Observations: Auburn 77, Morehead State 54

With a full-strength Jungle behind them again, the Tigers crushed an NCAA Tournament team early and put them away in the final minutes.

PG Wendell Green Jr. and C Dylan Cardwell (Jacob Taylor/Auburn Athletics)

Dylan Cardwell recognized the opportunity. Morehead State had a player trying to weave his way through traffic off a well-defended screen near the top of the key. The dribble was dangerous. So, even though he’s known more for blocking balls than stealing them on defense, Cardwell went after it.

The rip was clean. Morehead State had nobody back. No one was between Cardwell and the rim. As he slowed down to collect himself at the free-throw line, Wendell Green Jr. was the closest player to him. And when the 6-foot-11 center leaped to throw down the dunk, the 5-foot-11 point guard soared with him.

Upon landing, Cardwell turned toward Auburn’s packed student section and blew a kiss.

The steal, the fast break, the dunk, the celebration, the roar from the crowd. For the first time in a long time, Auburn basketball was truly back.

Cardwell’s dunk was his only shot of the game. No one shot more than his trailing hype man Green, who hit 8 of 17 in his Auburn debut. While things weren’t quite as familiar when it came to the roster makeup, that moment — part of a 16-2 run — that feeling of what Bruce Pearl’s team can look like when it’s clicking was natural.

“To have the student section around the entire (floor) — both baselines and the sides — man, that was unbelievable,” Pearl said. “And I think they'll come back because they got a treat. They got to see some fun basketball, some up-tempo ball, kids playing really hard.”

With four new starters and one more newcomer making a big impact off the bench, a mix of fresh-faced and familiar came through in Auburn’s 77-54 season-opening win over Morehead State on Tuesday night.

Here are five Observations from the Tigers’ victory, plus the rotation chart, some Nerd Stats and the Quote of the Night.

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The Little Offensive Engine That Could

In last season’s opener, Auburn didn’t have Sharife Cooper and turned it over 18 times in an overtime win over Saint Joseph’s. The year before that, the Tigers committed 21 turnovers in a closer-than-expected win against Georgia Southern.

During those two games, Auburn started point guards who were previously backups — Turbo Jones and J’Von McCormick. But Tuesday night, it rolled with Green, who started 25 games last season at Eastern Kentucky as one of the nation’s most exciting mid-major point guards.

And having a point guard who had been through the fire as a top floor general matters. (It also didn’t hurt that Green played Morehead State in its final game with the Colonels, dropping 29 points in a close OVC Tournament loss.)

Green was an offensive dynamo for Auburn, scoring a team-high 19 points. Some of his moves in getting to the basket were fantastic. He hit a trio of 3-pointers, with each of them coming from well behind the arc.

While he only had three assists, Green didn’t turn the ball over once, even though the Tigers wanted to crank up the pace against a more methodical Morehead State squad. That bled through to the rest of the team, which struggled with taking care of the ball just a few days ago in the exhibition win over Southern Indiana.

“Wendell was terrific, and it was fun to watch him play with freedom and have fun out there and not turn the ball over,” Pearl said. “We only turned it over six times. It says we really valued possessions.”

It’s been well-established at this point that Green has a game that reminds many onlookers of Jared Harper. During the first half, he flashed some of that takeover ability, and he had a solid night defensively. Auburn has a deep roster that will get big nights from a rotating cast of characters, but Green showed in his debut that he can be the one to make it all go.

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