With Auburn visiting Rupp Arena for a 4 p.m. game Saturday at Rupp Arena, here are four things to know about the Tigers:
1. Bruce Pearl is still rebuilding
The former Tennessee coach is in his third season at Auburn after replacing current Kentucky assistant Tony Barbee in 2014. The Tigers went 15-20 Pearl’s first season, then slipped to 11-20 overall last year. Auburn is 11-5 with a 1-3 mark this season. Overall, Pearl is 37-45 as the Tigers’ coach with just a 10-30 record in the SEC.
That’s a far cry from what Pearl was able to do at Tennessee when he arrived there in 2005-06. The Vols won 20-or-more games in each off his first five season before slipping to 19-15 his final year when the program was being investigated by the NCAA.
Pearl was ultimately fired after admitting he lied to the NCAA about having recruits at his house for a barbecue during a non-contact period. Before his exit, however, Pearl was 145-61 overall and 65-31 in the SEC at UT. His teams went to six NCAA Tournaments, including an NCAA Elite Eight appearance in 2009-10.
Since Pearl’s firing, Tennessee has had three different head coaches. Cuonzo Martin went 63-41 overall and 32-20 in three seasons before leaving for California. Former Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall was 16-16 and 7-11 before being fired for NCAA violations committed at Southern Miss. Rick Barnes was 15-19 and 6-12 last season in his first year in Knoxville. The Vols are 8-8 overall and 1-3 this year. Post Pearl, Tennessee is 102-84.
By the way, Barbee went 49-75 in four seasons as the Auburn head coach. After an 11-20 record his first season, Auburn went 15-16, 9-23 and 14-16. Barbee was 18-50 in the SEC at the school.
2. The current Auburn team is very young
As my colleague Jerry Tipton pointed out, the current Tiger roster is filled with first-year players. Auburn’s top three scorers are all freshmen. If you extend it out, four of the top five scorers are freshmen.
The team’s leading scorer is guard Mustapha Heron, a 6-foot-5 guard from Waterbury, Connecticut who is averaging 16.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Heron’s father, Bryan, played pro basketball in Europe.
Heron scored 20 points last Saturday against Ole Miss. Despite injuring his ankle in practice the day before, he scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and made two assists in the win Tuesday at Missouri.
Freshman Jared Harper, a 5-10 guard from Mableton, Georgia scored 18 of his 24 points in the second half at Ole Miss. He scored 16 of his team’s last 19 points in that game. He scored 22 points in the team’s win over Connecticut. Harper is averaging 13.5 points per game.
Danjel Purifoy, a 6-7 freshman from Centreville, Alabama is the third on the team in scoring at 13.5 per game, but has been out with an ankle injury. He missed the last 27 minutes against Ole Miss and did not make the trip to Missouri.
3. The five-star promise of Austin Wiley
The Tigers do boast a five-star 6-foot-11, 255-pound freshman center Austin Wiley, who has a proud Auburn heritage. Wiley’s mother, Vickie Orr, is a former Auburn women’s star who has her number 50 hanging in the rafters at the school’s arena. His father, Aubrey Wiley, also played basketball at Auburn.
After playing three years at Spain Park High School in Hoover, Alabama, Wiley transferred to Conrad Basketball Academy in Orlando. He ended up graduating early and decided to skip his senior season much like former Tennessee star Jarnell Stokes did in 2011.
Wiley was not ruled eligible by the NCAA until mid-December. Since then, Wiley has started six of the seven games in which he’s played. He’s averaging 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds.
A member of the U.S. Junior National team, Wiley scored nine points, grabbed three rebounds and blocked two shots while playing 15 minutes in his debut against Mercer.
Though he starts, Wiley doesn’t get a ton of playing time. He played just 10 minutes at Missouri, scoring five points and grabbing three rebounds. He did block four shots. In fact, Wiley is blocking 1.3 shots per game despite playing just 15.7 minutes per game.
He did score 11 points in the team’s loss to Georgia on Dec. 29.
4. Auburn is off to a slow SEC start
That brings us to Auburn’s slow start in conference play. After going 10-2 in its non-conference schedule, when included wins over Oklahoma and Connecticut, the Tigers have struggled in the league.
Georgia, not exactly a great offensive team, exploded for 96 points in the conference opener to win by 12 points at Auburn. The host Tigers led 51-43 at the half but fell victim to Yante Maten’s 31 points. Georgia averaged 1.214 points per possession in the win.
After an 80-61 loss at Vanderbilt, in which Vandy’s Matthew Fisher-Davis scored 33 points, Pearl spent so much time in the locker room talking to or yelling at his team the coach missed his post-game radio show.
Last Saturday, the Tigers lost a heartbreaker 88-85 at home to Ole Miss despite outrebounding the Rebels 36-26. T.J. Lang missed a three-pointer at the buzzer that would have sent the game to overtime.
They got their first SEC win Tuesday night at Missouri, prevailing 77-72. Besides Heron’s 16 points, Auburn got 13 points each from Ronnie Johnson and Bryce Brown. The latter made four of his eight three-point shots.
Mizzou missed 16 of its first 18 shots from the floor while Auburn got 43 points from the bench and blocked 12 shots, its most blocks in an SEC game since 2002. Auburn made just 54.5 percent of its free throws, but did make its final six to seal the win.
Overall, Ken Pomeroy has Auburn ranked at No. 101 on his overall efficiency list. Auburn ranks 89th in defense and 134th overall on offense.
Auburn is 14th nationally in average length of possession at 14.8 per seconds. Kentucky is sixth at 14.1. So look for an up-and-down game on Saturday.
Auburn men’s basketball 2016-17