I like trucks, but Bruce Pearl is going to put a very good basketball team on the floor when Auburn hosts our Hoop Dawgs tonight at 7, televised on ESPNU.
Georgia’s last trip out was a loss at Oakland 86-79 last Friday. With a week to prepare for the Tigers, the 8-4 Dawgs are in almost a must win situation considering the need to have a strong SEC campaign if they still dream of a bubble come March. Yante Maten struggled with fouls in Michigan, but JJ Frazier had a solid game. Freshman G Jordan Harris, sophomore big man Derek Ogbeide, and junior wing Juwan Parker likely round out Mark Fox’s starting lineup. It’ll be interesting to see if Mark Fox tightens his bench with minutes having gone to sophomore Turtle Jackson and freshman Tyree Crump at G, the trio of Pape Diatta, Toe Wilridge, and Kenny Paul Geno almost all getting work at SF mostly, and the backup big men being Mike Edwards and Houston Kessler during the non conference slate.
This will be the Dawgs conference opener, and their first December SEC game since 1990. Auburn has gone 10-2 prior to SEC play this year, and it’s come on the strength of an excellent group of freshmen. Like we’ve become accustomed to in Pearl-led teams over the years, they’ll run, press, and fire away from deep. That’ll mark for a stark contrast in coaching demands with Fox usually wanting a slower pace and more half court sets on both ends. Pace of play and coaching decisions could make a big difference in the winner and loser tonight.
Auburn has 11 players that have averaged at least ten minutes a game, so they’ll use their bench as liberally as us. They enter tonight with a week off as well since topping UConn last Friday in overtime, and defeating Oklahoma in the game before that (impressive names, though it should be noted both are dealing with key players missing and are in down years). They’ve started four freshman (former Pebblebrook PG Jared Harper, star SG Musapha Heron, redshirted due to academic issues F Danjel Purifoy, and even rarer basketball early enrollee Austin Wiley inside). Junior wing TJ Lang has been starting recently as well, since former starters Bryce Brown and Horace Spencer were suspended for a marijuana arrest.
But with Brown and Spencer back, and available, as well as senior guards TJ Dunnans and Ronnie Johnson, senior forward LaRon Smith, and freshman forward Anfernee McLemore off the bench, the Tigers can run with a lot of athleticism, ball handling, and scoring on the floor at all times. Pearl has done a great job of not just getting elite talent (Wiley and Heron were both five star guys, while both Spencer and Purifoy are highly regarded four stars), but he’s done a good job mining the grad transfer market to fill gaps on his bench (Johnson came from Houston and Smith from Bethune-Cookman to spend their final college basketball seasons coming off the bench on the Plains). He’s also hit Georgia hard for kids, as already mentioned Harper is from the Atlanta area, as is Tucker grad Brown, and Worth County produced McLemore, while Dunnans graduated from MLK in Lithonia before having to spend two years at JUCO.
Heron is their leading scorer, followed by Purifoy and Harper as their only three in double digits. And all three shoot a lot from the outside (shooting on average 3-6 a game each). Spencer and Wiley will do work inside, with Spencer in particular a defensive force in steals and blocks for Pearl’s style. Brown, Lang, Dunnans, and Johnson just add more ball handling, defensive help, and the occasional bucket.
The Tigers enter this game a favorite, but not by much (1, 1 1/2, or 2 points depending), but we’ve had a lot of trouble there over the years (only one win in the last 5 years). It will be a game that should shine a little light on what Fox has been able to build over the holiday and exam break, and just how ready Pearl’s kids are for SEC battles. Action begins at 7, and there’s a lot here inquiring minds want to know!