The No. 11 Auburn men's basketball team will try to continue running the SEC gauntlet on Saturday when the Tigers host one of the hottest teams in the league, No. 18 LSU.
The Tigers (20-2) began a daunting stretch of games with a hard-fought 75-66 win over Kentucky last Saturday before following it up with a thrilling 79-76 overtime win against Arkansas on the road Tuesday night.
Saturday's matchup will pit Auburn against an LSU team that sits atop the conference standings with an 8-0 record in SEC play, not including Wednesday night's game against Vanderbilt.
Auburn's chances of winning the SEC regular season title likely hinge on its performance on Saturday and next week's rematch at home against Alabama.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl compared the Tigers' upcoming games to golf and the concept of "moving day," saying that this next week is pivotal for the team.
"I told them that this week is the moving week. We’re either going to put ourselves in the position to compete for the conference championship or not this week because of these opponents," said Pearl. "We just got finished playing the No. 27 in the NET with Kentucky. Arkansas is No. 34. LSU is next. They’re leading our league. Then Alabama comes in. It is absolutely moving week."
Despite Auburn's strong start, the Tigers are still mediocre when it comes to team statistics compared to their SEC counterparts. The Tigers rank ninth in field goal percentage (43.9%) and three-point percentage (31.2%), and 13th in free-throw percentage (67.4%). The bright spots? Auburn ranks third in points per game at 79, and first in total rebounds (41.2) and offensive rebounds per game (13.5).
"I think we have overcome a lot of statistics so far this year," said Pearl. "I look at our league stats and our league stats look like we’re a team that’s somewhere in the middle of the league or even somewhere in the lower half. So statistically, we don’t make any sense. We make up for it with some effort and energy. The kids band together and work really hard. They’ve done a great job.
"We don’t shoot it very well. We don’t shoot it from 3 very well. We don’t shoot it from the free throw line very well. We struggle to finish around the basket. I think we’re rebounding pretty well, so we’ve got to shoot better. We’ve got to execute better offensively. We have to handle the ball better and we have to run our stuff better to continue to get to the point where we can keep playing very good."
A big reason the Tigers have been able to pull out wins despite putting up such poor offensive outings is the play down the stretch in close games. True freshman Isaac Okoro has been a difference-maker late in the game throughout the season.
"He’s such a tough cover," said Pearl, who added that Okoro spends more time in the gym than anyone else on the team. "From a standpoint of having the ball in his hands late in the game for a pull, I feel pretty good about it. I know he doesn’t shoot a great percentage, but he’s in there more than anybody working on it. Then, you’ve got to back off him because he’s going to go downhill and destroy you. He gets to the line a lot. He gets fouled as much as anyone."
Auburn will face an LSU team that features five players who average in double digits scoring, including Skylar Mars (15.3), Emmitt Williams (13.7), Trendon Watford (13.4), Javonte Smart (12.1) and Darius Days (11.5). Williams, Watford and Days will also challenge the Tigers on the boards as each averages about seven rebounds a game.
The two Tigers will clash early on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Auburn Arena, with television coverage on ESPN.