AUBURN, Ala. — When assistant coaches approached Bruce Pearl about a possible lineup change, the Auburn coach had been adamant: No way Horace Spencer would start at the four in Auburn’s crucial home game against LSU.
Pearl’s hesitancy stemmed from Spencer’s lack of experience at the position. Yet the more film Pearl watched of the Bayou Bengals’ pair of 6-foot-10 posts, the more he likened to the idea.
It’s why on Wednesday night Danjel Purifoy, still sidelined with a nagging ankle injury, stood in Spencer’s spot while the 6-foot-8 center’s name was called over a blaring intro song.
“It was a gamble and it paid off,” Pearl said. “I think it really helped us win the game. You could see with 22 offensive rebounds that it was huge. One of the reasons why we did it was because again, we feel that Anfernee McLemore is better at five and he showed it again tonight.”
In the rearranged lineup, freshman Austin Wiley started opposite Spencer. Junior TJ Lang and McLemore rotated as backups. The changes resulted in one of the most productive nights of the season from Auburn’s bigs and eventually Pearl’s 500th career win.
Spencer tied his season high point total (12) while McLemore set a new one (11 points) and Wiley added 10 points.
The trio combined for 18 rebounds, 7 blocks and was perfect from the free throw line (11-for-11). Defensively, Spencer and McLemore played better together on both ends of the floor. The duo’s athleticism presented matchup issues for LSU’s more sedentary post players.
“I think using our quickness was a big advantage against those guys even though we gave up about 30 pounds and 3 or 4 inches,” McLemore said. “I used my quickness to front the guy. Relying on our backside help really helped us tonight.”
The switch pleased Spencer, who’s typically delegated to the five-spot due to his strength and physicality, and put McLemore back at the position he flourished at in high school.
“I can move faster on the ball, on the wing and on the three-point line,” Spencer said. “I can help guard the guards and the bigs that are more like wings. I feel like it’s more natural for me to play the four spot.”
The most important adjustment might have been having Spencer and Wiley side by side, which at least partly allowed the newcomer to take over in a way he hadn’t in previous games.
“He was way more aggressive. He called for the ball,” Spencer said of Wiley. “I always tell Austin that I need him to be a monster every game. ‘You’re grown like we’re all grown men. Being 17 or 18 years old doesn’t mean anything.’ I like how he’s developing really fast. I have a big plan there and so does Coach Chuck (Persons). I’m a bee in his ear giving him good encouragement. I let him know that he belongs here. I tell him to make a statement that he belongs here.”
Much of Auburn’s systems have been built around Purifoy, who was second on the team in scoring and rebounding before his injury in early January. When the freshman makes a full recovery Pearl plans to experiment a bit, which will likely mean another lineup shift.
Until then though, Pearl may have found a solution if Purifoy can’t go against in-state rival Alabama on Saturday afternoon.
“This is the best that we’ve played defensively,” Pearl said. “We’re going to have to continue to build on this a little bit, and I do think that lineup that was out there at the end, you can make the argument that it was as good of a defensive lineup that I could put out there. I felt like that was important to do in order to secure the win.”