No. 22 Auburn faces Cal State-Northridge for the first time Friday night, but there will be a familiar face on the other bench when the Tigers welcome the Matadors to Auburn, Ala.
Former Alabama coach Mark Gottfried is in his second season with the Matadors after leading them to their most wins in five seasons and their first postseason appearance since 2009 in his inaugural year. Despite a 13-20 regular season, they played in the 16-team College Basketball Invitational, losing to Utah Valley in the opening round.
This year’s Matadors (0-3) have had double-digit losses to Oregon State and New Mexico on the road and Pepperdine at home. Opponents have shot 51.6 percent against them and won the boards by an average margin of 39.0-31.3.
“We have to figure out how to defend and rebound a little bit better,” Gottfried said after Pepperdine shot 49.2 percent and won the rebounding battle 36-29 in its 94-82 win over the Matadors on Tuesday.
The loss to the Waves followed the same pattern of earlier defeats, with bad first halves followed by encouraging finishes. The Matadors shot only 34.8 percent in the first 20 minutes but finished the game at 46.4 after shooting 54.6 percent in the second.
“I like the fact in the second half we came back and scored 55 points in the second half,” Gottfried said. “I thought we struggled to score the ball in the first half.”
Junior guard Terrell Gomez (22.0 points per game) scored 21 of his game-high 33 points over the last 20 minutes.
Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers (3-0) have posted wins at home (83-74 vs. Georgia Southern), at a neutral site (76-66 vs. Davidson) and on the road (70-69 vs. South Alabama), but none came easy.
Even with a senior-laden lineup, freshman Isaac Okoro has had a big hand in the last two. After scoring 12 points in his collegiate debut, Okoro got the Tigers off to a quick start with a pair of 3-pointers in the opening minutes on his way to a team-high 17 points against Davidson, and his two baskets in the closing seconds rescued the Tigers in their one-point win at South Alabama.
“No. 23 is pretty good,” Pearl said, referring to the 6-foot-6 forward. “He’s not afraid. He’s productive. Plays the game on both ends of the floor, and obviously made a big basket late.”
Depth also is evident. Okoro is one of only two players averaging in double figures (14.7) for Auburn, with senior guard Samir Doughty (13.7) the other, but the Tigers have had at least four players with 10 or more points in every game.
Senior forward Anfernee McLemore has yet to start but is the team’s No. 4 scorer with 9.3 points per game. Sophomore guard Jamal Johnson, a transfer from Memphis, matched McLemore’s 14-point effort against South Alabama, giving the Tigers a 32-9 advantage in bench scoring for the game.
Gottfried coached at Alabama from 1998-2009 before moving on to North Carolina State from 2011-17.
–Field Level Media