Auburn looks to stay strong with new cast

By Matt Nestor

Sports Columnist

When you come off a season like the Auburn Knights had last year in basketball, expectations are bound to be high coming in. A trip to the sectional semifinals will do that for a program.

But having to replace the core of that team and try to bring together a new lineup and find a playing rotation, coach Bryan Ott doesn’t have time to listen to any of that talk.

“That entire group has graduated,” Ott said. “We really only have one player back that had any time. So, we have no returning starters and one kid that really got onto the floor as a junior. So, we’re starting over in every sense of the word.”

The Knights do have a trio of guards that can help lead to some success, however. Senior Joseph Danforth, junior Anthony Strickland and sophomore Fred Van Vleet look to lead the way for Auburn.

Ott said any talk about his team contending with the top teams in the conference is premature. But he said inexperience, not talent or confidence, could be what hurts the team.

“The one thing about our kids is they don’t think they take second to anybody,” Ott said. “Our group does show a great deal of confidence in itself, and the kids do have nice chemistry. I think some wins early on can go a long way to us making more noise than people expect us to, myself included.”

For the Knights to make that noise, they will have to contend with a deep conference this season. Boylan, Hononegah, Jefferson and Harlem all return a deep group, and will look to knock Auburn down a few pegs.

“I hope we can be in the top half of the conference,” he said. “I think that Boylan, with their depth and experience, and talent—the combinations of size and shooting talent—at least on paper, they are head and shoulders ahead of everybody. I think Hononegah can give them a significant challenge, and Jefferson, with all its returning athletes, can do the same.”

One thing that does bode well for Auburn is the offseason work they put in. Ott said his team went 25-12 on the summer circuit against some of the best competition out there.

“We did have a very successful summer, much more than I would have thought,” he said. “We exceeded my expectations pretty much everywhere we went. Regular season and summer are not the same animal. That was encouraging that the guys competed that well against top-flight people.”

With the season starting this week, Ott is excited to get out of practice and see exactly what his team has. But he said wins and losses won’t be the most important thing in the early season.

“I think the first half of the season we’re going to take our lumps some,” he said. “I do expect us to be a much better team after Christmas, and even if you were bringing everybody back, that is what you would want. But in our case, we’re going to have some growing pains.”

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From the November 25-December 1, 2009 issue

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