The absence of Lewis Monroe, who is out until the middle of December at the earliest, is one reason Coach Cliff Ellis is sweating the season opener. The other is Auburn's opponent, College of Charleston, is a dangerous opening night foe and has just the type of team to cause problems for an Auburn squad without Monroe.
Tipoff time is 7 p.m. as the Tigers take on a College of Charleston team that posted a 25-8 record last season, including an impressive run to the win the Great Alaska Shootout. With four returning starters along with 6-4 guard Robert Swain from College Park, Ga., a talented transfer from UConn, Ellis has legitimate reasons to be concerned.
"I have watched film on them and I am tremendously impressed," Ellis says. "We have our hands full. They are going to test us."
Charleston defeated Armed Services All-Stars 86-63 in its only exhibition game. Auburn split a pair of preseason games, falling 83-81 to the EA Sports Southeast All-Stars before bouncing back with a 94-61 victory over the Global Sports All-Stars on Thursday night.
A key for Auburn in the opener will be how starting point guard Ian Young, a 6-3, 200-pound junior, handles Charleston's aggressive pressure style of play designed to put extra pressure on the ball-handlers.
With Monroe out and Derrick Bird and Marquis Daniels graduated, the Tigers are left with just two returning starters in junior forwards Brandon Robinson and Marco Killingsworth. Robinson says that Young is doing a good job, but admits that Monroe will be missed. "Lewis is experienced and he does a great job of passing the ball," Robinson says. "He is taller than Ian and that helps him find the passing lanes."
Robinson has been strong in the preseason games and looks primed to improve on last year's averages of 8.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He has used his offseason to get stronger and has shot the ball with more consistency in the preseason, Ellis notes.
Robinson says the Tigers are taking College of Charleston quite seriously and notes that they remind him of Arkansas with their trapping, up-tempo style of play. "From watching them on film, they are very good team and we are going to have to be ready," Robinson says.
Killingsworth agrees, noting that the Cougars are "ain't no rinky-dink team." Killingsworth is Auburn's leading scorer among the returnees with his average of 13.6 points per game plus 6.4 rebounds per outing as a sophomore.
Ellis lists his junior college transfers as the starters at the other three spots with Ronny LeMelle joining Young at guard and Quinnel Brown at forward.
When the Tigers want to put a true center in the game they will go with senior Kyle Davis, who averaged 6.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last season. Davis has shown signs of a better shooting touch in the preseason, but has been slowed by an ankle injury. The good news for the 6-10, 235-pounder is that he played 19 minutes on Thursday night without reinjuring his ankle like he did in the first exhibition game.
More help off the bench is expected from junior guard Nathan Watson, who hit four of seven shots in a reserve role on Thursday night. Each of those baskets was a three-pointer. Watson is also a strong defensive player. He was held scoreless in the first exhibition game, but scored 12 vs. Global Sports.
Thomas Mobley, a 6-6, 220 senior forward, is the leading scorer for Charleston. He averaged 13.8 points and 4.6 rebounds last season. He is joined inside by wide-body center Mike Benton, a 6-9, 270 senior, who averaged 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds as a junior.
Tony Mitchell averaged 9.7 points and 2.6 assists last year. He is a 5-11 junior who is scheduled to start at guard. The other starter is 6-4 junior guard Stanley Jackson, who averaged 5.7 points 2.7 rebounds last year.
Monday night's game will be the first ever for the Tigers vs. College of Charleston, which plays out of the Southern Conference. Auburn is 19-5 all-time against current members of that league.
"When you look at College of Charleston, their basketball team is just good," Ellis says. "They are for real and everybody is going to see that. It is a great way to start the season. Both teams (including Western Kentucky on Friday night) that we are going to play are teams that we are going to see in the NCAA Tournament."
Robinson says that his team has to show some toughness on Monday night and the veterans need to lead the way. "They do a lot of running and trapping," the junior forward notes. "The new guys haven't gotten into that yet, but the old guys like me, Marco, Kyle and Nate and all the veterans know it will be a lot like playing Arkansas so we have to get everybody physically prepared to fight through all of that."