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Tennessee at Auburn Preview

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The Vols are back in the NCAA Tournament conversation just in time to face our old friend.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

In a run of really good news for Tennessee Basketball, add tonight to the list. This is the fifth meeting between the Vols and Bruce Pearl at Auburn, but the first when you could feel confident about the health of the Tennessee program without him. Donnie Tyndall’s Vols beat him in Knoxville two years ago, then Rick Barnes went 2-1 against him last year including a 26-point win in Knoxville and a 38-point win in the SEC Tournament.

When Auburn loses, they lose big. This year the Tigers have fallen to Purdue by 25, Georgia by 12, Vanderbilt by 19, Kentucky by 20, and South Carolina by 29. But they’re also 3-0 against the Big 12, including Saturday’s win at TCU. In their last home game they beat Alabama by 20. And they didn’t stub many toes in the non-conference.

The Tigers have finished above .500 just twice in the last 13 years, making the NIT in 2009 for their only postseason appearance in that span. So while Tennessee fans may look at Pearl’s 40-47 to-date mark at Auburn with raised eyebrows, having the Tigers at 14-7 (3-5) right now is definitive progress. And since nobody works the RPI like Bruce Pearl, the Tigers are far from dead in the NCAA Tournament picture, currently 60th in that metric (and 77th in KenPom).

The big story with Auburn is the arrival of 6’10” freshman Austin Wiley, eligible since mid-December. After getting his feet wet in a month of playing 10-20 minutes, Wiley has averaged 22.5 minutes, 16 points and 8.25 rebounds in the last four games, including 25 points in 21 minutes in the win at TCU. You hack this dude: he shoots 50.7% from the line.

6’5” freshman guard Mustapha Heron leads the Tigers with 15.4 points and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 43.1% from the arc. Fellow freshman Jared Harper, a 5’10” guard, scores 12.4 a night. And, you guessed it, 6’7” freshman Danjel Purifoy gets 11.8 per game, though he’s been in a slump after missing three games earlier this month, scoring just eight points in the three games since his return.

Pearl has had three different guys as his top three scorers in each of his first three seasons. This is what happens when you try to mix-and-match a quick rebuild, and the results haven’t been there until this year, when the Tigers could finally start building around their own freshmen. The future looks bright and the present looks better than anything Auburn has seen this decade, but they are still prone to the kind of mood swings that make what Rick Barnes and the Baby Vols have done even more impressive.

The Tigers have actually used a good bit of Tennessee’s gameplan to get to this point. Auburn is 15th nationally in free throw rate; the Vols are 39th. The Tigers are a volume offensive rebounding team, second in league play in the raw totals. But the Vols are 39th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.

Tennessee has crafted a nice offensive identity for itself in SEC play:

  • Robert Hubbs: 14.8 points, 5.4 rebounds
  • Grant Williams: 11.9 points, 5.5 rebounds
  • Admiral Schofield: 10.4 points, 5.3 rebounds

Schofield has been particularly strong in these first eight SEC games, doing his work in just 19.8 minutes a night. The Vols are also quietly getting strong play from Lamonte Turner in this stretch: 13 points per game in this 4-1 run, 10-of-22 from the arc, and perhaps most importantly 23 assists to seven turnovers in those five games. His play has helped Tennessee weather Jordan Bone’s post-Vanderbilt hangover, shooting just 7-of-33 since dropping 23 in Nashville.

See if you can spot the trend in Auburn’s losses! In the Tigers’ last four L’s they’ve given up 52-of-105 (49.5%!) from the arc. Earlier this year Purdue hit 17-of-26 on them. So goes a young team trying to learn how to play defense sometimes.

The Vols are more proven and more polished, and have been successful in hostile environments already this year. Auburn’s bad can be pretty bad, but their good is fueled by legitimate talent and tends to show up at home far more often. And we all know Bruce and big games. This one is, for both teams looking to continue a successful season. We’ll find out if we can feel even more confident about Rick Barnes and the Vols tonight.

Night shift went pretty well last Tuesday. Let’s do that again. 9:00 PM, SEC Network. Go Vols.