The seniors led the way, the newcomers took their first steps on the Auburn Arena floor, and the new-look Auburn men’s basketball team bounced over Eckerd College 97-53 on Friday night on the Plains.
All five of Auburn’s scholarship seniors scored in double figures to key the Auburn offense, underneath a new banner hanging in the gym recognizing their run to the Final Four last spring — but all as they played next to big shoes left to fill down on the court, and next to the fresh faces trying to step into them.
Auburn opens its regular season on Tuesday against Georgia Southern. Auburn is ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press’ preseason Top 25, tasked with mixing those seniors with newcomers replacing departed Final Four stars like Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke and more.
The Tigers led Division II Eckerd 57-25 at halftime Friday night in Auburn fans’ first look at that effort.
J’Von McCormick scored 20 points, Danjel Purifoy and Samir Doughty both scored 14, and Anfernee McLemore added 13 points while Austin Wiley recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Among the newcomers, Devan Cambridge led the debuting freshmen with 11 points.
The new era of Auburn basketball started with an alley-oop slam from Doughty to McCormick to score the first points of the exhibition — and emphatically open their tenure as backcourt starters, in the place of Harper and Brown.
Eckerd then scored a 3-pointer before Auburn powered its way to a 17-3 lead in the opening minutes and took control of the exhibition.
“We know how tough this season is. We know it’s a long season. All of the seniors spent a lot of time in the gym this offseason, just to get better for moments like this,” Doughty said after the win. “So I think it just comes from working hard.”
It’s their show now, under the direction of head coach Bruce Pearl. In the first half, McCormick scored 13 points while Doughty added another 12, and Purifoy scored a team-best 14.
“This whole offseason, (Pearl) told me and Samir that we have to take more of a leadership role and score the ball this year. So that’s what we tried to do tonight,” McCormick said.
Pearl entered the exhibition expecting to have a strong size advantage over his team’s exhibition competition from the Sunshine State Conference, but expects a fitting challenge from a different level against Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt.
Tipoff for Tuesday’s regular-season opener is set for 8 p.m. in Auburn Arena.
“Just from a standpoint of learning, there’s just so much that needs to be done,” Pearl said, as Auburn Arena emptied after the game. Fans piled in for a fair turnout to see the Tigers’ new team, though Auburn won’t be playing for keeps until Tuesday night. “You’re probably going to get tired of me saying that over the next couple of weeks, but that’s just where it’s at,” Pearl said.
Pearl like Auburn’s play in the first half, but was disappointed with its effort at the start of the second half, and as anyone would expect found a line of problems like defensive communication for a coach to nitpick and fine-tune and work on moving forward.
Auburn rotated 12 players heavily but Pearl expects to narrow that number down in the coming regular season games. Cambridge was a highlight among the newcomers, showing his leaping ability and explosiveness after missing three weeks of the preseason due to injury. His second-half alley-oop slam with one hand sent Auburn Arena into a buzz.
“He’s got a real shot to be in the top eight or nine players, for sure,” Pearl said of Cambridge. We’ll probably cut back a little bit on the rotations.
“I wanted to give a lot of guys some opportunities. We’ll probably cut that back a little bit these next few games.”
After the opener with Georgia Southern, Auburn will play against Davidson on CBS on Nov. 8 in the neutral-site Veterans Classic in Annapolis, Md. Then the Tigers will play at South Alabama in Mobile on Nov. 12.