“They’re just good,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers during Thursday’s media availability.
Tennessee has beaten Auburn 11 of the last 15 meetings between the two schools, but the Tigers left a sour taste in the mouth of the Vols last season. Pearl’s 2019 Final Four squad beat his old school twice when the stakes were at an all-time high.
In the regular season, with the SEC regular season championship on the line, Tennessee fell to Auburn 84-80 on the road in the regular season finale. Three games later in the SEC Tournament Championship Game, the Tigers blew out the Vols 84-64 to claim the SEC Tournament title.
“They were a Final Four team last year,” Barnes said when asked why the Tigers have been able to get the better of his team recently. “They still have good players. There is no doubt they still do.”
Though Auburn (22-4, 9-4 SEC) still has good players, it may be without a key one against the Vols on Saturday. Freshman forward Isaac Okoro hasn’t played in the Tigers’ previous two games due to a hamstring injury. As a result of being without their star freshman, Auburn has lost two straight games to teams under .500 after having won 12 straight.
Okoro is averaging 13.1 points and 4.8 rebounds this season, which ranked second on the team prior to his injury. As a result of his performance this season, Okoro has sky-rocketed up NBA Draft Boards. Some mock drafts have Okoro being drafted in the top five of the 2020 NBA Draft.
“We know Auburn is down a player, too, but welcome to that club,” Barnes said. “We’ve been there all year, too.
“This time of year, it’s college basketball. It’s the SEC. It’s everything this time of year, games are close. Everything comes down to a possession game in most situations.”
With Okoro’s injury, an even larger emphasis has been placed on the senior backcourt duo of Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick. Doughty leads Auburn in scoring (16.0 points) and steals (1.1 spg) and ranks second in assists (2.6 apg). McCormick, on the other hand, leads the team in assists (4.5 apg) and is second in scoring (12.2 ppg) and steals (1.0 spg).
Senior Austin Wiley leads Auburn in the post. The center is averaging 10.5 points per game and a team-high 9.4 rebounds per game. Wiley ranks second in the conference in rebounds.
Despite still having good players, Auburn is different this season following its Final Four run. Especially with Okoro sidelined due to injury.
“They are not making normally as many threes as they made,” Barnes said. “They are relying more on an inside game and mid-range game. They are capable like any team of having big shooting nights. They are more of an inside-out team than they were a year ago. They are a tough team to defend.”
The biggest difference between this year’s Tigers squad and last year’s is the ability to shoot from the perimeter, as Barnes pointed out. A year after leading the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage at 37.7 percent, Auburn ranks 12th in the conference at 30 percent. The departures of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown have played a large role in the drop-off in the ability to shoot from three.
Even without Harper and Brown, the Tigers are still scoring plenty of points, though. At 79.0 points per game, Auburn is averaging the third-most points per game in the SEC. Instead of the majority of points coming from the three-point line, this year’s point production is coming when the Tigers attack the basket more often.
“They do a very good job of getting into the gaps and trying to get you into rotations,” Barnes said. “They are really putting the ball in Austin’s (Wiley) hands a lot. They are looking for ways to get him involved. I am sure they will do that a lot Saturday.”
Tennessee’s (15-11, 7-6 SEC) trip to No. 13 Auburn on Saturday is the first of a brutal five-game stretch to end the season. The Vols will play the Tigers twice, as Pearl will come to Knoxville for the season finale on March 7th. In between, Tennessee will make trips to Arkansas and No. 11 Kentucky while also hosting Florida. Three of those four teams are currently projected as the top 4 seeds in the SEC Tournament.
“I can’t imagine anybody has a tougher finish than we do coming down the stretch,” Barnes said. “This time of the year, wins are hard to get. I don’t care who you’re playing because everybody has gotten better.”
The Vols and Tigers are scheduled to tip-off from Auburn Arena at 12 p.m. ET on CBS.