- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Auburn coach Bruce Pearl believes his program has come a long way off the court. He’s hoping the Tigers can make similar strides when the games actually start.

Auburn fans have snapped up more than 5,000 season tickets this year, up from some 2,100 last year. The high-energy Pearl has courted fans and plans to do the same elsewhere with alumni events on road trips from Colorado to Las Vegas, trying to generate love for a program that has produced scant success in recent years.

“At almost every SEC game on the road, we’re going to have an event,” Pearl said Tuesday. “We’re going to have more people coming to our games because they are excited about our staff and our program. We’re way ahead of the curve off the court. But it’s going to take some time on the court.

“The response from the fans, community and department has been outstanding.”

Producing short-term results on the court will hinge heavily on transfers Cinmeon Bowers, K.C. Ross-Miller and Antoine Mason.

The Tigers’ only returning starters are guards KT Harrell and Tahj Shamsid-Deen.

Even with the football team contending again for a national title, Auburn players say they’re hearing more buzz about basketball than they have before. That includes Harrell, who grew up 45 minutes away in Montgomery.

“I never really heard a lot about Auburn basketball besides knowing Charles Barkley played here,” he said. “That’s about it. There really hasn’t been a lot of excitement. This year has been pretty exciting.”

Pearl’s willingness and knack for promoting his program was part of the reason Auburn gave him a six-year, $14.7 million deal. The Tigers not only haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003, they ranked 13th in the SEC in attendance last season. Auburn drew 5,823 fans per game to 4-year-old Auburn Arena.

Bowers, a 6-foot-7, 278-pound junior college transfer, said he’s heard from plenty of fans since arriving on campus.

“They say they can’t wait to come to the games,” said Bowers, who is competing with Matthew Atewe for the starting spot at center. “They just want to see this program turned around. Everybody loves basketball around here, but it just hasn’t been good lately. But this year it’s going to be way different.

“This year we’re going to be a run-and-go team. We’re going to have better offense this year.”

The Tigers must replace leading scorer Chris Denson, center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and forward Allen Payne. Mason, who transferred after graduating from Niagara, is the nation’s top returning scorer after averaging 25.6 points per game.

Ross-Miller is a graduate transfer from New Mexico State who will likely start at point guard. Tahj Shamsid-Deen has moved to shooting guard.

Pearl said he can empathize with what the returning players endured last season.

“We have five players returning and we talk about it,” he said. “It’s almost like even though I wasn’t here, I put myself in their shoes everyday like I was here, like we experienced the difficulties and challenges of last season.

“I watched them enough to know how they competed and didn’t quit. They were just outnumbered and physically overwhelmed.

“How much progress we’ve made in that area, I don’t know.”

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