Auburn, Ala.--Bruce Pearl will try to make his youth movement pay dividends on Friday night as Auburn opens the basketball season with a home game vs. defending Atlantic Sun Conference regular season champion North Florida.
Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m. CDT at Auburn Arena and the game will be streamed on the SEC Network+. The women’s team will play Troy at 5:30 p.m. to start the doubleheader.
“You would think after coaching for 35 years--I think this is my 35th season in coaching--that I would be a little less anxious than I was years ago, but I’m still just as anxious as we get ready to get started and tip things off and see where we’re at,” Pearl said.
Perhaps one of the reasons for anxiety would be a starting lineup that features true freshmen guards Jared Harper and Mustapha Heron plus redshirt freshman forward Danjel Purifoy.
“I have never started three freshmen before,” Pearl said. “This is the youngest team I’ve ever had. It will be interesting to see as we continue to try to build some chemistry.
“Winning will help,” added Pearl, who is beginning his third season in charge of the program. “It will help because it makes things easier, it makes things happier. I know how to win and keep them focused.
“Losing is difficult because of the doubt that seeps in,” he pointed out. “We’re going to find out (Friday) night whether or not we are good enough to beat that first opponent that we play.”
Bruce Pearl is in his third season as Auburn's head coach.
North Florida returns three starters from last year’s team that posted a 22-12 record. The top player on the roster, 6-1 senior point guard Dallas Moore, was the Atlantic Sun Conference’s Player of the Year for 2015-16. He averaged a league-best 19.8 points and led the A-Sun in assists with six per contest.
Pearl said the Tigers will open with a challenging opponent. “I do believe that when you play mid-major programs you play mid-major programs that are conference champions. That is what we are playing against North Florida. A lot of the kids that are on this team have played in the NCAA Tournament. They have won two conference championships the last two years.
“They played in the NIT last year,” the coach said. “They have been places my kids have not been, that I haven’t been the last two years. They have an edge in that confidence, they have an edge in that experience and knowing what they do works.”
Auburn defeated Montevallo last Friday night by a score of 96-68 in an exhibition game. Pearl said his team wasn’t as sharp in that game as they were a week earlier in a scrimmage at UT-Chattanooga.
“Two weeks ago when we got back from Chattanooga I felt really good about our effort and our energy,” he said. “I thought last week we had dropped back some and you don’t like to drop back when you’ve got such a young team. You would like to be able to continue to move forward, but that’s not realistic.
“I believe in the formula of how we’re doing things and I still believe in the formula of how we schedule as we sit here before we get ready to tip off. This team beat Illinois a year ago. This team was down one at halftime to Louisville at Louisville. Coach (Matthew) Driscoll does an outstanding job. He’s very experienced and has been at a lot of different places, most recently prior to being a head coach he was with Scott Drew at Baylor.
“They’re a very high-flying team,” the Auburn coach pointed out. “Offensively, they are very good. They were one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country last year. They made 12 a game and may have even been the number one team.
“The stuff they run is hard to guard,” Pearl said. “They have a preseason conference player of the year in Dallas Moore. What a night for Jared Harper and Ronnie Johnson to be going in and having to play. I would say he (Moore) reminds me a lot of (J.J.) Frazier from Georgia. Is he as good as Frazier? We’re going to find out, but I think he could be.
“For Jared Harper to be playing his first college game and for Ronnie Johnson to be playing his first game at Auburn against a guy that good, it’s going to be really challenging and obviously very interesting,” Pearl added.
Ronnie Johnson (left) dribbles with Jared Harper playing defense.
In addition to freshmen Harper, Heron and Purifoy, the Tigers will start 6-5 senior guard T.J. Dunans and 6-8 sophomore forward Horace Spencer. Dunans averaged 11.6 points and 3.4 assists last season. Spencer averaged 5.1 points and 4.9 rebounds.
Heron led Auburn in scoring vs. Montevallo with 26 points while Purifoy was next with 18 points and a team-high seven rebounds. Sophomore guard Bryce Brown scored 14 points and Dunans added 11 points.
Anfernee McLemore, a 6-8 freshman forward, chipped in with eight points and five rebounds off the bench while playing less than 10 minutes.
Four of the key Auburn players off the bench have extensive starting experience. That group includes 6-0 graduate transfer point guard Ronnie Johnson, 6-8 graduate transfer forward LaRon Smith, 6-7 junior guard/forward T.J. Lang and 6-3 sophomore guard Bryce Brown.
Purifoy said he is looking forward to starting the regular season after having to sit out last year while attending classes at AU because he wasn’t a full academic qualifier.
“I really learned how tough I was,” Purifoy said of the experience. “A lot of people thought I was going to give up, but I couldn’t let myself give up. It was really about not just listening to what other people say and doing what I have to do, but also coming back for this year and showing people what I can do.”
The six-foot-seven forward has made progress academically and as a player, Pearl said on Thursday. Purifoy agreed with the coach and said, “When I found out I couldn’t play last year, I mainly focused on my grades. I feel like I really picked that up since I got to college. Basketball just came to me.”
Friday night’s game will be just the second matching the Tigers and Ospreys. Auburn won 84-71 in December of 2011.
In addition to Moore the visitors have another preseason A-Sun all-league player on the roster, 6-8, 215 senior Chris Davenport, who averaged 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds last season. Starting guards Nick Malonga and Aaron Bodager are each six-foot-five and the other starter is 6-11, 252 junior Romelo Banks.
The Auburn Sports Network radio broadcast of the game is available on Sirius and XM channels 389.
The contest is the first of back-to-back games vs. A-Sun opponents. Georgia State will play at Auburn on Monday night.