February 13, 2017

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) The Auburn Tigers' progress under coach Bruce Pearl has come with plenty of growing pains, and they haven't eased yet.

Nowhere was that more evident than last Saturday, when the Tigers blew a 23-point second half lead in a 90-84 loss to Mississippi - after nearly squandering a 21-point cushion against Mississippi State.

''Looking back at Ole Miss, it was the most disappointing loss since I've been here at Auburn,'' Pearl said Monday. ''Our ills, our challenges, came back and bit us, and this time it cost us the game.''

The challenge gets bigger now, with No. 15 Florida visiting Auburn Arena Tuesday night on a six-game winning streak and with a team with the kind of experience the Tigers sorely lack.

For all the strides Auburn (16-9, 5-7 Southeastern Conference) has made in Pearl's third season, the loss to the Rebels shows how far the young team has to go. The Tigers have allowed 60-plus second-half points in each of the past two games.

Still, they have a shot at their first winning season since going 24-12 under Jeff Lebo in 2008-09. The Tigers have already matched their most SEC wins under Pearl while sweeping rival Alabama.

The young talent has been evident, just as has the inexperience and defensive deficiencies. Auburn is the only team nationally whose top four scorers are freshmen, and Kentucky is the only one that has gotten more production out of first-year college players.

The program's first two five-star recruits have been producing. Mustapha Heron is leading the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 15.3 points and 5.7 boards. Six-foot-11 mid-year enrollee Austin Wiley brought much-needed size to the lineup and is averaging 9.4 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Freshman Jared Harper has been starting at point guard and Anfernee McLemore is a key reserve. Redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy is averaging 11.5 points.

Piecing together squads leaning heavily on transfers, Pearl's first two Auburn teams went a combined 9-27 in SEC play. This one is built more on freshmen with a boost from graduate transfers Ronnie Johnson and LaRon Smith.

This team, Gators coach Mike White said, is ''even more talented, even deeper, better defensively.''

''They're very, very dangerous,'' White said. ''They shoot 38 percent from 3 in league play and they've got seven guys that can make 3s. I don't know how many teams in the country have seven different guys that are capable of hitting multiple 3s tomorrow night.

''Anytime you're playing a team like that, you better be aware and on it defensively in defending that line. And then they've got a young big (Wiley) who's emerging, getting better and better, too, who demands some respect on the interior.''

Meanwhile, Pearl is hoping the painful lessons from experiences like the Ole Miss loss will have some long-term benefits for returning players.

''You're looking at the foundation of our program being built and being laid, and these experiences that we go through are experiences that teams need to have,'' Pearl said. ''Now you bring those guys back and we remember in the offseason how we weren't able to hold onto a lead or didn't do this defensively, and then we work on it and we train and condition accordingly.

''That's how you build a program. That's how you build a championship program, and it takes that carry over. We just have not had that carry over.''

NOTE: Auburn will be without forward Horace Spencer the rest of the season. Spencer, who is averaging 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds, is scheduled to undergo left shoulder surgery on Thursday.

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More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org

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