Auburn basketball is back.
After winning their first conference title since 1999 last season, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers enter the season ranked at No.11 in the AP Poll and are projected to finish third in the Southeastern Conference.
Auburn opens the season with South Alabama Tuesday night in Auburn Arena before hosting No. 25 Washington on Friday night. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl, however, isn’t looking past South Alabama.
“This will be a really challenging opener for us,” Pearl said in his press conference Monday afternoon. “South Alabama is good. Richie Riley is really good. As I mentioned before, I think these next two coaches that we’re playing this week are two of the best young coaches in the country.”
Pearl noted that he scheduled the game when Matthew Graves, who is currently an assistant coach for Evansville, was the head coach at South Alabama. Since then, the Jaguars changed up.
Richie Riley, who is 35, was hired as South Alabama’s new head men’s basketball coach earlier this year after helping Nicholls to its first regular-season Southland Conference championship since 1998.
Pearl mentioned that unlike his relationship with Graves, he doesn’t know what to expect from Riley.
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“I’ve been here four years. We do what we do. I’m old,” Pearl said. “He’s (Riley) young. They do different things. They do new things. They do good things, but I don’t know what they’re going to do… That’s going to make it especially challenging.”
Although the Jaguars finished ninth in the Sun Belt last season, they return four starters, as well as their leading scorer Rodrick Sikes. Sikes, who will be a senior this season, averaged 18.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game last season. South Alabama defeated Tuskegee 63-40 in their exhibition game last Saturday.
“They play hard,” Pearl said. “They’ve got very few underclassmen. They bring back 83 percent of their offense. Sikes scored 30 or more points five times last year, and he hit seven threes against Tuskegee.”
Auburn, who defeated Lincoln Memorial 76-62 in their exhibition game Friday night, will still be without Austin Wiley (foot) and Danjel Purifoy on Tuesday, but will get VCU transfer guard Samir Doughty back healthy. Doughty was questionable until Monday because of an ankle injury sustained in practice weeks earlier.
Wiley’s return is still up in the air and could be back as early as Friday, or may not be seen for a few more weeks because of his foot injury. Purifoy, who will have to sit out for 30 percent of the season to abide by the NCAA’s suspension, will not be back until Auburn faces off with UAB in December.
Pearl hopes that, despite not being at full strength, his team can learn something from their exhibition contest Friday and use it to get a season-opening win Tuesday night.
“I was pleased with Friday night from the stand point that Lincoln Memorial challenged us,” Pearl said. “They exposed some things, and I didn’t think we played particularly well or effectively, but at least we got exposed. Now is that exposure, in time, going to get us to where we need to be to win the game tomorrow? We’ll find out.”
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