broome (25 double-doubles last year) and French product Yohan Traore, along with reliable veteran Dylan Cardwell, who ranked second on the team in blocked shots (42), are expected to help replace the production left behind by Smith, the SEC Freshman of the Year, and Kessler, the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

“Our basketball team’s great strength is I’ve got 13 really good players,” Pearl said. “I really do. There is great competition and depth at every position. If I had to put out a starting five right now, I could tell you that truly there’s only one position of the five where I know who’s going to start. That means the other four right now are up in the air.”

George Mason returns three starters, including rangy forward Josh Oduro, to a team that went 14-16 overall last season and averaged 70.7 points per game. Oduro and senior guard DeVon Cooper make the Patriots’ offense go.

Oduro (17.7 ppg) was the leading scorer in the Atlantic 10 last season and can play anywhere on the court. Cooper (11.6 ppg, 40.9 3-point field goal percentage) is an excellent shooter who doubles as a scrappy defender.

Davonte Gaines (10.2 ppg, team-high 8.1 rpg) is a good 3-point shooter and a quality offensive rebounder for second-year head coach Kim English.

“We lost seven games by one possession. Those losses are etched in my brain forever,” English said. “I think that going through that with the group — I think it really helps growth. You can reach back to those days and think why we didn’t execute, why we didn’t get the job done, and just be more encouraged to get it done in the future.”

George Mason was selected to finish fifth out of 15 teams in the A-10 by the league’s media.

–Field Level Media