The No. 22 Auburn Tigers host the Morehead State Eagles on Tuesday night in the season opener for both teams.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl will defend that ranking with a mix of transfers, returning players and a top-five recruit.
“We have got to be a team that gets better throughout the season because we are so new together,” said Pearl, who enters his eighth season at Auburn.
The lone full-time starter back is forward Jaylin Williams, who averaged 10.9 points and 4.7 rebounds as a sophomore.
Junior guard Allen Flanigan is recovering from Achilles surgery and could join the team in December. He averaged 14.3 points last season.
Flanigan was named to the All-SEC preseason first team, while Smith snagged second-team honors.
Auburn’s impressive transfer class includes guards Zep Jasper (College of Charleston), K.D. Johnson (Georgia), Wendell Green (Eastern Kentucky), Jr. and center Walker Kessler (North Carolina).
Johnson was first in the SEC last season in steals per 40 minutes played, while Green averaged 15.8 points and 5.0 assists per game as a freshman.
Kessler, a 7-1 sophomore, averaged 4.4 points and 3.2 rebounds as a freshman for the Tar Heels, and by the end of the season he posted a double-double against Notre Dame (16 points, 12 rebounds) while blocking eight shots.
He will team with prized recruit Jabari Smith, a 6-10 power forward and a McDonald’s All-American who is figures to provide scoring and rebounding.
Pearl sees the Eagles providing an early test for the Tigers.
“Morehead State won their league,” Pearl said. “They have got some guys that transferred in that were in championship programs. The stuff they run is really hard to guard. They think they can come in here and beat us and with good reason. I understand that.”
Morehead State returns two starters from the team that went 23-8 and earned an NCAA bid by upsetting Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference title game. It was their first conference title since 2011.
The returning duo, sophomore forward Johni Broome and junior guard Skyelar Potter, received have garnered official Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference honors, with Broome being named the league’s preseason Co-Player of the Year, Potter making the all-conference team.
The 6-10 Broome was named OVC Freshman of the Year in addition to being named a first-team All-OVC and earning MVP honors at the OVC Tournament. He was one of only three freshmen nationally to lead his team in scoring (13.8 points per game), rebounding (9.0 per game) and blocks (1.9 per game).
Potter averaged 12.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
Newcomers include graduate transfer guard Tray Hollowell, who scored a team-high 18 points in an exhibition win over Kentucky State. Hollowell spent four years at Wofford, where he averaged 11.1 points a game last season as a senior. He has 186 3-pointers in his career on .366 shooting from long range.
“I really like where our team is,” coach Preston Spradlin said at OVC media day. “This has been a fun team to coach, the new guys jelling and meshing with the returning guys. Everyone learning and identifying what their roles are and accepting those has been a lot of fun.”
The Auburn game is part of November road action for Morehead State that includes games at Alabama-Birmingham and Mississippi State.
“All of this is great preparation for us to get ready for the 18 games in the OVC,” Spradlin said. “The league has a lot of new faces, both players and coaches.”
Morehead State was picked to finish second in the conference behind Belmont in a poll of conference coaches and communications directors.
–Field Level Media