Chuma Okeke

After an 80-75 victory over Mississippi State last Saturday, Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers reached a 20-win benchmark that has been notoriously elusive for the Auburn basketball program in the last two decades.

Auburn sits at 21-9 on the season after Tuesday's comeback win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and while a spot in the NCAA Tournament is almost assured, the Tigers will have a chance to improve their stock with a home matchup against the conference’s top team in Tennessee on Saturday to end the regular season.

The Tigers’ 10-7 conference record puts them in a five-way tie with Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. As a result, the team’s final two regular season games against Alabama and Tennessee will alter where they land, seeding-wise, in the SEC tournament.

“Obviously at Auburn, we haven’t been there (the NCAA tournament) back-to-back very often. That’s something we would like to try and do, but if we don’t keep getting better, improving and becoming more efficient, it’ll be hard to win another game,” Pearl said. “That’s how good the teams are that we’re playing against. That’s our goal is to keep trying to play better. I think we did that last week.”

After winning a share of the SEC title a year prior, Auburn opened up the 2018-19 season with high expectations. Ranked 11th in the AP preseason top 25, the Tigers have had their moments but have generally underperformed this season in the eyes of fans. To Pearl, however, the roller coaster of a season was expected.

“Maybe some of the work that we had done early and the preseason allowed us to have a ranking. Chuma Okeke was our sixth man last year. He could be one of our very best players this year. Nobody in our camp is surprised with where we’re at right now because of the quality of the league and the abilities of our own team,” Pearl said. “The question is, can we peak? What does that look like? When we defend and hold teams under 45 percent field-goal percentage, which is a reasonable expectation, we’re 16-3. That’s pretty strong to hold your hat on.”

At points in the season, the Tigers have looked like a team that could make a run in March. On the other hand, Auburn has also played sloppy and looked lost on defense resulting in some unexpected losses. 

Heavily reliant on three-point shooting, the Tigers, when they get hot, can compete with anyone in the country. The opposite is also true, especially when the Tigers have been without their best low-post weapon, Austin Wiley. The 6-foot-11, 260-pound junior is the Tigers’ best rebounder and anchor of the defense. Without him, the Tigers have had to rely on outside shooting even more than normal. 

Pearl is hopeful that Wiley can return in the next few games, and if Auburn wants to make a run in both the SEC and March Madness tournament, the big man’s health will be the biggest concern.

“I’ve had teams that obviously made great runs in the tournament and peaked in the end. I’ve had teams that didn’t. I don’t think necessarily my teams of the past and the history will really affect this team,” Pearl said. “For me, the focus will be on the process. What do we need to do to peak? What does that look like? It looks like nine guys that are out there making plays offensively and defensively. It looks like nine guys that are trying to be productive with their minutes and understanding that they’re going to be challenged, personnel-wise every night. They’re going to be challenged every night one-on-one. Again, we’ve managed to do that a lot. We’ll have to continue to do that more and better over these last couple of games.”

Auburn will face off against Pearl’s former team on Saturday at Auburn Arena to end the regular season. The Tigers and Volunteers will tip off at 11 a.m. and the game will be carried on ESPN.

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