The No. 16 Auburn men's basketball team will try to keep their season on track Saturday when they step onto the national stage to take on Iowa State as part of the Big12/SEC Challenge.
The Tigers will face a Cyclones team that's been battle tested and currently sits at 9-9 overall.
They have played in five games against then-ranked teams, losing four, and outraced Alabama in November, winning 104-89. The Tide snapped the Tigers' undefeated win streak to open the season last week, 83-64. Auburn also struggled mightily from the field against Florida, which pushed around the Tigers for a 69-47 win.
"It didn't come as a surprise to me — the margins did, but not the fact that we weren't able to win on the road," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on th team's two losses. "As I've been saying, we have to play better if we're going to continue to win. That has been pretty consistent. It kind of caught up with us a little bit, particularly on the offensive end."
A big part of the Tigers' struggles is that the "scouting report is out" added Pearl. The Tigers are no longer a wild card as far as strengths and weaknesses after replacing key starters from last year's Final Four team.
"At this point in the season, they know what we're doing, they knew what you're doing, they know our tendencies, they know my tendencies, they know the players’ tendencies," he said. "Can we then do something else once they take away the stuff that we're good at? And that's probably, offensively, what we're struggling with the most."
The Auburn backcourt has almost evaporated into the mist — guard Samir Doughty, the team's leading scorer, managed only six and eight points against Alabama and Florida, respectively. The same was true for point guard J'Von McCormick , who scored five and six points against the two while combining for only five assists.
Despite the bad play, the duo still seems to have the support of their teammates.
"I think they’re doing fine," said sophomore guard Jamal Johnson. "It’s hard playing on the road. I have confidence in them. Everyone has confidence in them. They’re going to do a lot better. I feel like they’re doing well."
The Tigers need to do a better job of getting each other involved in the game, said Pearl, as teams are focusing on taking away the individuals strengths of the players.
"I would probably say take away individual tendencies and understanding that we’re better from 2 than 3," said Pearl on what teams are doing to stymie the Auburn offense. "Alabama built a wall and rotated over and got in front of us by taking charges. Florida built a wall by being bigger and going and trying to make us score over them. I think the biggest thing that we focus on this week is playing off of two feet and do a better job of getting guys shots. I thought we had one of our best practices we’ve had all year long yesterday (Monday). We need more assists, playmaking and getting guys and each other more shots. Of course, we need to make shots, but I think we need to do a better job of playmaking for each other."
A promising sign, possibly, for the Tigers is the way they have responded after taking the two losses. Pearl said he thought the players did great when they got back from the road trip.
"We had Martin Luther King Day on Monday, so we had a great day from the standpoint of the kids being off," said Pearl. "They came in, had some breakfast, watched some film. In practice, it was a good day. It reminded me a little bit about those days in December and early January when we were here during the break and we were training like pros. It was great."
Pearl said the Tigers' attitude is great and has been all year long.
"The guys are working really hard. I understand that the home court isn't going to rebound for us or make shots for us," he said.
The Tigers will take on a Cyclones team that is averaging 76 points a game, while giving up 72. The Cyclones spread playing time around, with nearly 10 players seeing 10 minutes of action a game. The offense starts with Tyrese Haliburton, who leads the team with 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and more than seven assists per game. Rasir Bolton also averages double figures with 14.7 points a game.
The Tigers and Cyclones will get off to an early start Saturday, when the two tipoff in Auburn Arena at 11 a.m. The game will be televised on either ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU.