The Auburn men’s basketball team didn’t need to pack its bags and head to South Dakota to take on a top-20 opponent in its season opener. After all, none of the other teams in the SEC saw or will see a ranked opponent in their first regular-season game of the season.
But Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl wanted to be sure the Tigers were staying relevant in the world of college basketball.
“People ask me why the game, why’d you take the game, why go out to South Dakota?,” Pearl said Monday. “It’s real simple, just to try to stay relevant in the world of college basketball, which is harder and harder to do now.”
Simply playing the 20th-ranked Baylor Bears on Tuesday night from the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, SD in a game that took the primetime slot on ESPN helped Auburn assert its relevance early in the season.
And though Auburn fell to Baylor 88-82 Tuesday night, the fact that the Tigers pushed the Bears to the brink the way they did? Yeah, that does a little more for a team than if Auburn would’ve opened the game against a non-major opponent.
Here are three takeaways from Auburn’s grand entrance into the 2023-24 college basketball season.
Bruce Pearl wasn’t kidding about using a 10-man rotation
Pearl has consistently said he and the Tigers have 10 guys on the roster that could play in just about any combination and in just about any situation.
Tuesday’s season opener proved that to be all but fiction.
While Auburn’s starting five consisted of Tre Donaldson, Denver Jones, Chris Moore, Jaylin Williams and Johni Broome, 10 different guys hit the floor in the first 10 minutes against Baylor. And each of those 10 guys saw everywhere between three and seven minutes of play.
Down the stretch, the trend continued as 10 of Auburn’s players finished with double-digit minutes. And of those 10 players, each of them put points on the board, while three of them finished in double digits.
Broome finished the evening with a double-double having numerous 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Tigers.
Freshman Aden Holloway is as serious as a heart attack
Tuesday was a baptism by fire for Auburn freshman point guard Aden Holloway.
After missing Auburn’s exhibition matchup against Auburn-Montgomery last week with an ankle injury, not only was it unclear if Holloway would be 100% healthy against the Bears, but it was also his first taste of college ball.
What a time to play the 20th-ranked team in the country in a game televised on ESPN, right?
“It’s probably the toughest first game will be for Aden. This will be his first game,” Pearl said Monday. “You talk about putting him in a tough spot? But look, he’s born to be in a tough spot. This is what he relishes.”
And Holloway proved that to be true as he quickly answered the call and proved he can live up to his former 5-star rating.
Though he didn’t start for the Tigers, it didn’t take him long to see the floor Tuesday as he checked into the game after just three and a half minutes of game clock had expired. And less than two minutes later, Holloway pulled up the first shot of his college career from beyond the arc and sank it.
The first three-pointer Holloway made early in the first half was his first of four. Holloway went on to go 4-of-8 from beyond the arc and 6-of-15 from the field, totaling a team-leading 19 points.
The Auburn freshman also chipped in six assists, three rebounds and committed three turnovers.
Auburn’s athleticism will minimize defensive imperfections
Pearl spent the preseason being critical of Auburn’s defense.
After Auburn’s first preseason scrimmage, Pearl was left impressed with team’s ability to score points. The drawback, obviously, was the fact that the offensive success came against itself.
“Which means we couldn’t guard anybody,” Pearl said of the scrimmage on Oct. 2. “So I don’t know whether to be happy because the offense scored, or angry because we didn’t make enough defensive plays and didn’t show enough speed and athleticism to bother us.”
But those defensive issues that Pearl harped on in the preseason didn’t seem to bleed into Auburn’s season-opener on Tuesday night.
The Tigers weren’t perfect defensively — especially to start the game.
At one point, the Bears were scoring at a 50% clip.
Slowly but surely, however, Auburn’s defense began to find its footing — though in the most chaotic ways possible.
The Tigers’ defense isn’t great in-system. But Pearl knew they wouldn’t be after losing guys like Zep Jasper, Wendell Green and Allen Flanigan.
But fortunately for Auburn, what it may lack in surefooted defense, the Tigers make up with their havoc-causing athleticism.
Auburn forced Baylor to commit 11 turnovers in the first half of Tuesday’s game, which paved the way for the Tigers to score 14 first-half points off turnovers.
However, come the second half, some of those defensive lapses Pearl was worried about were exposed as Auburn forced just four turnovers and added two points off turnovers in the second half.
Meanwhile, after Baylor’s shooting percentage had dipped down to 37.5% by the final whistle of the first half, the Bears shot it with 50% efficiency as the Tigers collapsed in the second half and especially in the final six minutes of the game.
Baylor finished the night with a 43.3% field goal percentage.