No. 25 Tennessee is back in action on Saturday when it travels to the Plains for a 12 p.m. ET tip with Auburn on ESPN.
The Vols (16-6, 9-6 SEC) enter the contest coming off of a 70-58 win over Vanderbilt on Wednesday night in Nashville. Two 20-point scoring outputs from junior guard Victor Bailey Jr. and freshman guard Jaden Springer, along with a double-double from senior forward Yves Pons led Tennessee to its eighth consecutive win over the Commodores.
Auburn (11-13, 5-10 SEC) is coming off of a 74-57 loss to Florida and have now lost three games in a row, and six out of its last seven games. Star freshman point guard Sharife Cooper did not play against the Gators due to an ankle injury and is not expected to play against the Vols. Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said on Friday that Cooper was ‘doubtful.’
Tennessee leads the all-time series with Auburn, 78-43, dating back to 1927. The Vols are 23-29 against the Tigers, however, when the game is played in Auburn. They have lost their last two games in Auburn Arena.
A win for the Vols would snap Auburn’s five-game win streak in this series and ensure that they finish the regular season with a winning record in true road games
Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributors Trey Wallace and Blake Von Hagen, make their predictions for Saturday’s game between the Vols and Tigers on the Plains:
Auburn is a completely different team without Sharife Cooper and the Vols will take advantage of him not being able to play due to an ankle injury. The Tigers are simply a bad team when Cooper doesn’t play, and though the Vols struggle to be consistent, their defense will carry them to a win to snap Auburn’s five-game winning streak.
With Cooper in SEC games this season, Auburn is 5-6 and averaging 84 points per game. Without Cooper, Pearl’s bunch is winless and averaging 67.3 points. Tennessee owns the league’s second-best scoring defense as it only allows 66.5 points per game.
Pick: Tennessee, 71-62
MVP: Tennessee junior guard Victor Bailey Jr.
Every time Bailey shoots right now, it feels like the basketball is going in the basket. Bailey has found his stroke after struggling for a couple of weeks and an Auburn team that looks checked out won’t be the team that slows him down.
Tennessee is coming off a subpar performance against Vanderbilt, as even though they recorded the win, the Vols still lacked an inside game. Victor Bailey Jr. seems to be one of the Vols most consistent players over the last few games, coming off a 21 point performance in Nashville. The problem for the Vols is how will they offset Auburn if they get hot from behind the perimeter. Tennessee needs a big game in the paint, meaning Yves Pons and John Fulkerson need to BOTH show up.
As John Fulkerson continues to be inserted in the starting lineup, after only scoring 4 points off 2-2 shooting against the Dores, the Vols must continue to feed him. Josiah-Jordan James returned to the court on Wednesday night and they will need him against the Tigers on Saturday, especially with his mid-range game. This is a very big noon tip-off for the Vols, as Auburn looks to be without Sharife Cooper for the 2nd consecutive game. If Tennessee wants to win on the Plains, they must create chaos around the basket and not settle for three pointers.
Pick: Tennessee, 74-72
MVP: Tennessee guard Keon Johnson
I expect Keon Johnson to attack the rim and attract defenders. This is the type of game that Johnson can free up space and also hit his shots around the basket.
Tennessee is running out of time to find some consistency on the offensive end of the court. Outside of a reliable big man, the Vols have all of the pieces they need to run a smooth ship. They are capable of playing an up-tempo style similar to what Alabama runs, which might need to happen if they want to avoid ice-cold half-court sets for the majority of games. Auburn is expected to be without superstar Sharife Cooper on Saturday and the Tigers are playing their worst basketball of the season.
They are not eligible for the postseason, so I can’t envision Bruce Pearl throwing a potential lottery pick out on the court with a bum ankle. Tennessee will have better guard play and more experience. The Vols should also be more motivated, as their season is going to continue in March. They remain one of the best defensive teams in the conference, while Auburn has struggled at times defensively, so this could be an opportunity for Tennessee to find an offensive rhythm. The Vols will snap a five-game losing skid in the series on Saturday afternoon.
Pick: Tennessee, 72-59
MVP: Tennessee freshman guard Jaden Springer
Springer has become the most consistent player on the roster and has the ability to create his own shot. He made clutch plays down the stretch against Vanderbilt, which should give him a lot of confidence heading into this one.