The Auburn men's basketball team will enter SEC play on Saturday with plenty of momentum after running through every opponent in its nonconference schedule on the way to being one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the nation.
The Tigers (12-0), who moved up two spots to No. 5 in the latest NCAA Net Rankings and stayed at No. 8 in the AP Poll, will start their SEC schedule on the road when they travel to Starkville to face Mississippi State on Saturday.
While the Tigers have struggled some with inconsistency on offense, they have smothered teams with aggressive defense, giving up only 66 points a game and holding their last two opponents, Lehigh and Lipscomb, at under 60 points.
Another positive development is the contributions of bench players Anfernee McLemore, Jamal Johnson, Devan Cambridge and Allen Flanigan, giving the Tigers a nine-man rotation and allowing the starters to stay fresh later in games.
Johnson, especially, came up big for the Tigers against Lipscomb, scoring 14 points and hitting four of six three-point attempts.
"He gave it to me at both ends," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on Johnson's effort on the offensive and defensive ends. "He actually smiled one day this week in practice. I almost wish I had a camera just so I could have recorded it. I didn't see teeth, but I saw a grin. I just want those guys to play with emotion. I want them to do what they do and they don't need to be like me but they need to be spastic and intense defensively as I am."
"From a Jamal standpoint, he's trying to have a great year, but he wants Austin to have a year. He's trying to have a great year, but he's really trying to drive Samir (Doughty) to have a great year. Sometimes that puts more pressure on yourself to deliver. That's OK, that's OK. That's part of it. We needed our bench to give us what they gave us. We needed Danjel (Purifoy) to give us what he gave us. We need to build on it."
"(Coach Pearl) always says to stay right and stay ready. You never know when your name is going to be called, so you have to stay ready, try to make an impact, play hard, play with the team and be confident, added Johnson.
Johnson and the three others bench players are averaging more than 11 minutes of playing time a game, giving the starters a much-needed break.
"In the first and second half, we want to win the last 10 minutes of each half," said Pearl. "It takes a little while to wear people out. We're playing nine guys. Austin Wiley is a double-double guy in 20 minutes a game. He can play fresh and be furious."
Wiley's been a force on the inside while only playing 20 minutes a game, averaging 10.8 points and 9.5 rebounds, which leads the SEC. As a team, the Tigers also lead the SEC in rebounds with 42.2 a game, 13.7 of which come off the offensive glass.
Wiley and McLemore have also been aggressive on defense around the rim, blocking 19 and 24 shots so far, respectively.
The Tigers will face a Bulldogs team that has started the season 8-3, with their losses coming against Villanova, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State.
The Bulldogs feature a deep roster and rotate nine players, with each playing more than 15 minutes a game. Mississippi State is led by the trio of Tyson Carter (16.1 points), Reggie Perry (14.5 points, 9.2 rebounds) and Robert Woodard III (11.9 points). The Bulldogs are currently ranked No. 93 in the Net Rankings.
Auburn and State will meet at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on SEC Network.