By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – Before Saturday’s game, Auburn’s five starters were sitting on the bench watching the intro video and waiting to hear their name called. When the video wrapped up, Malik Dunbar – who was standing among the reserves – walked over to the starters, flexed his muscles and yelled loud enough that most everybody on that side of the arena could hear.
“That’s just me,” Dunbar said. “That’s every day. I’m enjoying it out there. It’s a blessing to be out here on the court in this position and be able to play.”
It’s a tradition the junior-college transfer began doing at the beginning of the season as a way to hype up his teammates, and now you see others like Horace Spencer joining in with him.
Consequently, Auburn has started fast in just about every home game this season. The Tigers jumped out in front, 19-8, in the season opener against Norfolk State. It was 25-3 at one point against George Mason, 26-9 when UConn came to town. And in Saturday’s SEC home opener, Auburn grabbed a 22-10 lead before the midway point of the first half.
That’s not to say it’s all Dunbar. After all, he’s typically not even the one out there making the shots and building the lead. But his teammates know he plays a role in it.
“He just constantly makes sure the team is always ready,” junior guard Bryce Brown said. “When you see somebody like that is behind you, you just know that you’ve got an extra guy that’s always ready for you and always supporting the team, and it just gives us that bit of energy. It just helps us push through late in games and help get us started because he’s always that person to get everybody pumped up.”
The thing is when Dunbar chose Auburn, he fully expected to be sitting on the bench among the starters before every game. Not standing among the reserves.
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound wing averaged 15.6 points and 6.4 rebounds as a starter at the junior-college level a year ago. After playing two years at College of Central Florida, he only had two years of eligibility remaining. With close to 20 scholarship offers, there were plenty of places he could go and start those two years.
But he chose Auburn where he’s been stuck behind Brown and Mustapha Heron – two of the SEC’s top 10 scorers this season. Rather than let it get him down, he’s adjusted to his new role.
“I feel like you’ve got to make it count when you go out there on the floor,” Dunbar said. “I just try to come in and be an energy guy. I try and keep it going when I get out there.”
So when Heron missed the UAB game due to injury, Dunbar stepped in and finished with nine points and six rebounds in 25 minutes. And when the team fell behind early on the road at Murray State, it was Dunbar who came in and knocked down three three-point shots in the first half to close the gap and swing the momentum in Auburn’s favor.
Even in Saturday’s Arkansas game, Dunbar played a pivotal role. He might have only been on the court 11 minutes, but in that time, he hit a three-point followed by an alley-oop dunk that nearly brought the house down and extended the lead to 67-46.
“Here’s a lesson,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “Adversity reveals character. It doesn’t build it. When you’re faced with an adverse situation or when things aren’t going so well for you, how are you? Are you a distraction? Are you a pain in the butt? Are you having a pity party? Or do you recognize, ‘OK, I’m not where I want to be right now. I’m going to grind. I’m going to keep working. I’m going to make the very best of the situation right now.’
“And [Malik] has done that all the while preparing to stay ready to contribute and ready to dominate whenever that’s what his role is going to be.”
Dunbar’s role at Auburn might not change this season. He might only play 10 or 15 minutes a game. But whether it’s 10 minutes or 25 minutes, the junior is going to keep grinding, keep giving effort and keep lifting up his teammates with his energy.
Ultimately, his goal is the same as the team’s goal. It’s to play in the NCAA Tournament. And he knows it’s going to take every player on the team, him included, to accomplish that.
“We’re blessed to have a team where it’s always going to be the next guy,” Dunbar said. “If one guy’s not having a good game, the next person is going to have a good game. It’s like that at every position. I just feel like with the team that we’ve got – whoever’s falling off a night, the next guy is just going to pick him up.”
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: