The first-year Auburn coach said that having momentum is a big plus, but notes that the Tigers face a major challenge in trying to earn their first road victory of the season, especially against the Commodores at Memorial Gym where they are normally difficult to beat.
“It is a positive thing in the sense that our team has got to be more confident having 11 scholarship players available to us, having won five in a row and having beaten some good teams and feeling prepared,” Pearl said.
“We talked about this first one (in the SEC),” said the coach whose Tigers finished their pre-conference schedule with an 8-5 mark. “I just don’t want us to go up there and be overwhelmed. Two years ago I had a Tennessee team that was one game away from the Final Four. After the first 15 minutes of basketball the score was 30-10 Vandy. That club that I had that was down 20 was a game away from the Final Four.
“That place can overwhelm you,” he added. “I’m not anticipating that, nor am I planning for that, nor is that what I expect to see. I don’t think our guys will be overwhelmed because they are not prepared.”
The Commodores enter the contest on a three-game winning streak and are 9-3 overall with an 8-1 mark at Memorial Gym. Vandy’s losses were to Rutgers (68-65), Baylor (66-63) and Georgia Tech (65-60). Tipoff for the game is shortly after 8 p.m. CST and it will be televised on ESPNU.
The Tigers and Commodores don’t have any common opponents so far this season. Vandy is coming off a 79-74 victory over Yale in double overtime on Saturday, the day Auburn defeated North Alabama 82-61.
Damian Jones, a 6-10, 248 sophomore center, leads the Commodores in scoring at 16.6 points per game and is the top rebounder with 7.1 per contest.
Damian Jones leads the Commodores in blocked shots with 24 this season.
Riley LaChance, a 6-2 guard, is averaging 13.1 points and 2.8 rebounds with 34 assists and 13 turnovers. He was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday after averaging 16.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists in wins vs. St. Louis and Yale as he hit hi 11-17 field goals and 5-9 threes. LaChance has hit 25 consecutive free throws.
James Siakam, a 6-7 senior forward, is averaging 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds. Luke Kornet, a 7-0, 240 sophomore center, is scoring 8.8 points per game while adding 4.2 rebounds. Wade Baldwin, a 6-3 guard, is averaging 7.7 points and 3.6 rebounds.
Pearl noted that the Commodores have added a talent boost from a strong signee class and said that Vandy is a “very young team” this year. “What does that mean? It tends to mean that they will play better at home than on the road more so than an experienced team. That doesn’t matter here because we are playing them at Vanderbilt. The youth shouldn’t be a factor. If they were coming to Auburn Arena, youth could be a factor.
“They have always been big,” Pearl said of the Commodores. “Kevin (Coach Kevin Stallings) has always been big and athletic and long with great size in their guards. From that standpoint they are similar. They don’t run as much.
“When Kevin started coaching they looked a lot like Gene Keady’s (Purdue) teams because that’s who he coached for, then evolved a little bit. Then his teams began to run a little Princeton stuff because that was good and it fit the student-athletes that were at Vanderbilt. Then as he got better players it became more pro-style.
“Kevin’s teams, and what makes him such a good coach, is he’s not running the same stuff that he ran when I coached against him at Tennessee,” Pearl added.
With seven-foot-two freshman center Trayvon Reed and six-foot-nine sophomore Alex Thompson joining Auburn’s roster after the first semester, the Tigers are still coming together as a team in the opinion of senior guard K.T. Harrell, one of two returning starters from last season.
“It has been tough,” he said. “We have a lot of new guys on the team. We pretty much have a new team. We have been bonding.”
Harrell, who leads the Tigers in scoring with his average of 17.9 points per game, said he is seeing progress. “We all mesh really well together. We have been focusing on getting better collectively, and I think we have been doing that the past couple of games.”
SEC Openers: The Auburn-Vandy contest is one of four SEC games on the schedule for the opening night of league play. No. 23 Arkansas will play at Georgia with a 6 p.m. CST tip on ESPN. At the same time Ole Miss will travel to play unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Kentucky with coverage on the SEC Network. Texas A&M?will play at Alabama at 8 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Auburn Network: Rod Bramblett will handle the play-by-play while Coach Sonny Smith does the analysis for the Auburn radio broadcast that can be heard on Sirius 108 and XM 190.
Veteran Coach: Kevin Stallings has a 311-195 record in 16 seasons at Vandy with a 14-5 mark vs. Auburn, including wins in the last nine matchups. In 22 seasons as a head coach his record is 425-258.
Tigers On the Road: Auburn lost its three road games at Colorado (90-59), at Texas Tech (46-44) and at Clemson (72-61) while also losing 53-35 and defeating Oregon State (71-69) in their other games away from Auburn Arena.
Cinmeon Bowers is a first-year player for the Tigers at power forward.
Double-Doubles: Cinmeon Bowers produced his eighth double-double of the season for points and rebounds in an 82-61 victory over North Alabama on Saturday. He is one of 14 players in Division I?hoops averaging at least 10 points and 10 rebounds per game. The junior forward is scoring 13.7 points per game to go with 11.3 rebounds per contest.
Tahj’s Return: After starting every game as a freshman, Tajh Shamsid-Deen came off the bench for the first time as a Tiger vs. MTSU but played just 12 minutes while recovering from a shoulder injury. The guard was held out of Saturday’s game vs. UNA, but is expected to play vs. the Commodores.
“Tahj has some SEC experience and we are a much better team defensively with Tahj in the game,” Pearl said. “We can put better pressure on the ball. He was missed against North Alabama. He was dressed and he was available. His shoulder had come out during practice some weeks prior and there was some thought to holding him out of the Middle Tennessee game, but I thought we needed him to win. He played limited minutes against Middle (MTSU) and did not score.”
Injury Report, Part II: Starting forward Jordon Granger played just four minutes on Saturday and then sat out because of a knee bruise and hamstring issue. “I would say he’s likely to play, but I don’t know yet how effectively,” Pearl said.
Injury Report, Part III: Antoine Mason continues to make progress recovering from his season-opening ankle injury that caused him to miss six games. The graduate student guard is the team’s second-leading scorer in average at 15.4 points per outing.
Up Next: The Tigers will be at home on Saturday for a 6 p.m. game vs. Missouri.ITAT TV, Bruce Pearl