Kenny Gabriel (above) can rise to the rim with the best of them, on offense and defense, something the Pirates will need to be aware of. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
After some time off to get back into their routine, the first "Power-6" Conference opponent of the year comes to the Rock for a primetime 9 PM tipoff in the Auburn Tigers. This is also the second game where you can listen to yours truly provide all the play-by-play action on 89.5 FM WSOU (or wsou.net for those not in the NY Metro area).
It's a Big East-SEC Challenge game, and a Friday night, so I'm anticipating a nice crowd to give the Pirates a real home court advantage, especially because it's the Tigers first game away from home.
Here's what you need to know about the Tigers:
2011-12 record: 4-0
All-time series record: N/A
Last meeting: N/A
As you can see, these two schools have never met in men's basketball, so the Pirates will look to get off on the right foot.
The Tigers last year at this time were positively dreadful. In just their non-conference games alone, they lost (at home, mind you) to Cambell, Presbyterian, Jacksonville, and Samford (the latter of the 4 being considered the worst loss for ANY power-6 team last season by College Basketball Prospectus). If you would have asked just about anyone, they would have told you that Auburn had a real chance to not win a single SEC game.
But that didn't happen. As the year went on, the Tigers improved, knocking off Florida State in their non-conference finale and upsetting Mississippi State among their 4 SEC wins. This year, the Tigers return almost everyone from that team. Their core includes Texas transfer Varez Ward (who may even be their best player), athletic freak forward Kenny Gabriel, big man Rob Chubb, and talented scoring guard Frankie Sullivan.
Ward's made the biggest difference for the team so far- last season, without a legit point guard, Auburn struggled to get any offensive flow. Josh Wallace, who now backs up Ward, walked on to the team and STARTED at the 1 last year, indicative of an inability to score that plagued the Tigers last season. Gabriel is the team's only senior and he's playing like one, ranking either first or second on the team in five different offensive categories. Not only that, but the big man from Paris JC in Texas is a fantastic athlete, able of throwing down some impressive jams (like this one, or this one). The matchup between him and Herb Pope should be interesting because Gabriel just might be the most athletic 4 the Pirates face until Big East play starts, and maybe even all year long.
Sullivan is shooting the ball well from deep (the whole team is doing that so far, actually, with an impressive .414 clip to their name), and he can also drive the ball. Chubb is the tallest Tiger, although he doesn't really rebound the ball well for his size. Backing him up is freshman Willy Kouassi, who's more of an athlete/shot blocker type. Forward Allen Payne and sophomore guard Chris Denson (who's been a very good 6th man so far) round out the rotation.
Seton Hall will win if:
- They can defend
The Tigers come in on an offensive high, shooting it at a great percentage from the field with over 15 assists a game so far this season. They also haven't played anyone yet, and going from the likes of McNeese State and Arkansas- Pine Bluff to a defense the caliber of Kevin Willard's could be a rude awakening for them. As always, the defense should keep the Pirates right in this one at the very least. Rotation will be key here, with Auburn running a dribble-drive offense under head coach Tony Barbee.
- They ride the home crowd
This is the most desirable ticket so far for Pirate fans (after opening night), and with the weekend immediately following plus a late tipoff to give fans a chance to get home from work and come to the game, I expect a good crowd for the first home game against a power conference team. If the team can harness the crowd and use it in their favor, it could rattle the Tigers, playing on the road for the first time this year.
Auburn will win if:
- They turn the Pirates over
Auburn's forcing over 15 turnovers a game in addition to their 15 assist-per-game clip. It's one of the reasons they've started so well. The Tigers like to play a pressure defense that can be difficult to face without solid ballhandling and if the Tigers can get enough mistakes from the Pirates, this is a game they could win.
- They make free throws
For all the nice, pretty numbers the Tigers have this season so far, the ugliest by far is their free throw percentage. At only 58% (and that is the TEAM percentage), it's been an area of major struggle this season. They would do well to make a higher percentage of them if they want to beat Seton Hall, especially on the road.