The first official games in Auburn Arena occur tonight with the women taking on Mercer at 5 p.m. and the men playing UNC-Asheville at 8 p.m.
“I’m just looking forward to getting in there and witnessing the atmosphere,” said first-year men’s coach Tony Barbee, “and then hopefully at the end of the day come out with a win.”
The Auburn Arena, completed at a cost of $86 million, seats 9,121. It replaces Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum where the Tigers played for 42 years.
Auburn women’s coach Nell Fortner is equally excited about the new facility.
“I can’t wait to hear the crowd and see what kind of home court advantage it gives you in a tight game and to feel the excitement of the fans of being in a building like that, feeding off noise,” Fortner said. “When you have that energy we can feed off it and so can the fans. I am looking forward to see what that brings us and how that actually feels. It is just fun to be able to play in a new arena.”
Of the two, the Auburn men’s team is much more of an unknown quantity with Barbee in his first year and with the Tigers returning only 12 percent of their scoring from last year.
Sophomore Earnest Ross is the Tigers’ leading returning scorer at 2.8 points per game.
The Tigers do not have a senior on the roster.
Auburn split two exhibition games, beating West Alabama 79-66 and losing to Columbus State, 54-52.
“The guys have been working hard and preparing hard,” said Barbee. “It will be interesting to see the experience that UNC Asheville has because they only lost one player out of the top eight in their rotation. They come back with a lot of experience and they’re going to come in here ready to play, but so are we. I’m looking forward to seeing a full arena, and everybody going crazy. I know it’s going to be an exciting night.”
Auburn’s women’s team is coming off a disappointing 15-16 season, including 5-11 in the rugged SEC, but the Tigers do return all five starters.
Guard Alli Smalley is the leading returning scorer. She averaged 15.7 points per game last year.
The Tigers also boast a solid recruiting class, headed by former Woodland star Courtney Strain, who broke the Alabama state scoring record.
Fortner says the Tigers will go with an up-tempo style this season.
“We have worked hard on it and we are not there yet,” she said. “We’ve got four healthy freshmen right now who we are trying to bring up to speed, but it is going to take a while, because that pace can be brutal. On defense we have worked hard on pressure, with a lot more pressing and a lot more trapping, being more versatile on that end of the floor knowing that it is going to take more time for the offense to meet that. It has been fun working on it and I am looking forward to getting back to that style of play. ”