Aden Holloway's Auburn debut will be especially tough. But so is he.
After missing most of two exhibitions with an ankle injury, the 5-star point guard is set to take the floor Tuesday night vs. No. 20 Baylor.
PG Aden Holloway (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Jabari Smith got to start his Auburn career with a modest 8-and-7 performance in a 23-point home win over Morehead State.
Sharife Cooper debuted with 26 points and nine assists against Alabama inside an arena that had been clamoring to finally see him play.
Yohan Traore had a modest debut against George Mason at home. Mustpha Heron had double-digit points in a comfortable opening win over North Florida. Austin Wiley started his Auburn career in a game against Mercer that ended with the home crowd celebrating a buzzer-beater.
All five of those players — who were all ranked as 5-stars by at least one recruiting service — got their college careers going with home games.
Aden Holloway, the latest prize pickup of the Bruce Pearl era, won’t get that. On Tuesday night, he’ll take the floor in the most out-of-character season-opening matchup Auburn has played in decades.
He’ll play in a quirky, pentagon-shaped G-League arena that seats a little more than 3,000 fans in a city that is more than 1,100 miles from home. He’ll face a Baylor team that is ranked inside the preseason top 20. Auburn hasn’t played a ranked team to open the season since 1989. It hasn’t opened with a ranked team since 1997.
Pearl agreed to this neutral-site opener against Baylor in South Dakota to continue to push the Auburn basketball brand nationally. He said he wanted to prove that his Tigers aren’t scared of anybody — and that he has faith in them.
“Auburn is the only team in the SEC that will open up against a top-25 opponent,” Pearl said Monday, before the Tigers got on the plane to South Dakota. “And we’re going to try to make history tomorrow night as we’ve never beaten a top-25 team in an opener.
“People ask me, why the game? Why’d you take the game? Why go out to South Dakota? It’s real simple, just to try to stay relevant in the world of college basketball, which is harder and harder to do now. Baylor is a preseason top-20 team. We’re not.”
Facing Baylor, even with a renovated roster under Scott Drew, is like throwing Holloway directly into the deep end of the pool from the very beginning.
Holloway and fellow young point guard Tre Donaldson will go up against a deep Baylor backcourt that is now led by transfer RayJ Dennis, who was the unanimous MAC Player of the Year last season after averaging 19.5 points and 5.8 assists per game at Toledo.
Baylor — the preseason No. 8 team on KenPom — is just three seasons removed from winning a national title. The Bears have been to 11 of the last 15 NCAA Tournaments, making it to the second weekend five different times. They usually do it with one of the most efficient offenses in the country, too.
“It’s probably the toughest first game for Aden,” Pearl said.
Oh, yeah: It’ll also be his first competitive game for Auburn, period.
While other Auburn newcomers Denver Jones, Chaney Johnson and Chad Baker-Mazara played through both a private scrimmage against Furman and a public exhibition against Division II school AUM last week, Holloway did not.
Holloway played only two minutes against Furman before tweaking his ankle, an injury that kept him from seeing any action against AUM.
But, both last Wednesday night and Monday morning, Pearl said Holloway would be able to play against Baylor. Holloway made the trip, and all signs point to him playing Tuesday night inside the Sanford Pentagon.
(The same goes for All-SEC center Johni Broome, who left the AUM game early with a shoulder injury. Auburn maximized the rehab time for both Broome and Holloway after the exhibition by giving the team two days off.)
PG Aden Holloway (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
Holloway’s only real action in front of a crowd so far as a Tiger came a few Saturdays ago, when he went a perfect 4-4 from 3-point range while compiling 10 assists and just three turnovers in a series of intrasquad scrimmages at an open practice.
Now, after missing almost all of the high-scoring wins over Furman and AUM with his new teammates, Holloway will have to slide immediately into a test that Auburn basketball just hasn’t faced right off the bat in the Pearl Era.
But if there’s any true freshman to have confidence in during this difficult situation, it’s the hard-working, hot-shooting No. 2 signee in school history — ranked right between Smith and Cooper in the all-time 247Sports Composite for the Tigers.
“You talk about putting him in a tough spot,” Pearl said. “But look, he’s born to be in a tough spot. This is what he relishes. He’s excited about playing, and his teammates are excited about having him be out there.”
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