The Auburn Tigers return home to square off against Rhode Island Sunday afternoon at Auburn Arena.
Rhode Island is fresh off a 58-54 overtime loss to Loyola Friday, and much like the Tigers, the Rams are currently in the midst of discovering who they are as a team. They have started the season with five straight losses to Norfolk State, Virgina Tech, Ohio State, Seton Hall and Loyola. First-year coach Dan Hurley has a significant task ahead of him to get the program back to the NCAA Tournament -- the Rams' last appearance was in 1999. Hurley, known for his aggressive style of play, will look to seniors Nikola Malesevic (6'7, 200), Andre Malone (6'6, 210) and Ryan Brooks (6'8, 220) for leadership on the offensive side of the ball. Like Auburn, the Rams struggle on defense and at the free throw line, but they are finding some help from freshman Jordan Hare (6'10, 205). The Rams' projected starters are the three seniors, plus sophomore Mike Powell (5'11, 175) and junior Xavier Munford (6'2, 180). Look for Hare, Alwayne Bigby, T.J. Buchanan and Mike Aaman to come in off the bench.
When the Rams take the court, it will be a familiar venue to Malone. Malone left Auburn in 2010, Barbee's first year at Auburn, because he felt like the new system was not the right "fit" for him. At the time of his departure, he was the second-leading scorer on the team, averaging 11.7 points per game (Earnest Ross was the leader at 11.8 points; Frankie Sullivan was on the bench due to an injury). Malone is currently third in scoring for the Rams with 10.8 points per game (on the heels of Malesevic with 14.8 ppg and Munford with 13.8). He is 9 of 10 from the foul line this year.
Malesevic was 19th in the nation in three-pointers two years ago, hitting 45.8 percent, but he was unable to approach those numbers last season. He broke his hand in December and never seemed to get his shot back. The Serbian native is over 40 percent on shots from the field (19-41) and from the behind the arc (6-14) this year. He is 15 of 22 from the foul line and leads the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg).
Hare, named to the Atlantic 10's preseason all-rookie team, had 16 rebounds and seven blocked shots in the game against Loyola. He is seventh nationally in blocked shots for a freshman (currently averages 2.4 per game) and is his performance against Loyola provided the most blocked shots by a Ram since 1984 (Chris Scotti against Bryant). He was ranked the No. 24 center in the nation by ESPN for the 2012 recruiting class.
As we look to the Tigers (2-3), with a projecting starting lineup of Shareif Adamu, Rob Chubb, Shaquille Johnson, Brian Greene Jr. and Frankie Sullivan, we immediately have to wonder if Sunday afternoon's contest is the game in which the offense takes off. Is this the game in which the defense emerges? Is this the game in which someone other than Sullivan steps up? Right now, Sullivan leads the team in points per game (20.6), field goals attempted/made (36 of 80), three-pointers attempted/made (8 of 28) and free throws (23 of 28). After Sullivan, the offense production drops off significantly -- Chubb with 9.8 points per game, Allen Payne with 6.8, Noel Johnson with 5.4 and Adamu with 3.2 to round out the top five. Noel Johnson is the leader for three-point percentage, hitting 46.2 percent of his shots, but he only has 13 attempts. Chubb's 47.8 field goal percentage leads the team, but again, he has just 46 attempts. Chubb leads Auburn in rebounds -- 37, averaging to 7.4 per game -- but take a closer look: He has 26 on the defensive end (5.2 per game) and only 11 offensive boards (2.2 pg). Following Chubb in offensive rebounds are Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Payne with eight each (1.6 pg), Adamu with six (1.2pg) and Shaquille Johnson with five (1.0 pg). For defensive rebounds, again Chubb leads, followed by Sullivan with 13 (2.6 pg), Payne with 17 (3.4 pg), Noel Johnson with 11 (2.2 pg) and Shaquille Johnson with seven (1.4 pg).
All things considered, it's hard to know what to expect today. Auburn should win but it depends on the Tigers' fouls, free throws and perimeter defense. The Rams aren't known for their sharp shooters from the arc, so this game might give the Tigers an opportunity to brush up on some defense. The Rams' defense isn't great, either, so again, maybe it is a chance for the Auburn offense to gain some traction and find a rhythm. Tip off is set for 4 p.m. CT at Auburn Arena. Tune in to a local Auburn Network affiliate or XM 199 for live audio.