Auburn basketball has been tearing through its nonconference, sitting at 7-1 in the early season with a lone loss to Duke.
But Auburn now faces a difficult middle of December with a four-game stretch against Dayton, UAB, NC State and Murray State upcoming. Here's everything Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl said in preparation for Dayton this Saturday in Auburn Arena.
“It’s a big week for Auburn basketball. We’ve got a great opponent coming in in Dayton. They’ve made the tournament four out of the past five years. They’ve got a tremendous following. They’ve averaged 11,000 fans for 300 consecutive home games. They’ve got such a great following and such great history and tradition of Dayton Flyer basketball that the NCAA plays their first four there every year. I think last year, this game was really sort of the kick-off, if you will, of when we started to kind of come into our own. We went there 4-1. We had lost to Temple in the Charleston Classic, and still, lots of uncertainty about our team, and we went there and played awfully well to be able to beat them start to finish. They’re 5-3 right now, and their three losses are close losses to Virginia, Oklahoma and Mississippi State, and all three of those teams are—two of them are in the top 25 still, and Oklahoma, I think they actually may be also (they’re not). They’re not going to be at-all intimidated by us. They play hard, they play physically. They’re a much improved defensive team from a year ago. A lot of guys back from a year ago. It’s good. They’re a good opponent. We’re excited about it.
“This is the last home game that our students are going to be still in school, so I’m hoping that, with classes ending Friday, and then finals starting up, that this will be an opportunity for our students to take a little bit of a study break. I hope we fill every single seat available, and right now, as we sit two days before tip-off, we still have standing-room seats available for sale.
“The other thing we’re going to do is we’re asking all fans in attendance Saturday to bring an unwrapped toy do the doors for our first-ever toy drive. We want to be able to help local children that aren’t going to be able to have as good a Christmas, and I can’t imagine what we’re going to be able to do if everyone participates and just brings a toy to the door. We’ll have United States Marines at the door assisting us and collecting the toys, and the timing couldn’t be better. I know we’re always looking for ways to serve and always looking for ways to give back, and I promise you that these toys will get in the hands of children who might not otherwise have something for Christmas.”
HOW PLEASED ARE YOU WITH HOW THE DEFENSE IS PLAYING
"I’m pleased with the defense. I thought, against Asheville, even though we had our struggles offensively as far as our efficiency is concerned, we never stopped playing hard or being fully engaged defensively. Now, every opponent is going to bring different challenges. I know I’ve said this before but, like, when people in the media say ‘It’s all about matchups,’ that’s a real, accurate statement. When they say, ‘You live by the three; you die by the three,’ that’s just crap. But it’s really true. And so what bothers some teams doesn’t bother others because of the matchups. So, for us, we played through, we played hard. What we did defensively bothered Asheville. What we do defensively didn’t bother Duke—not because Duke’s that much better than Asheville. It’s just that, that was, in my mind, a function of what we weren’t able to do. So you live, you learn, you grow. Dayton is going to provide us some real challenges. Keeping those guys in front of us without fouling them—You know, they do a good job of getting that ball inside, they do a good job of getting that ball to the rim. They’re a terrific rebounding team. They’re physical. They’re tough. And they’re tested, because of the quality of the schedule they’ve played."
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HOW IS J’VON COMING ALONG
"I’m hoping that J’Von can practice today. My rule is that you have to be able to go through a contact practice before I’ll let you play. J’Von was available on Tuesday night in an emergency. He was able to go through a contact practice, but he had a little bit too much soreness to be able to use in the regular rotation. I’m hoping he’s better today. Yesterday was a day off for our guys. It was a day off that we really needed. Because the students will tell you right now, they’re all cramming. They’re trying to get all their best work done, finishing their papers and a lot of their assignments and doing everything they possibly can to study and prepare for finals. So it’s a busy, busy time of the year for us right now and our student-athletes."
