Auburn men's basketball vs. North Florida

Auburn's Jared Harper (1) passes the ball in the first half. Auburn men’s basketball vs. North Florida on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, at the Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala.

The Auburn basketball team starts 2019 with an open week.

But that doesn’t mean the Tigers are taking time off.

As most of the other teams across the conference gear up for SEC openers starting this Saturday, Auburn is hitting the hardwood in practice with a focus on itself and on improving its own play — its SEC debut still another week away.

Auburn is actually going to be the last SEC team to tip off its league schedule. The Tigers don’t return to the court until next Wednesday, when they take on Ole Miss on Jan. 9.

There will be 10 SEC teams playing the league’s first five games four days earlier, on this Saturday. Of the four SEC teams off that day, three of the others open their SEC schedules on Tuesday. Only Auburn has another full seven days left to wait.

But the Tigers won’t be idle.

“They’re going to wish they were playing somebody else,” Bruce Pearl said with a smile last week, talking about his players and their return to the practice court after the New Year holiday.

Pearl said then that his team would get back on the floor Tuesday after a few days off with plans to work on self-evaluation and study future SEC opponents before taking a day off this Saturday then get back in the gym to prepare for Ole Miss starting Sunday.

The team will then travel Tuesday to get set for Wednesday’s game in Oxford, Miss.

“I would prefer to play, but I’m a glass-half-full guy,” Pearl said of starting January with an open date up first. “I will take this break, and we will turn it into a positive. We’re going to get better this week. We’re going to focus on us a little bit more this week.”

Auburn enters this first week of SEC action as one of the league’s four teams ranked in the Associated Press’ Top 25.

Auburn stands at No. 12 behind No. 3 Tennessee and ahead of No. 13 Kentucky and No. 17 Mississippi State.

While the Tigers say they’d rather just jump into the league schedule, the break and the opportunity to re-evaluate may be coming at an opportunistic time for Auburn.

The team is just two games removed from its second loss of the season at NC State back on Dec. 19. During a three-game stretch at the tail end of nonconference play, Auburn was taken to overtime by UAB before the Tigers lost to the Wolfpack and then survived Murray State by a five-point win at home.

Auburn closed nonconference play by rolling over North Florida 95-49 in the team’s last time out on Dec. 29.

“I think it’s good to have some time off to recoup and kind of work on the things we had problems with against NC State and other games,” Auburn forward Anfernee McLemore said, speaking moments before his coach just after that win over North Florida.

“I’m hoping we can find ourselves as a team, so we can come back even stronger when SEC play starts.”

That’s the goal for Auburn this week, as it hunkers down for a tough league schedule coming up.

Of those three other SEC teams that are ranked, Auburn will have to play two of them twice. The Tigers will meet both Mississippi State and Kentucky both at home and on the road.

As for the other in Tennessee, the Tigers won’t meet the Volunteers until the last Saturday of the SEC schedule in March. The two teams split the regular-season conference championship a season ago will meet again for a showdown that could carry title implications into the last night of the conference schedule.

“The league this year is much better than it was a year ago,” Pearl said. “We have three or four teams at the top of our league that are good enough to get to the Elite Eight, Sweet Sixteen. Three or four teams,” he repeated.

“It’s much better than it was a year ago. We’ve got Mississippi State, Kentucky twice and they’re right there on top. So we’ve got to try to get everyone we can.”

Pearl said the schedule is going to be “a real grind,” and that he anticipated that one key to surviving it will be for teams not to let one or two losses get them off-kilter. He pointed to how Tennessee opened SEC play last season 0-2, but ultimately finished 13-5 in SEC play and sharing the league title with Auburn.

After its SEC opener at Ole Miss, Auburn hosts Georgia for its first home meeting in conference play on Jan. 12.

Auburn will then travel to take on Texas A&M on Jan. 16 before hosting Kentucky on Jan. 19 in Auburn Arena.

Auburn, Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri will be only teams missing from the SEC’s five-game slate Saturday.

Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri will all tipoff league games Tuesday.

Auburn’s game against Ole Miss is set for a 6 p.m. tip next Wednesday. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

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