Bruce Pearl

With a four-game winning streak going into this week’s SEC Basketball Tournament in Nashville, Coach Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers look like they have a real shot for a better showing than last season in St. Louis where they were one and done.

Despite being the No. 1 seed at the 2018 SEC Tournament and earning a double bye, Auburn was sluggish and certainly wasn’t the best team there without starting center Anfernee McLemore and with key scorer Bryce Brown dealing with multiple injuries.

This season the Tigers should be able to put a healthy nine-player rotation on the court for postseason games and that could be the difference between making a strong run and going home early.

For the SEC Tournament their draw looks promising. Auburn will face the winner of the No. 12/13 seed game matching Missouri and Georgia, both teams the Tigers will be favored to defeat.

If the Tigers advance to the quarter-finals the matchup is against a South Carolina team that nipped the Tigers by three-points at Columbia back in January when the Gamecocks were on a hot streak and Auburn wasn’t.

With the victory over Tennessee last Saturday to close the regular season the Tigers really helped their potential seed for the NCAA Tournament. If they can win multiple games in Nashville that could boost their seeding again. On Sunday we will find out where, when and who the Tigers are playing in the NCAA Tournament.

Also on Sunday, Coach Flo’s team is expected to receive an invitation to the women’s tournament after finishing with a 22-9 record that included a disappointing 64-62 loss to Texas A&M in the quarter-finals of the SEC Tournament in a game the Tigers probably should have won. However, looking at the big picture for the AU women’s program, it is showing signs of improvement. Success in the NCAA Tournament could provide further momentum.

While basketball is in tournament time the Auburn athletes who swing bats and throw balls will be busy this weekend as they open their SEC schedules.

The baseball team will take on Tennessee in a three-game series at Plainsman Park starting on Friday evening. At the same time the softball Tigers will face Texas A&M in three games to open league play at Jane B. Moore Field.

Both Auburn teams are ranked in the Top 20 nationally and have  prospered in their pre-conference schedules with pitching staffs leading the way.

Tanner Burns, a sophomore right-hander, and Jack Owen, a sophomore lefty, are off to exceptional starts on the mound for Coach Butch Thompson’s team. The No. 1 and No. 2 options heading into league play, they have combined to produce a 6-0 record with a 0.35 earned run average while striking out 68 batters with just six walks in 51 2/3 innings.

Thompson would like to see the hitting become more consistent, but has to be pleased that a variety of pitchers, both lefties and right-handers, are off to strong starts. Auburn High product Brooks Fuller is one of three freshman lefties off to strong starts for the Tigers along with Garrett Wade and Carson Skipper.

Makayla Martin, as expected, is one of the top softball pitchers in the SEC. The senior right-hander has a 10-2 record with a 0.87 earned run average. Lexie Handley, a redshirt sophomore lefty, is off to a 5-0 start with a 1.36 ERA. The Tigers need her to keep that momentum going into league play.

The Tigers are showing more power at the plate and are hitting more consistently in Coach Mickey Dean’s second season on the Plains, but the quality of pitchers they face will improve dramatically in league play. If the hitting holds up this team should be more successful in SEC games than it was last season.

Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter

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