Defense has improved mightily from preseason
"I mean, I think again, so far so good. But again, it's all about the exposure. Talk to me after these next four games. Believe it or not, we're still learning a lot about our team, and I think between Dayton, UAB, NC State and Murray State -- the last four nonconference games -- we're going to continue to learn a lot about our strengths and weaknesses. Defense travels; defense wins championships. We talk about defense, rebounding and free-throw shooting. Our free-throw shooting -- our percentages aren't good. That's gonna cost us in a close game. Dayton has lost three games, all close games. Free-throw shooting is going to be a factor. But it is encouraging. The thing about the defense is, it's one of the most unselfish things that you can do as far as putting yourself in a position to be able to make plays. I tell you, it starts with Bryce Brown. Bryce Brown is the best on-ball defender in the country. And so if you can pressure the quarterback, you can really bother somebody's passing game. And Bryce is able to do that. Jared Harper is a tremendous defensive signal-caller in the back of the defense. Great at communicating, he's got such a basketball IQ; he makes sure guys are in the right spots -- as is he. We've got rim protectors -- several guys that can block shots, change shots without fouling. And it's obviously been a focus for us, for what we're trying to do, as far as trying to improve. So we've got some pieces to definitely be a good defensive team."
On the development of Myles Parker
"Myles gives us -- because right now, we only have 11 guys that are on scholarship out there. And so Myles gives us some depth. You can see what kind of athlete he is -- how well he moves. I would think that right now, we're in a nine-man rotation right now, so that does not allow Myles to be in the rotation. Had we gotten down to eight, which we did when Samir Doughty was out with an ankle, and Austin was just coming back, Myles did get some playing time early in the year. So it's good to have, and he'll stay right and ready should we be able to need him. I think he's got a very, very promising future here at Auburn. He has got high energy, he can score, he's athletic, he's a willing learner, and he's a great teammate. I think he's -- we recruited Madison Academy really well in football. We've had some great running backs coming out of there. But we've just not done a great job in basketball in Huntsville. So it's great to have a really good Huntsville kid on the team."
What are you hoping to learn out of this difficult four-game stretch?
"Yeah. Dayton's gonna hit us in the mouth. They're physical, they're strong. They play great defense. Their defensive numbers are twice as good as last year's team for them. Anthony Grant -- they're going to be patient. They play at one of the slower paces in the country, so therefore, they'll score early if you're bad in transition. They're not afraid to run. But if you're back defensively, they're going to make you guard throughout the possession, and they're going to see who's going to break down first -- you or them. And because it'll be fewer possessions in the game, by future of fewer possessions, it'll be a closer game. By virtue of it being -- we haven't had a close game yet at home, free-throw shooting execution, valuing possessions will be more important this game that it has been so far in any of our other home games."
Tell us about Malik Dunbar lately. Is he an all-around player now?
“I think Malik has become a real valuable piece, and I give Malik and I give the assistant coaches a lot of credit, because Malik is going to his strengths and staying away from whatever weaknesses he may have. He can really shoot the basketball with great range. He can defend physically, and he’s worked very hard to improve defensively. He can be a very physical rebounder; he’s improved in that area. But the thing he’s improved the most on is his assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s just not forcing the issue. He’s not worrying—he’s worrying more about helping the team and being efficient and going to his strengths than him establishing, ‘Coach, I can do this.’ I know you can, but we got some other guys that do that better, but you know what? You do these things really, really well. So, you talk about being coachable, you talk about being productive, he’s got one of the better offensive efficiency ratings in the country. That’s going to serve him really well, better than trying to force the issue too much coming off the bench. He’s also been a great teammate coming off the bench. Malik is good enough to be a starter, but we’ve started games well. Austin’s certainly good enough to be a starter, but we’ve started well. There’s no sense in messing with the lineup. It’s all about we’re going to play nine games right now, and some guys are going to start and some guys are going to finish, and some guys are going to have good nights and some guys aren’t going to be as effective those nights, some guys are going to have a better matchup—but it’s our nine guys right now, and it’ll be our 10 guys when we get Danjel next week.”
What does it say about Austin that he’s willing to come off the bench?...
“Austin wants to win. Austin wants to make history at Auburn. Austin wants to get better. He wants to develop. Those things have nothing to do with whether he starts or comes off the bench; they just don’t, and so, there obviously are lots of lessons in sports you could look at where kids—you want to start me? Start me. You want me to come off the bench? They’ll come off the bench—but they stay right, and they stay ready. That’s the formula for having a chance at having a pretty good team.”
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