AUBURN, Alabama — Bruce Pearl has hobnobbed with the students, courted fans and generally been selling Auburn's basketball program to anyone who would listen.
Now comes the real challenge for the Tigers' new coach: Winning.
"I'm not going to be having any fun if we don't win," Pearl said. "Right now we haven't won anything."
That's not entirely true. He's won over some Auburn fans, helping the Tigers more than double season ticket sales from last season.
Pearl has also replenished a roster otherwise largely devoid of experienced Southeastern Conference-calibre talent with several transfers who could fill all three vacant starting positions.
The coaching and playing newcomers are trying to resuscitate one of the league's most downtrodden programs. Auburn has gone 24-60 the past five seasons, all but one of them under Tony Barbee, who was fired after posting four consecutive losing records.
Tahj Shamsid-Deen and KT Harrell return in the backcourt. Junior college transfer forward/center Cinmeon Bowers is joined by two graduate transfers, Niagara's high-scoring guard Antoine Mason and New Mexico State point guard KC Ross-Miller.
Auburn hasn't been to the postseason since making the NIT in 2009, but is still aiming high.
"I didn't come here to play just in the regular season," said Mason, the nation's top returning scorer. "My goal is to make it to the (NCAA) tournament. With this team, I feel like we can."
Here are some things to watch from Auburn's season:
TAHJ'S MOVE: The presence of Ross-Miller and Malcolm Canada allowed Pearl to move Shamsid-Deen to shooting guard. As a freshman, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Shamsid-Deen averaged 9.5 points per game and led the team in assists. Pearl said Shamsid-Deen has been the team's best player in preseason practices. "He is just tickled pink about being off the ball," the coach said. "We still put him in ball screens and in situations where he is handling it, but he is not the primary ball handler or playmaker. He doesn't have to break pressure. Just go score and wreak havoc defensively."
MASON'S QUEST: Mason averaged 25.6 points a game last season at Niagara, ranking second nationally. Now, the 6-1, 216-pound guard wants to show he can put up big numbers in the SEC, too. "I came in with a huge chip on my shoulder, because I've heard it all," he said. "A lot of people are, 'That was just the MAC.' Or, 'You only averaged 25 a game because your team had a rough season.' My ego is telling me that's not the reason. If you can score, you can score. If you can play, you can play. It doesn't matter what conference it is. I just want to prove that this year." The Tigers must replace the SEC's No. 2 scorer, Chris Denson. Mason will team up with Harrell, who was the No. 2 scorer last season but is more shooter than slasher.
BIG BOWERS: Bowers brings some beef to Auburn's lineup. The top-rated junior college prospect according to 247Sports, he is a 6-7, 278-pounder who averaged 8.9 rebounds last season at Chipola College. He's vying with Matt Atewe to become the starting center. The Tigers will still be undersized with no player taller than 6-foot-8 but Bowers said that doesn't faze him. "I really don't care about height," Bowers said. "I'll just have to go right through their chest. Height is just a number. Three or four inches taller than me, that's not a big deal."
LACK OF DEPTH: With 10 available scholarship players, the Tigers don't have a wealth of bodies in Pearl's uptempo style. He said he's typically had nine or 10 players average double-digit minutes.
OVERCOMING RECENT HISTORY: The abundance of newcomers, including Pearl and his staff, might help bring a new mind-set to a team that has struggled badly in recent years. "It's almost like even though I wasn't here, I put myself in their shoes everyday like I was here, like we experienced the difficulties and challenges of last season," Pearl said. "I watched them enough to know how they competed and didn't quit. They were just outnumbered and physically overwhelmed."
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