A look at Rhode Island, DePaul, Grambling State, Furman, Tennessee Tech and Winthrop.
Auburn's non-conference basketball opens and closes with stiff challenges. The Tigers play in the Charleston Classic early and have games against Illinois and Florida State just before the conference season begins. But in between, Tony Barbee's team has a chance to build momentum with a few wins.
Auburn hosts Rhode Island on Nov. 25. This is Dan Hurley’s first season, and he returns two starters (five lettermen overall). The Rams finished the season last year with a 7-24 record and averaged 68.6 points per game. They shot 40.1 percent from the field, 27.8 percent from the 3-point arc and made 69.0 percent of their free throws. When Rhode Island arrives on the Plains, you might see a familiar face in guard, Andre Malone. He left Auburn in his sophomore year (2010-11) just after the Christmas break. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. CT.
In the annual SEC-Big East Challenge, Auburn hosts DePaul. Blue Demons head coach Oliver Purnell enters his third season, coming off a 12-19 record in 2011-12. Last year, DePaul averaged 74.1 points per game. The Blue Demons hit 43.8 percent of their field goals, 33.5 percent of their 3-point shots and made good on 69.6 percent of their free throws. DePaul returns nine players, including four that started at least 15 games last season. The top three returning scorers, juniors Cleveland Melvin, Moses Morgan and Brandon Young, are joined by senior Worrell Clahar, junior Donnavan Kirk and sophomores Jamee Crockett, Charles McKinney and Derrell Robertson Jr. The game will be aired on ESPNU Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. CT.
The Tigers kick off a December slate of games with Grambling State at home on Dec. 11. Joseph Price, in his first season at Grambling and overall, looks to revitalize a squad that closed the previous season with a 4-24 record. The Tigers averaged 54 points per game and shot 35.8 percent from the field, 27.5 percent from the 3-point line and hit 68.8 percent from the foul line. Grambling is led by junior Quincy Roberts (6'5, 210 pounds), who transferred from St. John’s in December 2010. Roberts averaged 23.9 points in just 20 games last season, and he hit 41.0 percent from the field, 32.0 percent of his 3s and was a solid 80.1 percent from the free-throw line. Roberts was named the SWAC newcomer of the year and was a first team All-SWAC selection. He scored 20-plus points in 14 games and had a season-high 34 against Prairie View. Tip-off between Auburn and Grambling is set for 7 p.m. CT.
Next up for the Tigers is a date with Furman at Auburn Arena on Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. CT. Jeff Jackson finished his sixth season with a 15-16 record last year. Furman averaged 64.7 points per game. The Paladins shot 41.4 percent from the field, 33.7 percent from the arc, and made 71.4 percent of their free throws. Five players that started in 10 or more games last year return, with a total of nine lettermen. Furman is led by junior Charlie Reddick. Reddick, a 6'5 native from Power Springs, Ga., is the No. 1 returner in points (10.4) and rebounds (4.9). He is joined by senior forward Bryant Irwin and senior guard Bobby Austin.
Tennessee Tech hits the Plains on Dec. 18. Steve Payne heads into his second year with a 19-14 record. Tech averaged 71.7 points per game, 46.5 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from 3. The Golden Eagles were 71.2 percent from the foul line. Tech only returns three starters from last year, but that includes All-OVC first team guard Jud Dillard. The 6'4, 180-pound senior led the conference in rebounds (140) and finished fourth in the conference in points per game (8.8) last season.
The Tigers finish up the December home schedule with a game against Winthrop on Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. CT. After a 12-20 season, first year coach Pat Kelsey comes in this year looking to start anew. Winthrop averaged 63.6 points per game last year and shot 42.1 percent from the field, 31 percent from behind the arc and 65.6 percent from the foul line. Winthrop returns without four senior contributors from the 2011-12 season and is also without junior point guard Brandon Vega (torn ACL) for the season. The returning scorer is junior Joab Jerome, a 6'5, 197-pound forward that averaged 4.8 points per game last year. He and senior guards Gideon Gamble and Reggie King will be the ones to watch this year.
It is still too early to know how the Tigers will fare in these first few games. Given their stats from last year -- 62.6 points per game, 41.7 percent from the field, 30.2 percent from 3 and an abysmal 64.8 percent from the foul line. It is evident the Tigers have to find a 3-point game and improve at free-throw shooting. However, the senior leadership of Frankie Sullivan, Rob Chubb, Josh Wallace and Noel Johnson, coupled with three years in the Tony Barbee system should be enough to keep the Tigers poised and ready for the two bigger out of conference tests – Illinois on Dec. 29 in Chicago and FSU on Jan. 2.