Anfernee McLemore (above) will be making his first appearance in the SEC Tournament.
Nashville, Tenn.--Coach Bruce Pearl third Auburn team will show up for its opening round SEC Basketball Tournament matchup with a deeper and more talented roster than previous years as his Tigers hope to stick around the Music City for a while like they did two years ago.
To do that Pearl’s team will need to defeat Missouri for a third time this season in a contest scheduled to tip off at 8:30 p.m. CST on Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena. The two teams met on Saturday at Auburn Arena as AU improved its record to 18-13 with an 89-78 victory. Wednesday’s game will be televised on the SEC Network.
Pearl’s initial AU team won three games and advanced to the SEC Tournament semi-final round in Nashville before losing to No. 1 seed Kentucky. His second team was one and done last year, losing to Tennessee in the opening round of the tournament.
“The first year we were so undersized and so overmatched--we were a team that so badly wanted to begin the rebuilding process of Auburn basketball,” Pearl said of a group led by senior guard T.J. Harrell. “I just felt like because of our make-up, we couldn’t do it, but we had great leadership with K.T. Harrell and Malcolm Canada, Antoine Mason and K.C. Ross Miller.
“They just fought, scrapped and clawed,” Pearl pointed out about his team winning three games at the league tournament. “If you look at some of the lineups out there with Devin Waddell or Alex Thompson, it was quite a hodge podge and they did it. They made their mark on Auburn basketball history.
Bruce Pearl's team will play the late game on Wednesday in Nashville.
“Last year we went up there with having had a lot of injuries,” said Pearl, whose team lost their scholarship point guards, Tahj Shamsid-Deen and Kareem Canty during the 2015-16 season.
“We had a better team, we had a more talented team, but we were just too short in the backcourt and Tennessee played great,” Pearl said of AU’s opening round loss to the Volunteers last year.
“This year we have a very young team that I would imagine will be excited about the tournament atmosphere and certainly the excitement builds,” the coach said. “The hardest one is going to be the first one. The hardest one to win is the first game and the next game just doesn’t matter about the opponent. The excitement will build though, the arena will fill and they’ll feel like they are part of March Madness a little bit more if you can stick around for a few days.”
The Tigers could use a 10-player rotation in Nashville if Pearl chooses, even without Horace Spencer, who was lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
The likely starters are forward Danjel Purifoy (11.4 points, 4.8 rebounds), center Austin Wiley (8.8 points, 4.9 rebounds), guard Jared Harper (11.5 points, 2.8 assists), guard Bryce Brown (7.3 points, 1.9 rebounds) and guard Mustapha Heron (15.2 points, 5.8 rebounds).
The Tigers have five other players available who have started games this season. That group includes senior guard T.J. Dunans (8.1 points, 3.5 rebounds), senior guard Ronnie Johnson (7.7 points, 2.4 assists), freshman center Anfernee McLemore (5.5 points, 4.5 rebounds), junior guard/forward T.J. Lang (4.5 points, 1.8 rebounds) and senior center LaRon Smith (2.7 points, 2.4 rebounds).
With four freshmen likely to start and another (McLemore) likely to play key minutes, Pearl said it would be a big deal for his team to make a run during the SEC Tournament. “For us to be able to win a couple of games with a young team would pay great dividends as we move forward, just to know we were in it and then figure out what we need to do to stay in it longer and compete for championships.”
If the Tigers win the rematch vs. Missouri they are scheduled to play at 8:30 p.m. CST on Thursday vs. an Ole Miss team that received an opening round bye. The Rebels swept the season series vs. Auburn.