Depth A Concern as Tigers Prepare for Opener

Auburn, Ala.--Jeff Lebo sees his team's Friday night regular season basketball opener as a tougher challenge than he originally expected.

At 8 p.m. CST the Auburn Tigers will tip off the season at Fogelman Arena, the home of the Tulane Green Wave of Conference USA. Auburn will take the floor minus two returning starters who were expected to be in the opening night lineup and possibly without a third.

Rasheem Barrett, a 6-5 junior guard, is questionable for the opener due to several preseason injuries, Lebo says. The Tigers will play all season without forward Josh Dollard, who is taking a leave of absence for "medical reasons" and redshirting, and will also play the first six games without suspended senior forward Quan Prowell.

"Tulane has a a good team with a lot of talent and a lot of experienced players back," notes Lebo, who points out what he expected to be an Auburn team with proven depth will be missing that on Friday.

Even if Barrett plays and is effective, which is a big if, the Tigers will still be down to an eight-man rotation with little-used sophomores Lucas Hargrove and Matt Heramb being counted on to see significant playing time off the bench along with seven-foot-one-inch freshman center Boubacar Sylla.

Rasheem Barrett takes a break at an Auburn practice.

"We are going to be very small now again and we are going to play some guys probably who haven't played a whole heck of a lot," Lebo says. "We are going to have to live through some mistakes with some guys who are now inexperienced playing on the road in our first game.

"One thing that we are going to have to do on the road is we are going to have to shoot the ball very well, which was a concern for me at the beginning of (practice)," Lebo says. "That is still a concern."

Dollard, who led the Tigers in scoring with 12.5 points per game last season, is one of the team's top shooters along with Prowell, who was second in scoring last season at 12.0 points per outing.

The Tigers will be looking for points from 6-4 senior guard Frank Tolbert, who will likely play all of the positions for the Tigers on opening night. He averaged 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds as a junior.

Also expected to start is 6-7 junior Korvotney Barber, who averaged 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Barber will be counted on to play extended minutes without Prowell and Dollard available.

Quantez Robertson, who swings between the point guard and two guard spots, returns as a junior with his average of 8.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. The 6-3 junior looks primed to have his best season, Lebo notes.

The youngest player in the projected starting lineup is sophomore DeWayne Reed. The 6-1, 175 guard averaged 5.4 points and 3.0 assists last season with most of his work coming in a reserve role.

Barrett, who fell off a balance beam in a physical education class, was limited in Auburn's exhibition victory a week ago and has seen very limited practice time due to neck and back problems from the fall and a bruise to the midsection suffered in practice.

In Auburn's exhibition win over Bluefield College, the Tigers went with 6-6 sophomore Lucas Hargrove in the starting lineup with Barrett trying to play in a reserve role, something that didn't work out well because he was obviously struggling physically in that game. The six-foot-six Hargrove, who has added size and muscle in the offseason, averaged 2.5 points and 2.9 rebounds last season.

Coach Jeff Lebo (left) makes a point to Lucas Hargrove at practice.

Another sophomore, 6-9 Matt Heramb forward, averaged 1.8 points and 1.3 rebounds in limited playing time last year. He has shown signs of being an improved player and could get plenty of opportunities to prove that with Prowell and Dollard out.

The only other Tiger expected to play on Friday night is 7-1, 280 freshman center Boubacar Sylla, who showed promise in the exhibition game. However, the newcomer from Paris, France is still a major work in progress as a developmental player, Lebo says.

Another hit to the depth happened prior to the start of practice when senior guard Archie Miaway was declared academically ineligible for the fall semester. He has practiced with the team, but has been limited due to a knee problem.

"We go from one extreme to the other in a short period of time against a team that is very experienced with four of five starters back from a team that won nine of its 12 games," Lebo says of his team's depth issues and the Green Wave.

Tulane's top returning scorer is 6-7, 240 senior David Gomez, who averaged 13.5 points and 5.8 rebounds as a third team All-CUSA forward.

Kevin Sims, a 5-10, 160 guard, averaged 10 points, 3.4 assists and 2.0 rebounds last season while being named to the conference's all-freshman team.

The two other returning starters are 6-7, 260 junior center Robinson Louisme and 6-5, 215 senior forward Matt Wheaton. Louisme averaged 6.4 points and 3.3 rebounds for a team that finished fourth in Conference USA. Wheaton averaged 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds.

The fifth projected starter is 6-2 guard Eric Vianney, a transfer from Illinois State, who is from Yaoune, Cameroon.

Daniel Puckett, a 6-7, 200 junior forward, returns with a scoring average of 7.1 points to go with 4.1 rebounds per contest. Donnie Stith, a 6-6, 215 senior forward, averaged 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds.

To be successful, Lebo says his Tigers need to shoot the ball well, something that he is concerned about after watching his players in practice the past month.

Lebo scheduled six of Auburn's first seven games on the road to help toughen his Tigers for SEC competition and help the Tigers build a resume worthy of NCAA Tournament consideration. However, when the schedule was made, Lebo expected to have all five returning starters back with all of the top reserves.

The one home contest in the first seven games is on Tuesday at 7 p.m. when Kennesaw State comes to Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The Tigers won't be back at home for a game until Dec. 19th when Mercer comes to Auburn.

Auburn leads the series vs. Tulane 32-24. The Green Wave won the last meeting on March 13th, 1996 by an 87-73 score in the first round of the NIT.

Radio coverage featuring Rod Bramblett and Daymeon Fishback can be heard on The Auburn ISP Sports Network. The game will be on Sirius channel 107.

The Tigers were 89-75 winners over Bluefield College on Nov. 1st. Friday night's game is the earliest regular season opener in school history. Last year the Tigers opened vs. Troy on Nov. 10th.

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