SAN DIEGO — After winning just two of its final six games before Selection Sunday, Auburn basketball’s coaches and players alike preached the importance of hitting a “reset button” heading into the NCAA Tournament.
One day away from the first-round showdown with No. 13 seed College of Charleston, the Tigers felt like they found that button before flying to San Diego.
“We were definitely able to reset and just recover our bodies a little bit,” sophomore point guard Jared Harper said. “This is a long season, and just going into the tournament, we’ve been able to practice. We’ve been able to look at our scouts and kind of get back closer to how we played earlier in the year. It’s good.”
The Tigers’ ugly exit against rival Alabama last Friday in the SEC Tournament might have a silver lining. Auburn was able to get a solid week of work ahead of the NCAA Tournament, which is the program’s first since 2003.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl tried to turn back the clock earlier this week with full-contact practices. The Tigers hadn’t had any of those since Anfernee McLemore went down with a season-ending leg injury that forced them to play with just eight scholarship players.
Before McLemore’s injury, Auburn went 23-3. Since then, Auburn is 2-4.
“We’ve gotta find a way to play better than we have the last six games of the season without Anfernee McLemore,” Pearl said. “One thing that ailed us is we haven’t had many contact practices. We had a couple this week and survived them, and I’m hoping that gives us an edge of trying to guard Charleston and do things we need to be able to do to advance.”
According to sophomore small forward Mustapha Heron, the week following the Alabama loss got the Tigers back to where they needed to be.
“I think the biggest thing was definitely after the tournament trying to find our identity again, the way we defended, the way we played,” Heron said. “Everything was based on trying to find out who we were again and trying to get back to that, and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.”
Auburn’s Thursday practice at Viejas Arena was loose, especially for a sliding team that is ending a 15-year NCAA Tournament drought.
Even without McLemore, the vibe was more like it was when the Tigers were one of the hottest teams in college basketball.
“We’re definitely ready to play our best basketball,” freshman forward Chuma Okeke said. “During the off days, after we lost to Alabama, we had time to go and regroup and get back to what we were doing at the beginning of the season, so I think we’ll be OK.”
One of the keys to the College of Charleston game Friday will be balance. Auburn’s two wins in the last six games featured scoring outbursts from players other than Brown, Harper and Heron. Brown’s shot has been inconsistent through injuries, and Auburn went more than 10 minutes without a field goal against Alabama.
But Harper was encouraged by the shots falling from all over the floor Thursday in San Diego.
“I think all of our team has been working well together,” Harper said. “Everybody’s been working since we lost in the SEC Tournament. So I’m confident that we’re going to be able to make shots and make plays. … I believe we’re going to do that.”
WATCH: Auburn basketball practices in San Diego
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