The Bruce Pearl era started well tonight at the Auburn Arena. While they advertised a sellout, there were some empty seats. Even still, the exhibition against West Alabama was better attended than most SEC games over the last few seasons.
Those in attendance saw what promises to be a fun Auburn team. With the exception of a few first half lapses, the team played solid defense. Their strength is in their speed. Auburn has long, quick, active guards and forwards. They love to press. If there's an errant or lazy pass, Auburn is going to get a hand on it. When they get a turnover, they're running the other way. Auburn played solid defense in the half court sets as well, mixing man, zone, and matchup zones throughout the night. Auburn held West Alabama to 58 points and honestly, it could have been fewer.
On offense, Auburn ran the break effectively. When they set up in half court offense, Auburn had good movement off the ball. Bruce Pearl screamed at his team "I want cutters! Cutters!" And the team responded. They passed the ball well and were rewarded with good open looks. Auburn shoots well from middle and long ranges. The offense seems unselfish. KT Harrell and Antoine Mason both have very green lights but seem to get along well on and off the court. There's no jealousy between those shooters.
Mason is a ball player. For the last few years he's been a superstar on a team where he had to carry the whole load by himself. Now, surrounded by reasonable talent (let's not get carried away and think we're Kentucky) he's sinking into a team role. He plays defense with intensity and intelligence. He had two breakaway dunks in a row which may have been Auburn's only two dunks of the night.
Newcomer KC Ross-Miller is being looked to right away to take a leadership role on the floor. Bruce wants him to get the offense in position and keep his players talking to each other on the floor. He's going to be a good ball player.
Cimmeon Bowers has amazing ball skills for a 6'7" 260 pound muscled up man. Twice he led breaks down the court full speed and dribbled the ball behind his back before going up for a layup. He passes the ball well, dribbles well, and isn't afraid to shoot from the outside. He reminds me of Auburn great power forward Chris Morris. Chris thought he was a guard too. Great finesse game. Bowers lay ups find the glass and he puts a lot of English on the ball to get a kick into the basket. I do have a major criticism of him however. He needs more hate in his heart. It's great that he has these skills but sometimes I want to see him use all 260 of those pounds and go right at the basket. He calls himself the 6'7" Gorilla on Twitter. I want to see him go ape. He may lack the meanness it takes to dominate the lane in the SEC. As an Alabama coach said of tight end Robert Johnson, "he looks like Zeus and plays like Athena." Bowers is plenty talented and will be fun to watch this year. However, he gets too cute down low rather than just going up and drawing contact and getting to the line with a chance at 2, maybe 3.
Bruce wasn't lying in the offseason when he said KT was the best player in practice. This is still his team. He picked up right where he left off, scoring from every spot on the court and playing good defense.
Jordan Granger is this year's Vot Barber. He will play any position on the court as needed. He actually jumped for us at the opening tip. He's not a natural big man but when Bruce keeps saying he doesn't have anyone who plays above the rim he isn't lying.
Which brings me to my biggest concern. Auburn has no real inside presence. This isn't news to anyone who has followed preseason coverage but it stinks to discover that it's true.
That's not to say we can't rebound. Our players seem to take it seriously and put themselves in good position to get rebounds. But we lack skill and depth inside. Bowers and Matthew Atewe were out only two true inside players. Bowers gets sucked outside way too much on offense and defense. Atewe is an adequate defender but he has no idea what to do with the ball in his hand and his back to the basket on the block. He just doesn't know how to finish and has no idea how to work his body and the ball the last four feet to the bucket rather than "what to do with the ball in his hands . . . ". Bruce spent most of the first half coaching him up in time outs. In the second half, Atewe went down with a lower leg injury. He was in a lot of pain. I hope he's ok. At time of writing I haven't heard anything but it looked like a several week injury at best. The team will miss his defensive skills and he has always seemed like a decent young man. I'd hate to think that he was out for the year. Auburn can't afford to lose one of their only two natural options in the paint.
This is an Auburn team that has the ability to beat any team on their schedule if they get hot. This is also a team that may go cold from the floor and lose a game or two they shouldn't. But this is a team that cares. They play hard. By midseason, I believe they will be maximizing their physical potential and playing good ball. They play good defense, they rebound, and they play offense unselfishly. This is a team that cares. They deserve fans who will care as much as they do. Buy your tickets now and come see something amazing get started on the Plains.