AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl planned to place significant responsibility on his standout freshman players early in the year and so far, his strategy is working well.
The Tigers have started the season 2-0 for the first time since the 2011-2012 season and for just the second time in ten years.
Three days after true freshman Jared Harper and redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy lifted the Tigers to a win over Georgia State, the newcomers are looking to add another win to their streak by leading Auburn past Eastern Kentucky on Thursday night.
Harper and Purifoy each dropped 19 points in the Tigers home win over the Panthers.
Purifoy, a 6-foot-7 forward from Centreville, Ala., is averaging 16.5 points and 4 rebounds through Auburn’s first two games.
True freshman point guard Jared Harper’s stat line hasn’t reflected how valuable he’s been as Auburn’s floor leader. While the 5-foot-10 Harper has averaged 14.5 points and dished out 3.5 assists in the Tigers first two appearances, he’s also recorded one of the highest plus/minus ratings.
As they continue to adjust to college basketball, and Pearl’s complex systems, the duo is matching up with opposing team’s most versatile players – as they will against the Colonels.
“Guards and guards, posts are posts, but those point guards are all so different and their abilities — this guy can drive it downhill and they can get to the foul line,” Pearl said. “Power forwards, it’s a spot where sometimes you’re going to get a big monster and sometimes you’re going to get a stretch, sometimes you’re going to get an athlete.”
Purifoy, along with freshman Anfernee McLemore, will focus on shutting down Nick Mayo. The sophomore, who averaged 14.5 points and 4.9 rebounds as the Ohio Valley Conference freshman of the year in 2015, put up 24 points against IUPUI and added 20 points against UNC Wilmington.
“Nick Mayo has a chance to be a pro. He’s a very talented inside player that they’ve done a wonderful job developing,” Pearl said. “He plays center, but he plays like a forward. He can do things inside and out.”
Harper meanwhile will face off against Asante Gist, who played point guard at St. Anthony High School in New Jersey. Gist was 21 for 29 from the free throw line through EKU’s first two games.
“In fact in two games this team has shot 87 free throws, in two games,” Pearl said. “They shoot it from free and they shoot it from three.”
Pearl sees how far his team has to go, but has also noticed indications of cultural changes within the program.
“When you’re trying to change the culture it starts with that work ethic and discipline and training to be a pro,” Pearl said. “And I think that this year with Jared, Mustapha (Heron) and Anfernee being three of our five hardest workers all summer, all preseason, all year so far, that’s the cultural change that you’re looking for.”
Auburn basketball tonight
Projected starting 5
* Blocks per game
About the game
Eastern Kentucky (1-1) at Auburn (2-0)
Game time: 9 p.m. ET
Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, Ala.
TV: SEC Network (Matt Stewart, Daymeon Fishback)