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COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Points won’t be hard to come by for Auburn

Auburn coach Tony Barbee says his team has improved this season and will be able to put more points on the board.

Auburn coach Tony Barbee says his team has improved this season and will be able to put more points on the board.

AUBURN — Auburn coach Tony Barbee is hoping his team can be a little more offensive this season with an infusion of talent and a healthy Frankie Sullivan.

The Tigers struggled to hit shots, whether from the perimeter or around the basket, in Barbee’s first year, forcing them to hound opponents into ugly, low-scoring games to keep them close.

“There’s no question that we have improved, and we have a team that can score significantly better than last season,” Barbee said.

A big reason for both is three players who were spectators most or all of last season. Guard Varez Ward and forward Noel Johnson, both sophomores, sat out Barbee’s debut after transferring from Texas and Clemson, respectively.

Sullivan is back after missing most of last season following knee surgery, and receiving a medical hardship year.

“It makes the game so much easier when you have a guy that not only can he score and do a lot of good things with the basketball, but he’s a natural leader,” Barbee said.

That brings hopes for a team that was solid defensively last season but lacked scorers and went 11-20. The Tigers finished the regular season with wins against Mississippi and LSU to account for half of their four Southeastern Conference victories.

The additions make up for the departure of leading scorer and rebounder Earnest Ross, who transferred to Missouri.

The Tigers were picked to finish 10th in the SEC. Auburn ranked 11th in the league in scoring offense and field goal percentage and was last in free throw percentage and 3-pointers made.

This team has a tougher nonconference schedule, with games at Florida State and Seton Hall and a trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic in December.

“Our mentality is, if you’re going to play one of my teams, you better expect a fight for 40 minutes,” Barbee said.

The newcomers are the cause for hope.

The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Ward played in 32 games as a freshman at Texas, scoring 23 points in two NCAA Tournament games. He was injured after starting the first three games of the 2009-10 season and received a medical redshirt.

“He’s a dynamic point guard,” Barbee said.

Johnson transferred from Clemson in mid-semester after averaging 2.9 points and 1.6 rebounds in seven games. He will be eligible after the fall semester.

Ward, Sullivan, Chris Denson and Josh Wallace should give the Tigers a much-improved backcourt even without Ross. Sullivan averaged 12.7 points a game two years ago and is a 42 percent 3-point shooter over the past three seasons.

Wallace was the starter for 26 games for the Tigers at point guard last season, more than any other Auburn walk-on has started during his career. The 5-foot-10, 170-pounder was second in the SEC in steals, fourth in assists and third in assist-to-turnover ratio.

AU opens at home today vs. McNeese State.