The No. 17 Auburn men’s basketball team travel to Thompson-Boling Arena for the final regular-season bout against Tennessee on Saturday.
These two teams met two weeks ago in the Auburn Arena, a clash that ended with a 77-63 Auburn victory. Now both teams meet again and a solid road win could be a confidence booster and the push the Tigers need to solidify a second seed in the SEC Tournament.
Taking into account Auburn’s poor road play and the Vols’ need to separate themselves from the SEC pack, this final game could go either way. Both teams are looking to make a splash before the tournament.
The Tigers (24-6, 11-6) remain undefeated at home, but are 4-5 on the road after their most recent loss to Kentucky. The Vols, in the midst of a down year, are 5-3 in Knoxville against SEC opponents. The Vols (16-13, 8-8) are averaging 65 points per game shooting 42.3 percent from the field, 32.25 percent from beyond the arc and 73.5 percent from the free-throw line against SEC opponents at home.
The Tigers shooting struggle on the road continues. They average 36.9 percent on field goals, 21.3 percent from three and 61.79 percent on free throws. After their last game, the Tigers’ scoring average on the road dropped to 65 points per game, while allowing 75. SEC teams that made the trip to Rocky Top have encountered a staunch defense that allows 63 points per game.
With a margin so close, it could come down to precision shooting and the Tigers’ ability to force turnovers. It was Tennessee’s 24 turnovers that ultimately led to their undoing in Auburn Arena.
The Vols average 12 turnovers a game at home, while Auburn forces just under 11 in away games. With Auburn coming in, the Vols are sure to be on high alert when handling the ball after their past lumps. If the Tigers can’t rely on turnovers and shooting to close their season out with a win, they might have one last trick up their sleeve.
Auburn’s secret weapon comes in the form of freshman phenom Isaac Okoro. The 6-foot-6-inch forward was injured during Auburn’s first round against Tennessee, but he’s back and ready to rumble. Okoro has acted as the spark plug, at times igniting the Auburn offense. His athleticism allows him to make plays that can change the very flow of the game.
Okoro’s season averages of 12.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assist and one steal definitely won’t hurt the Tigers' chances on Saturday.
Auburn’s initial victory over Tennessee required a 17-point second half comeback. Auburn went down deep early, but Samir Doughty kept the Tigers alive with a 22-point performance
Tennessee’s Jordan Bowden put on a show for the Vols in Auburn Arena. His 28 points, 17 in the first half, had the Tigers clamoring for an answer. Going into the locker room down 33-41, Auburn came out refocused and determined on defense. The Tigers generated 24 turnovers with 18 steals. J’Von McCormick went after Tennessee’s guards like a bandit, tallying five steals for Auburn’s defense.
In their last matchup, the Vols won the battle of the boards, out-rebounding Auburn 37 to 28. Vols forward Yves Pons pulled down 10 rebounds at Auburn Arena. He and Austin Wiley will be locked into a battle under the rim on Saturday.
A win would mean different things to each team. If the Tigers take the day, it solidifies their number two spot in the SEC. If Tennessee wins, the Vols may have punched a higher seed in the SEC tournament. However, one goal they both hold is to end their regular season victorious.
The Tigers will also look toward their five seniors down the stretch, relying on their experience to keep the level of play high.
"Rather than going through each one of them, just knowing as a group they’ve got a chance to be the greatest that has played here over a period of four years," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl. "They have already in so many ways made their mark. There’s a lot of work to be done in the offseason to get them graduated and get them moving on to for most, if not all, some level of professional basketball. As soon as the season is over, that’s what we’re going to be jumping into. But obviously just a special group. As you said, they have come together in different ways but all bought in. We play best when we have lots of people contributing. We had 10 people score at Kentucky. That was good. We had nine people rebound at Kentucky. That was good. We’re close if you’re asking where we are. Can we put it all together? That’s why we’ve got these last few weeks to see."
The game tips off Saturday at 11 a.m. Broadcasting will be handled by ESPN2 and the Auburn Sports Network.