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Improving Auburn ready for SEC basketball opener
Auburn's Mustapha Heron, left, Jared Harper and Bruce Pearl found reason to celebrate in non-conference play
Dec. 28, 2016

By Charles Goldberg

Ready or not, Jared Harper, the SEC freshman of the week; and 17-year-old Austin Wiley, he of three college games, it's time to play in the SEC.

Ready or not, you four freshmen who have been starting, who have helped Auburn to a 10-2 record and the school's best start since the 2002-03 season. You open league play Thursday night.

Georgia visits the Tigers at 6 o'clock in a sold-out Auburn Arena for a rare December league opener. Auburn has an opportunity to say it may indeed be a player in the SEC race this season in the game that will be televised by ESPNU.

"We were picked 11th, they were picked fifth. We've got a lot to prove," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. "We got a lot of work to do."

The immediate challenge for Auburn: Georgia, which is 8-4. Georgia should consider improving Auburn needs just one more win to match last year's total. Harper likes the turnaround.

"I think we all have like a chip on our shoulder to go out and prove we're better than to finish 11th in our league," Harper said.

Pearl is playing a wait-and-see game this week, with J.J. Harris and Yante Maten coming to town.

"They've got two first-team all-conference players in Frazier and Maten, and I reminded our guys that we didn't have anybody on the first team, or the second team or honorable mention or anything."

Auburn will introduce the league to a new group of players, including freshmen Mustapha Heron, Danjel Purifoy and Harper, who are the Tigers' only double-figure scorers. Auburn makes the transition from non-conference to conference play this way:

Heron is averaging 15.9 points per game, Purifoy is averaging 14.7, Harper is averaging 12.8. Auburn's leading rebounder? Heron and Purifoy.

Wiley is the newest of the lot. He arrived in mid-December and has played against Mercer, Oklahoma and Connecticut, averaging 7.3 points and three rebounds in his limited duty.

"In that first game, he knew 10 percent of what we did," Pearl said. "He probably knows 40 percent of what we do. Maybe a little more, but right in there.

"He’s got a ton of catching up to do. You can see him thinking and hesitating. The good news is (Tuesday) was his first live, contact practice at Auburn. He played three games without a live, contact practice. Everything was walk through, film and he did well. The concept was, 'let’s take what we do and let’s teach him what we do as best we can.' Now that we have Austin, let’s start doing a bunch of different things that nobody knows about to take advantage of him.' I just don’t think that’s the way you can do that right now. We’ll start to add a little bit to be able to take advantage of what he can do while it still being important that he get caught up with us."

Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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