Opening Night's Here For Barbee's Tigers

Coach Tony Barbee's Tigers open the basketball season on Friday night vs. McNeese State.

Auburn, Ala.--Coach Tony Barbee said he likes what he has seen from his Auburn basketball team in the offseason and preseason as the Tigers head into Friday night's regular season opener vs. the McNeese State Cowboys.

Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. at the Auburn Arena. The Tigers won both of their exhibition games by wide margins, but the competition will stiffen vs. McNeese State, the defending Southland Conference champion, a team that posted a 21-12 record last season.

Auburn won just 11 games in Barbee's first season running the program, but his year two roster has been bolstered by three freshmen, two transfers and the return of injured junior guard Frankie Sullivan, who received a redshirt last season.

By the end of the season, the 2010-2011 Tigers had developed a reputation for playing hard on both ends of the court. The coach said when his new team takes the floor on Friday night he will be looking for more of the same in that regard.

"I want to see how hard we play, how hard we compete," he stated. "That is something that it took us a while to get last year. Everybody saw the growth of the team--where we started, how we finished. I want to see that carryover of that hungriness you have to play with on every single possession."

Based on what he has seen so far, the coach said he is optimistic his Tigers will take that mindset into the 2011-2012 opener. "That has got to be the identity, the staple of this program," he said. "The guys have done a good job in practice of continuing the development of that identity so that is really what you want to see."

Auburn defeated Paine College 86-60 before outscoring Victory University 83-47 last Saturday night to close the exhibition season. Chris Denson, a 6-2 sophomore guard, led the Tigers in scoring in those games averaging 18.5 points.

Junior center Rob Chubb averaged 11.5 points and 7.0 rebounds, senior forward Kenny Gabriel averaged 11.0 points and 8.5 rebounds, sophomore forward Allen Payne averaged 11.0 points and Sullivan was next at 9.5 points per contest.

Barbee said that Rob Chubb, who has added more than 20 pounds this season to play at 245, can be a key performer for the Tigers on both offense and defense.

Patrick Richard, a 6-4, 208 forward, led the Cowboys in scoring last season with 16.1 points per game and he is back for his senior season. Barbee said that Richard is a talented player as are a pair of six-foot-nine transfers, junior forward Will Brown from the University of New Mexico and senior Rudy Turner from Louisiana-Monroe.

Barbee's tentative starting lineup for the opener includes Denson, Chubb, Sullivan, Gabriel and 6-2 point guard Varez Ward, a transfer who has starting experience at the University of Texas.

At times the Tigers are expected to play lineups with four guards and Barbee said the Tigers can go big, too, with Chubb or 6-10 Willy Kouassi at center joined by 6-8 Forbes at power forward and 6-8 Gabriel or 6-8 freshman Bernard Morena at small forward.

Barbee said he is expecting to see more consistency from Gabriel as a senior returning starter.

"We are so much farther ahead of where we were at this time last year when we were starting from scratch," Barbee said of his team. "We are so far ahead in our maturity and in our development as players in the program because of the hard work our veterans have put in along with the influx of new talent."

Newcomer Report, Part 1: In addition to Ward, look for Willy Kouassi to see a significant amount of action in his regular season debut. He scored eight points and added eight rebounds off the bench Saturday night. Barbee said Kouassi is a developmental player offensively, but notes the freshman's rebounding and shot blocking will earn him playing time.

Newcomer Report, Part 2: Freshman Cedrick McAfee is a prized recruit, but he missed exhibition two with a foot injury and is questionable for the opener.

Newcomer Report, Part 3: Bernard Morena missed much of the preseason with an ankle injury. After sitting out the first exhibition game, he played for eight minutes vs. Victory and will be available if needed vs. McNeese State. Barbee said the freshman can guard power forwards, small forwards and big guards.

Noel Johnson

Newcomer Report, Part 4: Noel Johnson, a six-foot-seven transfer guard from Clemson, has won praise from his new teammates and Barbee for his scoring ability. He will be eligible to play in game six on Dec. 14th vs. South Florida after fall semester classes end.

Scoring Potential: The Tigers shot just 39.4 percent last year, which was next to last in the SEC. Sullivan, who averaged 12.7 points per game in 2009-2010, is predicting the Tigers will improve on last season's scoring average of 62.4 points per game.

Frankie Sullivan

"Scoring the basketball was a big problem we had last year," Sullivan said. "We just had a couple of guys who scored when we needed them to so that was a big deal with us. I think we have more scorers this year plus we are more experienced than we were last season."

In Or Out?: Sophomore forward Josh Langford, who averaged 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds, is in Barbee's doghouse and did not play in the two exhibition games. The same is true of senior guard Tony Neysmith, who averaged 1.7 points and 1.4 rebounds last season. Langford started 12 games and Neysmith started five times. Both have practiced with the team this week, but Barbee isn't saying if they will see action vs. McNeese State.

Tigers vs. Cowboys: Friday's game will be just the third matching Auburn and McNeese State. Auburn defeated the Cowboys 78-71 on Nov. 27, 2001 and 91-76 on Dec. 1, 2005.

TV or Not TV: All of Auburn's SEC games will be telecast, but the Tigers won't be on the tube until Dec. 2nd when they play Seton Hall in the SEC-Big East Challenge.

Rod Bramblett will do the play by play and former Auburn coach Sonny Smith will be the analyst for the Auburn Radio Network's coverage of the opener. It can be found on XM Channel 198 in addition to network stations around the state.

On Deck: Game two will be on Monday night as Kennesaw State visits the Auburn Arena where the Tigers will play their first four regular season games.

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