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Auburn basketball's 'greatest challenge' as postseason begins

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl talks to players during the team's first practice Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala. (Julie Bennett/
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl talks to players during the team's first practice Friday, Sept. 29, 2017, at Auburn Arena in Auburn, Ala. (Julie Bennett/ Bennett)

Auburn has grown accustom to not having full-contact practices.

Since forward Anfernee McLemore went down last month with a season-ending injury and left Auburn with eight healthy scholarship players, coach Bruce Pearl has curtailed the physicality of the team's practices the last several weeks. As the Tigers prepare for the first leg of the postseason -- the SEC Tournament this week in St. Louis -- Pearl said that those practices will be the team's "greatest challenge" in March.

"No matter what, I will not have a contact practice the rest of the season," Pearl said Tuesday. "I haven't had one for about four weeks.... The reason is simple: I can't afford to get down to seven (players)."

Auburn is used to playing shorthanded. The Tigers have been without two of their best players throughout the year, with Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley sidelined due to eligibility concerns. Auburn not only managed without them, but surprised many across the country while making an impressive run through their schedule to become a fixture in the top 25 and earn a share of the SEC regular-season crown.

The loss of McLemore, an SEC All-Defensive team selection, hurt too. Auburn went 2-3 over their last five games after his injury while holding practices that went full-speed but didn't include any contact.


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"As it relates to how we were playing late in the year, I don't think it was fatigue as far as maybe not playing our best basketball the last much as much as it was simply not being as sharp from not being able to practice properly," Pearl said. "Just can't keep an edge defensively, can't keep an edge as far as your offensive execution. You just can't. I think that was probably what affected us the most, and yet I still don't second-guess the decision because we haven't lost anybody in practice yet."

Auburn (25-6, 13-5 SEC) opens play in the SEC Tournament in St. Louis on Friday at noon, facing either Alabama or Texas A&M that day on ESPN. The Tigers left for St. Louis on Wednesday and had a shootaround Thursday morning before the day's games got underway.

The team will practice off-site again this afternoon after it watched the Tide and Aggies at noon and finds out who it will face in the quarterfinals.

So with that being the "greatest challenge" in front of Auburn this postseason, how does Pearl hope to overcome it and guide his team to runs in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments?

"You do what you can," Pearl said. "You do full-speed reviews. You do full-speed play call review and full-court. You put the scout team in there but you put them in there in such a way where there's no live rebounding or no live blocking of shots, no live taking charges.

"You just do it so that at least they get a little bit of feel for timing. But I don't think we really have much choice."

Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.

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