Auburn’s young legs have shown they’re ready to run.
They may well be needed to hike the mountains ahead.
Several youngsters made contributions during the Auburn men’s basketball team’s season-finale win over Tennessee last Saturday, stepping up in the opportunity at just the right time with the SEC Tournament looming large. The Tigers head to Nashville this week tasked with winning three games in three days in order repeat as tournament champions — and knowing that now’s the time to have all hands on deck when bodies are taxed and minutes matter most.
Freshman Allen Flanigan neared a season-high in scoring while Jaylin Williams topped 10 minutes for the sixth straight game as Auburn beat Tennessee 85-63 last Saturday in Knoxville.
Even towering freshman Babatunde Akingbola swatted away a block, with fellow rookie at guard Tyrell Jones scoring his first points in SEC play.
Some will be asked to do more than others when Auburn opens the postseason Friday in Nashville.
But the task, for all, is to be ready when called upon.
There’ll be no days off in the SEC Tournament from beginning to end. In the NCAA Tournament, playing two games in three days becomes the norm.
Legs can get heavy, injuries can happen at the worst time, and, even if youngsters are only asked to play a few minutes, every minute matters when championships are on the line.
But in a favorable sign for Auburn, Flanigan scored nine points against Tennessee to seemingly prove he’s ready for the big stage, and Williams took the chance to settle more into his role in the regular rotation. Those two and scoring spark Devan Cambridge will almost certainly be asked to carry weight in the postseason — and the burden could reach others if the rotation stretches past 10 men.
“The bench was a key for us,” Auburn senior guard Samir Doughty said after the last game, bringing up Flanigan specifically.
“Allen just got us off to a great start,” he said. “When he got in the game, he was being aggressive, attacking, rebounding on the offensive glass. He did a great job with that. It’s a credit to him for staying ready and staying prepared for moments like this when we get players in foul trouble.”
Flanigan has been a standout on defense for Auburn while Cambridge has shown an explosive scoring ability in certain games. Williams emerged as a part of the rotation back when starter Isaac Okoro went down with injury for a few games late in SEC play.
Doughty and Okoro usually start along with seniors J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley — with fellow senior Anfernee McLemore serving as the sixth man.
Sophomore shooter Jamal Johnson makes for 10 men, and Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl often says he likes to run a nine-man or 10-man rotation.
But those others could end up playing some pivotal possessions in certain situations, and in general the minutes could grow for the bench players. Last year behind Jared Harper, McCormick averaged 10.3 minutes a game during SEC play in the regular season, then he averaged 15.5 minutes a game in the postseason on fresh legs. Purifoy also stepped up to log more minutes last season in the NCAA Tournament after Chuma Okeke went down with injury in the Sweet Sixteen.
Sure enough, everyone will be asked to be ready when Auburn tips off in the SEC Tournament on Friday.
The tournament opens Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville. Auburn rides a double-bye into the tournament quarterfinals. Auburn will play at 6 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday’s game between seventh-seeded Texas A&M and 10th-seeded Missouri.
Texas A&M and Missouri play at 6 p.m. Thursday. Both games will be broadcast on the SEC Network.