NCAA Basketball

No. 8 Auburn to face winless UNC Asheville

Bruce Pearl's squad is 6-1 with their only loss coming to Duke in Hawaii. After destroying Saint Peter's by 50 points on Wednesday, the eighth-ranked Tigers hit the hardwood on Tuesday night against perhaps one of the worst teams -- statistically -- in the nation, UNC Asheville.

Last season, UNC Asheville finished 21-13, won the regular season Big South Conference title.

What a difference a year makes.

The Bulldogs have a new coach and five new starters. They are 0-6 and have lost their games by an average of 25.2 points. North Carolina State beat the Bulldogs by 51.

Two years ago, UNC Asheville was in the NCAA Tournament; the past two in the NIT.

Mike Morrell, a Shaka Smart disciple from Texas, has taken over and the 36-year-old coach and his Bulldogs are taking their lumps.

Tuesday's contest might not be more than anything but a glorified scrimmage for the more athletic, more experienced and more talented Tigers.

Auburn is scoring at an 89.1 clip per game. But Pearl sees a hole in the offense that needs to be cleaned up, otherwise poor free-throw shooting will come back to bite the Tigers in the tail against a quality opponent.

The Tigers are making only 65.7 percent of their free throws, which ranks Auburn near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. Only 13.2 percent of the Tigers' offense is coming from foul line, which ranks 337 out of 353 Division I teams.

"We got to improve from the foul line," Pearl told AL.com after the 99-49 win over Saint Peter's. "I don't know if I've mentioned that, but I'm concerned with our free-throw percentage. It's not good. It'll cost us in close games."

While looking closer at the Tigers' free-throw woes, one glaring stat stands out. Jared Harper has made 12 of 14 free throws this year. Last season, Harper went to the free-throw line 202 times and made 82 percent (166) of those attempts.

At the rate he is going this season, Harper will take a total of 70 free throws.

Harper's running mate, Bryce Brown has made 15 of 21 attempts, but the rest of the team struggles.

"We're working really hard to improve it," Pearl said. "Every man's got to be accountable."

Playing the Bulldogs could help the Tigers get healthy at the free throw line. UNC Asheville is unlikely to provide much of a threat offensively as the Bulldogs rank 348th out of 351 Division I teams at 56.7 points per game.

On Nov. 18, the Bulldogs lost to Manhattan 54-38 in their third game in three days of the KEMI Northern Kentucky Basketball Classic. Morrel said he was proud of his team's effort.

"I thought in the first half we did a good job of taking care of the ball and then at the same time turning them over. Obviously we would have liked to come away with a win for our efforts, but now it's just about battling, getting better and getting healthy."

The Bulldogs might have played their best game in a loss to UT Martin on Sunday. They trailed by three with nine minutes left but ran out of steam and lost by 17.

They shot 50 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle.

"I am proud of the effort in the first half but we didn't fly around in the second," Morrell said. "It's a learning process and we're in the infant stages of building these freshman up, and the freshman are growing up before our eyes."

Tuesday's game will mark UNC Asheville's first trip to Auburn since surprising the Tigers 70-69 in overtime on Nov. 13, 2010, in the first game in Auburn Arena.

Updated December 4, 2018

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