Barbee's Team Ready for Exhibition Opener

Transfer point guard Varez Ward explains why he is a hungry Tiger and Tony Barbee talks about his team as Auburn prepares for a Tuesday night exhibition basketball game.

Auburn, Ala.--For point guard Varez Ward, Auburn's Tuesday night exhibition basketball game vs. Paine College is something he is likely anticipating more than most of his teammates.

The former University of Texas player had to sit out last year as a transfer while he was also rehabbing from a serious leg injury that prematurely ended his 2009-2010 season.

Ward played in 32 games as a true freshman at Texas in 2008-2009 and made one start. He started the first three games the following year, but suffered a serious leg injury that forced him to miss the rest of the season.

After deciding to move closer to home and enroll at Auburn to play for Coach Tony Barbee, the Montgomery native had to sit out for the 2010-2011 season.

On Tuesday night Ward and the Tigers will play their first outside competition after going through two full-scale scrimmages that went well enough for Ward, prompting Barbee to put the transfer in the starting lineup.

"I am real hungry," Ward tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "It has been two years so I am excited to get back out there and finally play in the lights again."

The six-foot-one, 208-pounder says he is still getting the rust out after a long layoff from games, but adds he is ready to compete. "My leg is not a problem any more," he says. "I don't even think about it."

Varez Ward

Ward has a reputation as a point guard who concentrates on setting up his teammates for scoring opportunities. "That is my main thing," he says. "I am probably going to have to score a little more than I am used to scoring, but I love setting up other people to score."

In Auburn's intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday, Ward led all scorers with 18 points and showed good range from behind the three-point line.

"I have been working on my jump shot," he says. "That is something I have been working on since I got to college because my freshman year I didn't shoot the ball all that well. That is something I know can take me to the next level so my shot is something I am have been trying to improve since day one."

Ward is shown in action while playing for Texas.

Players expected to join Ward in the starting lineup on Tuesday night are 6-1 junior Frankie Sullivan at the guard spot, 6-6 sophomore Allen Payne at small forward, 6-8 senior Kenny Gabriel at power forward and 6-10 junior Rob Chubb at center.

Barbee says he likes the way Ward has developed in preseason so far and he is looking forward to see what the guard and his teammates can do in a game setting at the Auburn Arena.

Barbee says the Tigers need to make plenty of improvement on offense, partly because the focus in the preseason has been on defense.

"We want our defense to be our identity and what you work on in practice as a coach is what you are going to be good at," he says. "We have spent 75 to 80 percent of our practices on defense, which leads to some of the sloppy execution on offense.

"At the same time what is neat about this year's team is to see the ability of a group of guys on the floor like Frankie Sullivan, who can make shots and make plays. Varez Ward can make shots and make plays. Cedric McAfee as a freshman has no clue what he is doing out there, but he just has a natural instinct to make shots and make plays."

Kenny Gabriel made a big jump in production last season as a junior.

Gabriel is Auburn's leading returner scorer and rebounder from last season. He averaged 10.3 points and 5.8 boards per game as a junior. Two seasons ago before suffering an ACL injury, Sullivan averaged 12.7 points for the Tigers and it won't be a surprise if he is one of the team's top scorers this season.

Allen Payne averaged 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds as a freshman, but Barbee is expecting more out of the lefty from Cincinnati. The coach says he liked what the sophomore did in Saturday's scrimmage.

"I will tell you one guy I was really impressed with was Allen Payne," the coach points out. "He has got to cut down on his turnovers, but he is playing stronger, he is playing more aggressively and he is playing physically. He is doing a lot of things I am asking for in terms of offensive rebounding and defending."

Allen Payne is shown in action as a freshman.

Chubb, who has grown to 6-10, 245 pounds, is the returning starter at center. He averaged 7.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Barbee notes he is expecting the junior's hard work in the offseason to pay off in more production as a scorer, defender and rebounder.

Another post player to watch on Tuesday will be 6-10 freshman Willy Kouassi, an athletic shot blocking center. Fellow freshman and Kouassi's teammate at Central Park Christian in Birmingham, 6-8 forward Bernard Morena, has been recovering from an ankle injury and is just getting back into action for the Tigers.

Others expected to see action for the Tigers on Tuesday night include senior center/forward Adrian Forbes, senior guard Tony Neysmith, junior point guard Josh Wallace, sophomore forward Josh Langford and sophomore guard Chris Denson. Each of those players had multiple starts for the Tigers last season led by 26 for Wallace and followed by 14 for Forbes, 12 for Langford, five for Neysmith and three for Denson.

Chris Denson is shown as a freshman.

Noel Johnson, a redshirt sophomore guard/forward transfer from Clemson, will not be available for game action until the Tigers play South Florida on Dec. 14th. He has missed court time with his arm in a cast after taking a fall in practice. Barbee says Johnson is making good progress and should get his cast off in approximately a week.

Even without Johnson and Morena in the mix in practice due to injuries, Barbee is seeing increased competition for playing time in his second season as head coach of the Tigers.

"I told these guys prior to our first scrimmage and prior to our second scrimmage (Saturday), they have to earn it with their performance on the court," Barbee says. "It is not necessarily their production in the box score, but their production on how we grade the game in our plus-and-minus hustle chart."

Auburn's first exhibition game opponent is an NAIA school out of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Paine College, located in Augusta, Ga., is led by 5-10 junior guard Mario Jordan, who averaged 14.1 points last season, 6-3 senior guard Tony Baker, who averaged 10.2 points, and 6-5 forward Geno Green, who averaged 9.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last season.

Auburn will play a second exhibition game on Saturday at 7 p.m. vs. visiting Victory University. The regular season opener is Friday, Nov. 11th at the Auburn Arena vs. McNeese State.

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