AU Hoops

Auburn's Anfernee McLemore (24) dribbles against Virginia's Mamadi Diakite (25) during the teams' Final Four game on April 6 in Minneapolis. McLemore is one of five scholarship seniors back for the Auburn men's basketball team for this season. 

The new banners are up.

The court is polished and shining, too, and the doors are ready to be opened at Auburn Arena.

As Anfernee McLemore looked around the building Thursday, he saw the nets hanging, the scoreboard running and all the lights on — with the only thing missing being the fans.

And he’s excited to finally see them again.

The Auburn men’s basketball team hosts Eckerd for an exhibition Friday evening to mark its first appearance in front of those fans since the Final Four, and to mark one last tune-up before the regular season starts Tuesday.

Tipoff is set to be 30 minutes after the Auburn volleyball team’s game against Mississippi State, which is set for first serve at 6 p.m. in Auburn Arena.

“I’m truly excited,” said McLemore, Auburn’s senior center, standing on the court Thursday. “This is going to be the first time they’re going to have seen us play since the Final Four — or, since the Tennessee game last year,” he said, calling back to Auburn’s home finale late season before Auburn’s magic postseason ride.

“So I’m really excited to come out and play in front of them, and I’m sure it’s going to be an amazing atmosphere,” he said.

McLemore is part of a group of five scholarship seniors back from Auburn’s history-making NCAA Tournament run last season, charged with meshing with a host of talented newcomers who’ve jumped on board Bruce Pearl’s rising program.

McLemore and Austin Wiley are set to power the Auburn offense down low, with Danjel Purifoy stepping back into the spotlight on the wing while J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty adjust to new roles in the backcourt replacing departed star guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown.

Superstar prospect signee Isaac Okoro leads that group of newcomers, made up of freshmen like him and transfers like Jamal Johnson, ready to make their Auburn Arena debut on Friday night.

They’ll be a new sight for fans, like the Final Four banner hanging in the arena after the men’s basketball program’s first-ever trip there in the spring — and the women’s basketball program’s Final Four banners from runs there in the late 1980’s now hanging to match it in the rafters.

They’ll find a spot for the SEC Tournament Championship banner sometime later. As a team, Auburn celebrated its titles with a ring ceremony at a football game earlier this fall. The congratulations over last season are all behind the team at this point. Tipoff is here, with the regular season just days away.

“Of course, we won’t have a ceremony,” Pearl said. “The banners are up and people can look at them. But we’re way past the ceremonial stage.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to become a good basketball team.”

Auburn put those new pieces all together at a closed-door scrimmage with Troy recently, and has the chance to see them work together more against Eckerd before the season opener Tuesday against Georgia Southern.

In some of the non-conference games this season, Auburn could get “exposed” in certain ways, in Pearl’s words — and that’s what he wants. Often times it takes an opponent to point out where the weaknesses are in a team before a team can shore them up.

Auburn shouldn’t expect such a challenge from Eckerd, a Division-II team which the Tigers hold a distinct size advantage over, but Pearl does expect to get that from Georgia Southern, Davidson and South Alabama in the next two weeks.

“A lot of new guys playing a lot of new roles — even the veterans,” Pearl pointed out, going over his preseason.

“I think this is a team that will get better throughout the season,” he also said.

Early on, adjustments will have to be made. Without Harper and Brown, suddenly Auburn’s apparent strength is in the front court, with Wiley and McLemore bringing experience to the front line. McCormick, often a spark guy off the bench for Auburn last season, and Doughty, often a spot shooter during last year’s campaign, will be challenged to adjust into roles managing the offense and distributing to Wiley, McLemore, Purifoy and Okoro.

Yes, this will be the fans’ first chance to see this new-look team against an opponent — but really, it’s the only the team’s second chance to see itself against an opponent.

McLemore said his takeaways from that scrimmage with Troy were: “Just getting into game shape, adjusting to the speed of a season and just learning a lot of our weaknesses and our strengths and being able to go to them.”

On Friday, Auburn will get to try and take another step towards that.

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