It’s time for Tennessee’s gauntlet run to end the regular season. Starting things off is a trip down to The Plains to take on a former head coach and his suddenly reeling squad.
The Vols (15-11, 7-6 SEC) will tip-off with the No. 13 Auburn Tigers (22-4, 9-4) at noon Eastern in Auburn Arena on Saturday on CBS. Auburn has lost their last two games — both on the road — and come into Saturday’s match-up trying to keep themselves in play for a top four seed in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee, meanwhile, is coming off a sloppy home win over Vanderbilt and a road loss against South Carolina. The Vols have alternated wins and losses in their last five contests.
Auburn may be on a two-game losing streak and has struggled on offense in both games, but they return home for Saturday’s contest. The Tigers have been unstoppable in their home arena this season, going a perfect 14-0 in Auburn Arena.
The Tigers have had a few scares at home this season, beating Furman by three points in overtime, escaping an upset bid by Vanderbilt with a four-point win, holding off NC State for a six-point win, beating Iowa State by four at home, and needing overtime to beat both LSU and Alabama at home.
But those close contests have all ended in wins for the Tigers, and Auburn will look to keep their perfect home record going on Saturday.
Tennessee, meanwhile, is 3-5 on the road this season, with road victories against Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Alabama. The Vols have also lost to Cincinnati, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi State, and South Carolina on the road.
Here’s a look at the most important things to know and keep an eye on for Saturday’s pivotal contest between Tennessee and Auburn.
Will Okoro Sit or Will He Go?
Over Auburn’s last two games, they’ve been without star freshman forward Isaac Okoro. And barring some quick recovery between now and Saturday afternoon, the Tigers will likely be without Okoro when they host Tennessee.
The 6-foot-6 freshman suffered a hamstring injury a little over a week ago, and he’s missed two-straight games and will likely miss a third this Saturday. Okoro is averaging 13.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.0 blocks a game in 32 minutes a contest. He’s shot 51.4 percent overall, including 60.2 percent from inside the three-point arc. He’s also made 27.1 percent of his threes.
Without Okoro, Auburn’s offense has suffered dramaticaly.
The Tigers have lost both games they’ve played without Okoro, and their offense has struggled mightily. Auburn is averaging 79.0 points per game on the season, but they’ve averaged just 64 points in their two games without Okoro, and they’ve shot an abysmal 11.6 percent from three in those two games combined. Overall, AU has made just 37.5 percent of their field goals and have averaged 12 turnovers.
Without Okoro, Auburn is led by a group of five seniors. Samir Doughty (16.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG), J’Von McCormick (12.2 PPG, 4.5 APG), Austin Wiley (10.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG), Daniel Purifoy (8.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG), and Anfernee McLemore (7.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG) play the vast majority of Auburn’s minutes.
A Very Different Auburn Offense
Last season, Auburn was one of the most potent three-point shooting teams in the country, and their offense thrived off those shots from distance. No other team in Division I basketball attempted more threes than the Tigers last season, and as a team, that Final Four squad made 37.7 percent of their three-pointers.
This season, it’s been a completely different offense for Auburn.
The Tigers still like to move up and down the court at a quicker pace, but they aren’t shooting a lot of transition threes. Instead, Auburn is aggressively attacking the basket, and they’ve had a great deal of success doing so.
Auburn is only shooting 30 percent from three this season, which is 324th in Division I. Their 26.9 percent clip from three in SEC play is the worst in the conference. But the Tigers are still shooting a ton of threes, jacking up 694 so far on the year, which is the 39th-most in the country.
So how is Auburn still getting a lot of points per game? By working inside-out and driving to the bucket.
Auburn is making 53.5 percent of their two-point field goals, which ranks 53rd in the country. They’ve also drawn the 11th-most fouls in all of Division I, and Auburn’s 709 free throw attempts on the season are the second-most in the country. Center Austin Wiley has been especially effective, shooting 57.3 percent from the field and getting to the free throw line nearly six times a game.
Though Tennessee has won 11 of the last 15 games they’ve played against Auburn in men’s basketball, former Vol head coach Bruce Pearl has owned his old school as of late.
Pearl has won three-straight games against Tennessee as head coach of the Tigers, winning on the road, at home, and in the SEC Tournament. Auburn handed UT a 94-84 defeat in Knoxville in January of 2018, beat the Vols 84-80 in Auburn to end the regular season and take away Tennessee’s chances of an SEC regular season title last year, and then demolished the Vols 84-64 in the SEC Tournament Finals just over a week later.
The former Tennessee head coach got off to a rough start against his former employer, losing his first contest against the Vols 71-63 in Knoxville as Auburn’s head coach. Pearl lost four of his first five games against Tennessee as the Tigers’ head coach.
But over the last couple seasons, Pearl has gotten his revenge. And with the Tigers a perfect 14-0 at home so far this season, he’ll look to push that win streak to four.
Offensive Rebounding and Free Throws
As mentioned earlier, Auburn really likes to get to the free throw line. Another area they excel in? Offensive rebounding.
Both of those have been issues for the Vols this season.
The Tigers have attempted the most free throws in SEC play of any conference team, getting to the line 383 times in 13 league games. Their 264 made free throws are also the most in league play.
The only problem? Auburn isn’t exactly efficient from the charity stripe, but they get a lot of points from there just by sheer volume.
Auburn has made just 68.9 percent of their free throws in SEC play, which ranks 13th out of 14 teams. Their overall 67.3 team free throw percentage ranks 283rd in all of Division I.
But when it comes to grabbing offensive rebounds and getting second-chance opportunities, nobody in the SEC is better than Auburn. In fact, only 10 teams in all of college basketball are better than the Tigers at doing so.
On the season, Auburn has grabbed 363 offensive boards, the 11th-most in Division I. They’re averaging 13.96 offensive rebounds a game, and their 14.5 offensive boards a game in SEC play is the best in the conference.
Tennessee, on the other hand, has struggled to stop teams from getting offensive rebounds. The Vols have given up the third-most offensive boards in SEC play this season, allowing 156 in 13 conference games.
Auburn has gotten 10 or more offensive rebounds in all but four games they’ve played this season. Tennessee has allowed at least seven offensive boards in all but eight games this year. The Vols are 2-4 when allowing 10 or more offensive rebounds to their opponent.
Why the Decline?
The Tigers appeared to be one of the top teams in college basketball for the first half of the season, roaring out to a 15-0 start to the year. Auburn’s offense was effective, but it was their defense that was taking them to another level.
Auburn was holding opponents to 66.3 points a game, and their opponents were shooting only 40.2 percent from the field in their first 15 games of the year.
But since mid-January, Auburn’s offense has slipped a little, and their defense has taken a huge step back, leading to inconsistent play.
The Tigers have gone 7-4 in their last 11 games after starting 15-0, and their defensive play has been a huge reason why. Auburn has given up 77.3 points a game over their last 11 contests, and teams are shooting 43.1 percent against them and 34.9 percent from three.
Over their last four games, Auburn is giving up an average of 82.8 points a game. In the Tigers’ first 15 games of the year, they didn’t allow a single opponent to score 80 points. The closest any team got was Vanderbilt, who put up 79 in an 83-79 loss to the Tigers on January 8th. But over Auburn’s last 11 games, they’ve given up 80 or more points in five games — though three of those have notably come in overtime contests.