AUBURN, Ala. — At one point in his first practice of his third basketball season at Auburn on Friday evening, Bruce Pearl turned toward former Tigers head coach Sonny Smith, who was observing the action on the sidelines.
“Wouldn’t you’ve loved to have this much athleticism when you were coaching?” Pearl asked Smith.
Smith gave Pearl a confident nod. Pearl then turned around to his players and implored them to use all that quickness and length during full-court defensive drills.
“We have a little more athleticism, we are longer, we are quicker,” Pearl told reporters afterwards. “But if we don’t use it to our advantage, there’s no use in having it.”
Pearl’s question to Smith was the main theme of Auburn’s first practice of the 2016-17 men’s basketball season — taking full advantage of the speed and length of a new-look roster.
Pearl emphasized full-court defense and getting good shots off in transition as Auburn opened practice Friday. His roster might have a high level of explosiveness, but it doesn’t have the size. Sophomore Horace Spencer and Bethune Cookman graduate transfer LaRon Smith are the tallest scholarship players at 6-foot-8.
“Our centers weigh 215 pounds each,” Pearl said. “There’s not a center in the SEC that’s less than 230, 240. We’re light in the bucket at the 5 spot. We better use our length and our speed and our athleticism, otherwise we’re going to get pushed around some.”
That infusion of length stands out among the newcomers, including 5-star guard Mustapha Heron, 5-foot-10 freshman guard Jared Harper and redshirt freshman Danjel Purifoy, who sat out last season due to an NCAA issue.
“At all positions, we have that,” Harper said. “He’s a bigger guard at the two … We have Danjel, who is also a guard, but he’s also playing the four right now to stretch out the four and create mismatches. We’re just getting after it and being physical because that’s what he preaches. He wants us to play fast, athletic and use our skills to be successful.”
Auburn is looking to take that lack of size in the post and turn it into some sort of advantage in the full-court game.
“Last year, we didn’t have that,” Purifoy said. “We had a couple of bigs, Jordon Granger, Cinmeon (Bowers), Tyler (Harris). This year we don’t have bigs besides me, Horace and Anfernee (McLemore), so we’re not really bigs, we’re like forwards. I feel like that’s a good thing because we can run the floor and make our defenders tired.”
Pearl said he was primarily focusing on that energetic brand of defense with his roster of young players in newcomers because he has “no concerns about (Auburn’s) ability to score.”
The issue will be teaching his team how to play high-pressure defense without breaking some of the new rules the NCAA has in place.
“The guys will allow me to play more full court. The problem is the rules won’t,” Pearl said. “We’re going to play more full court. We’re going to pick our spots to where we trap. We can’t have contact in trapping areas where an offensive player makes a basketball play — dribbling, passing or shooting. Otherwise that contact is going to get called on the defense.”
In order to help his team make that transition, Pearl is bringing in officials for a scrimmage at 11:30 a.m. CT on Saturday morning that will be open to the public.
“I think we’ll see a real adjustment to how they’re guarding it,” Pearl said. “I bet you there’s a lot of moving screens. I bet you there’s a lot of contact that we’ve allowed in practice that the officials won’t allow. It’s about how quickly we adjust to it.”