We crossed over enemy lines for some toilet paper and some hoops insight from Will McLaughlin of  Auburn’s SB Nation site College and Magnolia

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the preseason drama that led to Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy being held out indefinitely. Because of the roster shake up, what do you think it’s done in regards to redistributing minutes for players who may have not seen as much playing time? And specifically, which players do you think have stepped up in their absence?

There’s no question that Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are missed by this team, but it’s been refreshing to see other guys step up in their absence. The one thing that I will say about those two guys, is while it’s frustrating for them not being able to play, they’re both on the bench at the home games and are constantly cheering and encouraging their teammates on. Auburn has done a good job at redistributing minutes this season. They have eight guys averaging over 15 minutes a game and have a 9-man rotation for most games. Auburn has struggled with depth the past few years, but they’ve gotten some good contributions off their bench this season. They go with a smaller starting lineup because of the suspensions with 6-foot-7 Anfernee McLemore now starting at the center position. He plays taller than that as he is averaging 10.1 points, 7 rebounds, and 3.75 blocks per game. 

At the start of the season, McLemore was the first guy off the bench, but due to his production, Coach Pearl moved him into the starting lineup before the George Mason game. He has really stepped his game up since last season and has even developed a jump shot, going 4-4 from beyond the arc against Gardner-Webb. He’s had at least 5 blocks a game four times this season, including six in Wednesday’s win over Gardner-Webb. Auburn has five guys averaging double figures in scoring with Mustapha Heron and Bryce Brown each averaging 15.9 points per game. Desean Murray is averaging 10.5 points per game, while McLemore and Jared Harper are averaging 10.1 points per game. It truly has been a team effort for Auburn as they work through these suspensions, and I think the team has played well despite everything going on around them.    

I’ve watched nearly all of Auburn’s games this season, and aside from the last 10 minutes of the Temple game they’ve played some incredible basketball. What areas of the game has Auburn struggled in, if any, early in this season when they haven’t been dominating the competition?

If there’s one alarming thing about Auburn this year, it’s been their 3-point defense. They give up an average of 9.5 3-pointers per game, and too many of those have been open looks. For the most part, Auburn’s defense has improved, but as you said, they struggled in the last 10 minutes against Temple, who to their credit shot 68 percent in the second half of that game. Defense has been something that Coach Pearl has been wanting to see improve the most from last year. In the last three games they have held teams to 60, 63, and 55 points, which is a marked improvement from the almost 80 points per game they gave up last year. Granted the competition will get tougher, but it’s a good sign that so far they are buying into Coach Pearl’s plan on defense. One other thing that this team has struggled a bit with was playing well offensively on a consistent basis. For example, in the George Mason game on Sunday, they started the game on a 22-2 run, had a 16-2 run after the Patriots had come all the way back to take a 3-point lead, and then closed the game on a 12-0 run in the last four minutes. Other than those three spurts, they only scored 29 points over about 25 minutes of that game. So, to recap, 3-point defense.

For the third year in a row Auburn will be faced with containing UAB’s front court of Chris Cokley and William Lee. How do you think the Tiger’s front court will fare against the two Blazer seniors?

I think this is going to be Auburn’s toughest assignment in non-conference play trying to slow down Cokley and Lee. I also think it’s a glimpse of what they will see in the SEC, so it’s a good test of Auburn’s front court and where they are at. Chris Cokley and William Lee are great players and I know they’ll want to get a win against Auburn in their final season after being close the last two years. I remember Chris Cokley having a great look here two years ago in the closing seconds that was blocked by Horace Spencer or else UAB would have won that game. McLemore and Desean Murray will start in the front court and Cokley and Lee will have a slight height advantage on those guys. Murray is only 6-foot-3 playing the 4-spot right now as Auburn usually starts three guards. Auburn will have two guys that are 6-foot-3 coming off the bench in Spencer and freshmen Chuma Okeke. Okeke is averaging 8.9 points and 6 rebounds per game. They also have 6-6 Malik Dunbar, a junior college transfer who is earning more minutes at the forward spot and is athletic in his own right with high-flying dunks and blocked shots. Having said all of that, I think senior leadership is very important and that’s one advantage UAB has over Auburn. It will be fascinating to see the young Auburn front court go up against two experienced big men who have had great careers at UAB. It’s the most important match-up Saturday and will have a huge impact on who wins the game.

What do you expect to see in Saturday’s game, and who from the Auburn side could be poised for a big game?

I love the fact that these two teams play each other on a yearly basis. I think it’s great for the state, and hopefully this series will continue for many years to come. I expect it to be a great environment and I know that UAB will have a lot of support as they did the last time they came here. A big key for Auburn will be whether Mustapha Heron will be able to play Saturday. He developed back spasms early in the game Wednesday night against Gardner-Webb and only played nine minutes. He will be a game-time decision, so a lot of this answer depends on whether Heron plays or not. The one guy that I think is poised for a big game is Jared Harper. Auburn has had the luxury of having different guys step up and have big games, and I think it’s Harper’s turn. The point guard had 21 points in last year’s game against UAB. He only scored 5 points in their win over Gardner-Webb and has not scored more than 13 points this season. However, Harper isn’t afraid to pull up and shoot 3-pointers and I think this a game that he may connect on 4 or 5 of them. I’ll briefly mention two other guys to watch as well. DeSean Murray stepped up and scored 20 points in Heron’s absence Wednesday night after only scoring 3 points in his previous two games combined, so we’ll see if he builds off that performance. And finally, Anfernee McLemore will look to continue the great start to his season. Overall, I think it’s going to be a great game and will say a lot about the direction each team is moving in this season.