After a 1-2 road trip to the Sunshine State to begin the season, Auburn basketball is back on its home court on Friday to face South Alabama for the third year in a row. The two faced off in Mobile last season, where former Auburn star Isaac Okoro’s late-game heroics led the Tigers to a 70-69 victory.
“This is a team and a program that does have confidence,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “They do a pretty good job of driving it downhill and getting it to the rim.”
The Jaguars have shot 47% from 3-point range this season, the ninth-best shooting percentage from downtown in the nation. Pearl noted the defensive importance of guarding without fouling and not coming off the ball when playing against an offense with a lot of depth. South Alabama has four players that average double figures in points through its first four games.
South Alabama plays a zone defense about 90% of the time, something that Auburn has not seen a lot of this season. However, Pearl believes this may open up some things offensively, specifically with freshman Justin Powell.
“I think because we will be seeing a lot of zone on Friday,” Pearl said. “There’s going to be some catch and stick opportunities, whether [Powell] is playing point guard or not.”
The freshman from Prospect, Kentucky, has been getting playing time at point guard this season while fellow freshman Sharife Cooper awaits his NCAA eligibility ruling.
“Sharife’s attitude has been incredible,” Pearl said. “He is staying right, he is staying ready. I think a person and player of lesser character or maturity or toughness wouldn’t be able to handle what he’s going through right now.”
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Expected to be a large contributor on offense, lacking Cooper has certainly hurt the Tigers’ scoring this season. The Auburn offense averages 72.7 points per game, the lowest amount through the first three games since 2010.
Pearl’s offenses have traditionally moved the ball fast, speeding up opposing defenses and attacking the disorganization it causes. With a relatively young and inexperienced roster, Pearl said they need to play calmer and slow the game down.
“Guys are just flying around out of control,” Pearl said. “We’re playing offensively like we like to make people play with our defense.”
If Auburn is to have success on offense Friday night, the Tigers will also need to limit turnovers against the Jaguars. South Alabama is plus-5.5 in the turnover margin category in the Sun Belt, second in the conference and only trailing Coastal Carolina, who has only played one game.
The Tigers committed a season-high 22 turnovers against UCF on their way to scoring a season-low 55 points in the loss. It was the lowest amount of points Auburn has scored against a non-SEC opponent since the second round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament against Clemson, an 84-53 defeat.
“Disappointed with the Central Florida game,” Pearl said. “From the standpoint of offensive execution, finishing, turnovers and a lot of missed free throws. There’s a lot of new guys in a lot of new roles and we didn’t handle the moment well at all.”
However, Pearl did commend the defensive efforts by his young group of Tigers in the loss. They allowed a season-low 63 points and forced a season-high 18 turnovers.
Pearl has never lost a home opener in his six years on the Plains and Auburn Arena will look a lot different this season. The lower bowl bleachers will be unavailable as they will be converted into the Auburn bench. This being said, The Jungle will now be spread out among the rest of the arena. Pearl said he expects 50% of the crowd to be students who won the lottery for the game.
“There was north of 2,000, maybe even 3,000 requests for tickets for the students,” Pearl said. “I appreciate the students and their energy, their support and passion.”
Since Pearl came onto the scene in 2014, the Tigers are 73-24 inside Auburn Arena and have not lost at home to a non-conference opponent since Jan. 30, 2016, against Oklahoma State.
“It’s going to be good to get another game in on Friday,” Pearl said. “To get a better taste in our mouths for how we’re playing the game, how we’re playing together.”
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