The Stretch 4: Will we see 'a new Auburn team' at USC on Sunday?
Bruce Pearl's Tigers need to show improvement ahead of SEC play. It starts with their first road game — which might be exactly what they need.
SF Chris Moore (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
LOS ANGELES — Being in Auburn during Christmas break is great for everybody.
Well, almost everybody.
With students out for the holidays, Auburn feels different this time of year. Traffic, which can be an issue in a rapidly growing city during the school year, is much lighter. It’s a brief period of calm between the two very busy semesters.
Bruce Pearl, like anybody who lives here throughout the year, is a fan of the break. The same can’t be said of his players, though — the ones who aren’t home for the holidays, because it’s the crucial stretch between non-conference play and the start of SEC ball.
“Listen, for me and for others at the university and on staff, it's nice to have the campus quiet, right?” Pearl said Thursday. “But for the guys, it's the worst time of the year for them to be here, right? There's nothing going on.”
Fortunately for Pearl’s players, they’re experiencing the complete opposite of a quiet time back on campus. After a Friday morning practice on the Plains, they flew to the other side of the country for the start of a Pac-12 doubleheader that looks like it might be a pivot point for Auburn’s entire season.
“Look, the schedule is gonna get tougher,” Pearl said. “So why not let it be tougher before Christmas versus when we open up against Florida at home? All of these games, like I said after the (Georgia State game), we have to play better if we're gonna be able to beat USC or Washington or Florida or a bunch of teams in the SEC.
“That's where we're at. We play the way we're playing right now, we won't win.”
A week ago, Auburn suffered its first loss of the season, a lackluster 82-73 loss to Memphis in Atlanta. Then, on Wednesday, the Tigers struggled through a weak first half before turning it on after halftime to come away with an unimpressive 8-point home win over Georgia State.
At a time when several SEC rivals are playing better basketball — against better competition — and conference play is set to start, Auburn had better hope the last two games were effective wake-up calls.
Chris Moore and Jaylin Williams believe they were, and they said as much during a back-and-forth press conference exchange Thursday afternoon.
“I feel like we came out kinda flat and not with a lot of effort and energy,” Moore said. “Our coaches emphasized that what we do doesn't work without effort and energy.”
“I feel like going on this trip, most definitely, that's something we don't have to worry about, because we are going to the West Coast,” Williams said. “It's already going to be an exciting trip. … I'm pretty sure that we're going to have the effort and energy. Our biggest problem (Wednesday) was that we didn't have effort and energy. We have to have that to compete with any team in this country.”
“I feel like y'all are going to see a new Auburn team when we go over there,” Moore said. “I feel like we are going to stay together. We're going to face some adversity over there on the West Coast, and we're ready for it.”
Maybe the change of environment can spark something in Auburn, which has played seven home games and three neutral-site contests in which they had the majority of the fan support.
The Tigers’ first true road game will be a Sunday afternoon matchup against USC, which also lost to Miami in Greenville during the NCAA Tournament in March. Andy Enfield has coached the Trojans to four tourney berths, including an Elite Eight run in 2021, after shocking the world with the “Dunk City” squad at Florida Gulf Coast a decade ago.
USC lost to Enfield’s former employer in its opener and has a pair of single-digit losses to Tennessee and Wisconsin to its name this season. The Trojans will undoubtedly be one of the tougher opponents the Tigers have faced so far, and it’s going to take some real improvement in order to get the West Coast swing started on a high note.
Auburn has been successful the two times it’s made long trips to play basketball this season — first with the Israel tour, then the back-to-back wins at the Cancun Challenge in Mexico. Can the third time be the charm for a team needing to play better, together?
“I feel like it's another bonding trip that we can all that advantage of,” Moore said. “We can go out here and learn more about each other. Hang out, have fun. But also remember that it's still a business trip.”
For more on Auburn’s showdown with USC later today — 4:30 p.m. CT, 2:30 p.m. local time — here’s a fresh edition of The Stretch 4, coming to you from Los Angeles.
PG Wendell Green Jr. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
WGJ makes the trip, and Tre is ready to roll
The worst part of Auburn’s underwhelming win over Georgia State on Wednesday was the late-game injury to starting point guard Wendell Green Jr.
Green “turned his ankle” and did not practice either Thursday or Friday before the cross-country flight. But Green made the trip, as expected, even tweeting out a pin emoji with Los Angeles as his location on Friday.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Auburn Observer to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.