AUBURN – Bruce Pearl took a step back and looked around on the opening week of Auburn men’s basketball practice.
Then, he noticed, for as long as he’s been around, he might have never been part of a team dynamic quite like this one this year on the Plains.
Pearl enters his 41st season in college basketball coaching a team made up of five seniors and eight newcomers — opening practice along with teams across the NCAA on Tuesday — but unlike most teams, facing the challenge of bringing two distinct factions together as one team fighting for Auburn power in 2019-20.
Austin Wiley, Samir Doughty and that handful of veterans make up an experienced group of leaders back from Auburn’s wild ride to the Final Four last spring, now joined by a talented crew of youngsters, led by elite prospect Isaac Okoro, who have jumped aboard the program as it has soared to its greatest heights ever.
Auburn’s on the map now, in the basketball world.
It’s up to this team to keep it there.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had a roster that was so experienced on one end and so inexperienced on the other end,” Pearl said at a press conference Wednesday in Auburn Arena. “So the seniors are ready to go, and a lot of the newcomers are still trying to learn where to go.
“That’s going to be a very interesting challenge as we get started.”
Auburn’s preseason exhibition with Eckerd is set for Nov. 1. The Tigers open the regular season against Georgia Southern on Nov. 5.
Anfernee McLemore, Danjel Purifoy and J’Von McCormick are those other seniors who helped push the program to its first-ever Final Four appearance last year, capturing the SEC Tournament championship and the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional championship along the way. The 2018-19 team is set to celebrate its history-making season on Saturday at the Auburn football game against Mississippi State.
Then, it’ll be back to work for this group of new-look Tigers.
“Attitude has been really good in practice,” Pearl said. “The culture, the work ethic, the guys’ want-to is definitely there. The interesting thing, as we get into the heart of our practice season, is whether or not we’re going to be able to build, on a daily basis, on some of the successes or failures that we have in practice.
“In other words, so far I’ve had to continue to go back and sort of re-teach and go back to some of the same mistakes we’re making, where we’ve got to be able to move forward — and that’s because we have so many newcomers. Our ability to get past that is going to be important.”
It’s not just that there are so many new faces, either. All five of those seniors are going to be taking on different responsibilities and they’ll be asked to do different things from what they did last season, Pearl pointed out.
Okoro was rated as a five-star prospect coming out high school by Rivals, and touted as a four-star player by ESPN and 247Sports. Four other new signees in the 2019 class earned four-star ratings, as well, in Babatunde Akingbola, Allen Flanigan, Tyrell Jones and Jaylin Williams.
Devan Cambridge rounded out the class Auburn’s new group of freshmen by signing in the summer, and joining transfer from Javon Franklin from Holmes Community College in Mississippi and redshirt sophomore Jamal Johnson, who practiced with the team last year but sat out after transferring from Memphis.