What to Know: Tennessee vs. No. 17 Auburn

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    The last time Tennessee and Auburn faced-off, the Vols blew a 17-point second half lead and fell on the road to the Tigers. But this time, UT will be at home, and Auburn will be taking on the Vols on Senior Day.

    Tennessee (17-13, 9-8 SEC) will look to close out the regular season with another upset as No. 17 Auburn (24-6, 11-6) comes to Knoxville for the regular season finale. The Vols have reeled off two-straight improbable wins heading into the match-up, beating Florida 63-58 last Saturday and topping No. 6 Kentucky 81-73 in Rupp Arena on Tuesday. Auburn, meanwhile, has suffered two-straight losses, falling to then-No. 8 Kentucky in Rupp and losing to Texas A&M at home.

    Auburn has already clinched a double-bye in the upcoming SEC Tournament, and they’re guaranteed to finish as one of the top four seeds. The Vols’ seeding is still up in the air, and a victory over the Tigers could push them to the seven-seed if Texas A&M loses to Arkansas on Saturday. If the Vols fall to the Tigers, UT will be locked in to the eight-seed.

    All-time, Tennessee is 78-42 against Auburn, and the Vols have won 11 of the last 16 contests between the two programs. But the Tigers have won four-straight games against UT, including their comeback win earlier this season.

    Auburn is led by a senior-heavy lineup of Samir Doughty (16.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG), J’Von McCormick (11.6 PPG, 4.5 APG), Austin Wiley (10.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG), Danjel Purifoy (8.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG), and Anfernee McLemore (6.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG). Freshman guard Isaac Okoro is the only non-senior who sees significant playing time, starting all 27 games he’s played this season.

    Here are the most important things to know and keep an eye on during Saturday’s Tennessee vs. Auburn game at noon Eastern on ESPN2.

    James is the Key

    When freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James is playing up to his potential, Tennessee is a much different team.

    Over the Vols’ last two games, James has played some of his best ball of his young UT career. And it’s no coincidence that Tennessee has won both of those games — a home contest against Florida and a road match-up against No. 6 Kentucky. James is averaging 14 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals in his last two games after averaging a paltry 3.3 points in a six-game stretch from January 25th through February 26th. James missed a handful of games in that stretch due to injury, and he was rusty when he returned to action.

    Now, James appears to be feeling the best he’s felt all season, and he’s playing like it, too.

    Throughout the season, Tennessee has been at their best as a team when James has been aggressive on offense and contributing in a variety of ways. When James scores 10 or more points in a game this season, the Vols are 7-3. When James totals nine or fewer points, UT is just 8-8 on the year. When James dishes out five or more assists in a game, Tennessee is 7-2 this year. The Vols are only 8-9 when James has four or fewer assists. When the freshman grabs six or more rebounds, UT is 10-3, and they’re just 5-9 when he doesn’t.

    The Return of Okoro

    The last time Tennessee and Auburn played, the Tigers were without one of their best players. Now, he’s back in the lineup, and he’s a difference-maker for Auburn on both sides of the ball.

    Isaac Okoro missed a few games this season after suffering a minor injury in Auburn’s win against Alabama on February 12th. Since his return, the Tigers have struggled to win, but Okoro hasn’t been the issue.

    The freshman is averaging 11.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in his three games back, shooting 50 percent overall and 37.5 percent from three. On the season, Okoro is the Tigers’ second-leading scorer, averaging 12.9 points in 27 contests.

    Auburn has gone 1-2 without Okoro in the lineup this season. They’re 23-4 with him on the court as an active participant.

    Not Road Warriors 

    Wednesday night’s loss to Texas A&M marked the first time all season that Auburn had lost at home. The Tigers have otherwise been dominant in their home arena, but the same cannot be said for their efforts on the road.

    The Tigers are just 4-5 in true road games this season, and they’ve lost some head-scratchers away from home. Auburn lost on the road to Kentucky, which isn’t a shock, but they’ve also fallen on the road to Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Auburn has also struggled in victories on the road against Ole Miss (83-82 in double-overtime), against Arkansas (79-76 in overtime) and against South Alabama early in the year (a 70-69 win).

    On the road this season, Auburn is averaging just 68.5 points, well below their season average of 77.8 points a game.

    Tennessee, meanwhile, has been good at home for most of the season. While not as dominant at home as last year, the Vols have proven to be tough to beat at Thompson-Boling Arena, going 11-5 at home while holding opponents to an average of just 58.1 points a game inside TBA this season. The Vols have held opponents to under 63 points in 13 of their 16 home games this season, and six of those 13 instances have been against SEC teams.

    All-time, the Vols are a whopping 48-8 against Auburn when playing them in Knoxville.

    Pearl’s Dominance

    When Bruce Pearl first took over at Auburn, Tennessee beat him and his Tigers regularly. Now, the former Vol head coach has turned the tables.

    The Vols beat Pearl’s Auburn squads in four of the first five meetings between the two schools. Tennessee handed Pearl a 71-63 loss in his first match-up against his former school, and he responded with an 83-77 win in Auburn the next season. But then UT reeled off three-straight wins over the Tigers, including a 97-59 beat down in the SEC Tournament in 2016.

    Since the Vols’ 87-77 win over Auburn on January 31, 2017, Pearl has exacted his revenge.

    Auburn and Pearl have now won four-straight games against Tennessee, and often those games have been heartbreakers to Vol fans. Last season, the Tigers beat Tennessee in the season finale to prevent the Vols from getting a share of the SEC regular season title, then Auburn won by 20 against UT in the SEC Tournament Finals just a week later.

    This season, Tennessee’s collapse on The Plains was another gut-wrenching way to lose to Pearl, and the Vols’ former head coach is now 5-4 against his old team.

    Senior Day Success

    Saturday will mark the final time Jordan Bowden suits up as a Vol in Thompson-Boling Arena. Senior guard Lamonte Turner will also be honored on Senior Day, though his final year as a Vol was unfortunately cut short after he elected to have shoulder surgery in December.

    Tennessee will look to send Bowden out with a victory in his final game in TBA, and the Vols have had success on Senior Day in Rick Barnes’ tenure as head coach. The Vols are 3-1 on Senior Day under Barnes, winning three-straight final home games after losing 83-60 to Ole Miss on Senior Day in 2016.

    Dating back to 2012, Tennessee is 6-2 on Senior Day.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.