AUBURN — And suddenly there are 20 minutes of playing time to fill.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said Monday he wasn’t sure who would start Wednesday against Alabama in place of injured starting center Anfernee McLemore but the options wouldn’t be a secret to him, his players or the anticipated sellout crowd at Auburn Arena.
“What's wrong with a little more Chuma? What's wrong with a little bit more Desean, a little bit more Horace? Nothing. What's wrong is less Anfernee,” Pearl said. That's what's wrong. We'll miss him.”
In the first game since McLemore’s extensive injury left ankle, Pearl must decide to go back to starting Horace Spencer or give the first career start to freshman Chuma Okeke.
“There are 20 minutes available at the center position,” Pearl said. “So Chuma is going to have to play that position, Horace has got to play without fouling and Chuma will still rotate some at the (power forward). So those three guys (including Desean Murray) are going to get heavy minutes.”
So with the expectation being that all frontcourt players will play an increased amount of minutes, why not make it players’ choice?
“There are positives to bringing Horace off the bench because he's brought great life off the bench, and I will probably leave it up to Horace and see what he wants to do,” Pearl said.
With Spencer, Auburn (23-4, 11-3 SEC) gets rim protection but he has had a problem fouling throughout the season. The 6-foot-8 post player has had three or more fouls in six of the last eight games including fouling out of Saturday’s loss at South Carolina. If Spencer gets into early foul trouble Wednesday against a long Alabama lineup, Auburn will have to use Okeke at the center and give up much if not all defensive assurances in the paint.
“I feel like when I want to get physical I’m too physical,” Spencer said. “I just have to dial it back I guess and play a little softer.”
With Okeke, Auburn has its perimeter diversity as the freshman from Atlanta leads all scholarship players by shooting 41 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. This season, McLemore is 18 of 46 from long range, forcing an opponent’s rim protector beyond the paint in a matchup problem. Okeke, who was a former four-star recruit and Top 40 prospect according to 247Sports.com, has 13 games with at least 10 points this season, including seven against Southeastern Conference foes.
Alabama (17-10, 8-6 SEC), which ended Auburn’s 14-game winning streak Jan. 17, will have the services of freshman point guard Collin Sexton for the first game against the Tigers this season. In the Tide’s 76-71 loss to Coleman Coliseum, Sexton sat out with back issues but the preseason freshman All-America selection comes into Auburn Arena as the third-leading scorer in the SEC at 18.1 points a game. The Mableton, Ga., native has scored 20 or more points in 10 of the 24 games he has played, including scoring 30 or more twice on the year, and has led the Tide in scoring 11 times this season.
“I've seen him play for years in high school and AAU ball, and he's an incredible talent, and so it just gives them another piece,” Pearl said with a smile. “Like they need another piece.”