Pearl's latest Auburn team loaded with newcomers, mystery
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) Bruce Pearl understands if you aren't sure what to expect from Auburn's basketball team.
Most of the roster is comprised of underclassmen and newcomers, including top recruit Mustapha Heron, redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy and two graduate transfers.
Pearl has gotten used to the mystery created by newness since taking over the Auburn program three years ago.
''For the third straight year, we have six or seven new guys on scholarship, so how could you possibly know as a person, as an observer, as somebody in the media or even me as a coach?'' he said. ''Part of the real challenge in building the program is just the fact that the roster has had to be reconstructed, and yet I wouldn't have done it any other way, because there really weren't any other options.
''While it may be restructured and very new, we've got eight very, very solid freshmen and sophomores that are all good players. And so now the foundation is built and a good percentage of our team will return next year, and that's not something we've had yet.''
It still makes for an uncertain present even if the future seems bright. The Tigers are picked to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference.
Pearl has experienced the first two losing seasons of his 21-year head coaching career since taking over Auburn's downtrodden program.
The Tigers were 11-20 last season amid injury problems and the early departure of star Kareem Canty. Guard T.J. Dunans is back after averaging 11.6 points in 16 games before going down with a left knee injury.
Freshman Bryce Brown also averaged double digits scoring while setting a freshman record with 78 3-pointers. While the talent infusion appears substantial, Auburn must replace starting interior players Tyler Harris and leading rebounder Cinmeon Bowers from a seemingly perpetually undersized team.
Auburn also brought in graduate transfers Ronnie Johnson (Houston) and LaRon Smith, who was tied for third nationally in blocked shots last season at Bethune-Cookman. Horace Spencer returns after ranking third in the SEC in blocks as a freshman, giving Auburn a couple of shot swatters inside. The Tigers still don't have a scholarship player taller than 6-foot-8.
Here are some things to watch in Auburn's 2016-17 season:
PURIFOY'S PRESENCE: Last year's top recruit sat out the season after he wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA. The 6-foot-7, 230-pounder will likely play out of position frequently at power forward but could fill some of the scoring void.
''He's got a really complete offensive skill package,'' Pearl said. ''He'll be a very difficult matchup.''
WHO'S THE POINT: Injuries and Canty's early departure left the Tigers playing power forward Bowers at point guard at times. Pearl has more options now for the position, including newcomers Johnson and freshman Jared Harper.
''I would say that we're going to get really solid point guard play,'' the coach said. ''Ronnie and Jared, although one's a senior and one's a freshman, are both really fast and really quick offensively and defensively. We should be able to fly up and down the floor with the ball in their hands. We'll be hard to press.
''They're both really good playmaking guards and they can both shoot it.''
TOUGH SCHEDULE: Auburn has a difficult nonconference schedule that includes games with Texas Tech, Oklahoma, UConn and UAB.
BIG CROWDS? Pearl's promotional efforts and recruiting have generated some excitement. Auburn has sold out season tickets in three straight years for the first time in school history, though part of that is because the Tigers play in the smaller Auburn Arena now. Before Pearl's arrival, Auburn had only managed that in 1999-2000.