AUBURN, Ala. — Austin Wiley didn’t need to be told how much Saturday’s matchup against Alabama mattered.
After years of watching from the sideline, Auburn’s 5-star freshman understood what a win would mean. He had a good idea of the environment he was walking into.
“My mindset was I really just wanted to beat them because I grew up in the rivalry and it was a hyped game, really hyped coming into it,” Wiley said. “Just wanted to continue the legacy and just beat Alabama.”
Yet even with his in-depth knowledge about the heated battles between the two rivals, Wiley found the moment more overwhelming than he’d anticipated. A “big-eyed” Wiley struggled through the game’s opening minutes, turning the ball over twice and missing a layup.
At that point, however, Wiley received the same message teammates and coaches had been relaying since he graduated early and joined the team in mid-December: the 18-year-old was exactly where he was supposed to be.
As Wiley settled down, the 6-11 center caused big problems in the paint for the Crimson Tide.
During his 25 minutes on the floor, Wiley scored a career-high 19 points (4-for-9 FG) and added 9 rebounds. Instead of navigating foul trouble (as he had in recent games), Wiley was the one taking trips to the free throw line, sinking 11 of his 18 attempts. On Monday, he was named the SEC’s Freshman of the Week.
“Austin Wiley was an enormous difference,” Pearl said after Auburn’s 84-64 win. “This game means a lot to Austin coming from Birmingham, understanding and growing up with the rivalry. This is a bragging right for him and his dad and his mom. If they’re competing like, ‘how many times did you beat Alabama,’ that matters. His presence was enormous.”
Some of the most important things Wiley did didn’t show up on the stat sheet. He took up space and attracted attention in the lane, creating opportunities for teammates like senior point guard Ronnie Johnson and freshman guard Mustapha Heron.
Johnson dropped in 17 points and dished out 2 assists while Heron scored 14 of his 15 points through the game’s final 20 minutes. Wiley banged with Alabama’s bigs, gradually wearing them down. He tipped balls rattling off the rim toward teammates to extend possessions. Several of his powerful dunks electrified a sold out Auburn Arena, bringing the crowd to their feet.
“It’s something any team could ask for. When we drive and his man comes over to help, you can just throw it right at the rim,” Johnson said. “Or we drive it in there and we shoot. ‘Staph’ (Heron) was getting into the paint. If he misses, then you’ve got somebody who’s going to help you follow it up. His presence is key to this team.”
Johnson and Heron’s voices of encouragement aren’t going to fade, either. Pearl’s group of post players isn’t going to expect less from Wiley. If anything, they’ll talk to him — depend on him — more through the rest of SEC play.
“We talk about it to him every day after practice,” Johnson said. “Just what he could be and what he is. He stays motivated by us, and we just keep him going because we need him, so we’re going to keep on talking to him and keep on getting him where he needs to be.”
Saturday wasn’t a one-time performance from Wiley. There’s more of those days on the way. Now that he’s started to comprehend Pearl’s systems and his role in them, Wiley can think less and just play.
“When Austin first got here it was all we could do to teach him what we do, and that’s all he wanted to learn,” Pearl said. “Over the last week or two now that we have had him, he knows what we do, let’s start doing some stuff that’s best for him and take advantage of him. That’s what we’re doing, he’s getting good touches, he’s getting in deep and he wants the ball. Alabama has good post players, so it was positive but we have to build on it.”