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November 13, 2013

Room for improvement


AUBURN | Auburn looks to open the 2013-14 season with two straight victories as they play host to Northwestern State on Friday night. The Tigers defeated Nicholls State by 22 points in the opener.

Northwestern State (1-0) at Auburn (1-0)
WHEN: Friday, 7 p.m. CST
WHERE: Auburn Arena
ON THE AIR: TV - None; Radio - ESPN 106.5, WANI 98.7/AM 1400 in Auburn/Opelika, Sirius/XM 135 & 200; Internet - AUHD via AuburnTigers.com (subscription required)
THE LINE: No line
POMEROY COLLEGE BASKETBALL RATINGS (out of 351): Auburn is No. 155
COACHES: Auburn -- Tony Barbee is 36-59 in his fourth season; Mike McConathy 223-213 in his fifteenth season at Northwestern State, 576-372 overall

PG Tahj Shamsid-Deen (5-10, 165), 5 ppg
G Chris Denson (6-2, 180), 20 ppg, 4 rpg
SG K.T. Harrell (6-4, 215), 21 ppg, 5 rpg
F Allen Payne (6-6, 225), 4 ppg
C Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (7-0, 225), 8 ppg, 8 rpg

"We did a lot of good things but we want to keep taking steps forward," head coach Tony Barbee said following Wednesday's practice. "How you quantify that I am not sure. We want to see everything improve, from the offensive execution and crispness on one end to defensive execution, our mentality of running down and chasing loose balls and rebounds which wasn't too good in the first half the other night but it got better in the second half when we out-rebounded (Nicholls) by 10. There is a lot of room for improvement all across the board."

Transfer K.T. Harrell kicked off his Auburn career in style, scoring 21 points, while returning senior Chris Denson added 20. There's little question Harrell and Denson's play will carry Auburn this season.

"It makes the game easier when you can score the ball in the hole. It becomes very hard when you going into games having to hold people to 50 points to win. That becomes a grind," said Barbee. "We still want to have that goal of holding people to 50 points or less but it makes it easier when you can score more than 50 like we did the other night. We didn't have everybody on but we still scored 76 points."

Harrell watched from the bench last season after transferring from Virginia. It wasn't easy. Harrell's talents and contributions are a welcomed site among veterans like senior Allen Payne.

"It was big but it wasn't a surprise to us," Payne said. "We see it every day in practice, his offensive firepower and the way he is so aggressive going to the rim. It was good for him to get his feet wet that way but it wasn't a surprise to anybody on this side."

The preseason favorite to win the SLC, Northwestern State finished second in the conference last year and then defeated league champion Stephen F. Austin in the SLC Tournament final. Its first NCAA Tournament trip since 2006 ended with a second-round loss to Florida.

Northwestern State won 23 games and ranked second nationally in scoring (80.0 ppg) and sixth in steals (9.6 spg) last season.

Northwestern State defeated LeTourneau University, a Division III school, 92-76 in the season-opener. In that contest, Northwestern State was 0-for-17 from 3-point range but hit 30 of 35 free throws.

"It is going to be a challenge," Barbee said. "They are a talented team. They return a lot of experiences. They went to the NCAA Tournament and gave Florida a very good game for 35 minutes. They won their conference last year and they are predicted to win their conference this year so it's going to be a challenge for this basketball team."

Northwestern State is led by sophomore guard Jalan West and senior forward DeQuan Hicks. Both scored 17 points in the opener and were Preseason First-Team All-Southland conference selections.

One point of emphasis for the Tigers moving forward is free throw shooting. Auburn shot 41 free throws in the opener, but hit just 28. That's 68 percent and that's not good. Barbee desires his squad to hit more free throws than the opponent attempts.

"Free throws is a little thing that adds up to something really big if you don't do it," he said. "I was disappointed in our free throw shooting the other night. We got to the foul line the way we want to."

  • Freshman Tahj Shamsid-Deen became the first Auburn freshman to start since Earnest Ross in 2009-10. Shamsid-Deen scored five points and added four assists in the opener.

  • Payne is currently sixth among active SEC players in rebounds with 320, and seventh in career steals with 82.

  • Senior center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum blocked a career-high-tying four shots in the opener, giving him 48 for his career.

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