Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers are coming to town again, looking to add a seventh straight win to their tally against Tennessee. Pearl has owned his old program as of late, despite Rick Barnes putting out some strong teams over the last few years.
Auburn has been a source of pain for Tennessee, scorching the Volunteers from the three-point line and finding a few blowout wins, most notably in the SEC Championship back in 2019. Of course it’s all that much more painful when Pearl — the beloved coach who re-energized Tennessee basketball — is the one on the opposing sideline.
Tennessee will be looking to exorcise some demons on Saturday afternoon, as Barnes tries to get back in the win column against Pearl.
“I think this is one one of the better Tennessee teams we’ve seen since 2019, which I think was the best team we had seen since I’ve been at Auburn,” Pearl said of Tennessee. “That 2019 team was one of my favorite teams, from a standpoint of having great respect for an opponent.”
As you know, that 2019 team featured Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone — the same team that spent several weeks as the No. 1 team in the AP poll.
Pearl thinks this team is just as good as that one, thanks to their work on the defensive end of the floor.
“This team here, I think, is equally as good,” Pearl said. “The difference in this year’s team is it’s actually better defensively. They turn you over, they steal the ball from you. They put a lot of pressure on you. They fly around. This is one of Rick’s better defensive teams. Try to make it pretty difficult for you to run your stuff, with steals and turnovers and force you to play a little faster. Hold the score down.”
For reference, Tennessee ranks third in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. They’ll take on Auburn’s 15th-ranked offense on Saturday afternoon, creating quite the matchup.
Defense has rarely been the question for Tennessee this season. Instead, it’s been the offense, which has finally found some consistency in recent weeks. Barnes was thrown a curveball in the middle of SEC play after big man Olivier Nkamhoua went down with an ankle injury. That has sort of created an opportunity for this staff to get creative with their rotation, forcing more action for Tennessee’s very successful three-point guard lineup.
That lineup has Pearl’s attention heading into Saturday.
“Vescovi, Chandler and Zeigler, as I talked about, that three-point guard lineup, man, that’s nothing like I think anybody in college basketball this year sees,” Pearl said. “Kind of reminds me when I would play Jared (Harper), J’Von (McCormick) and Samir (Doughty) together. That’s a tough group to stay in front of. And those guys are all so pesky defensively. I think that’s one of the reasons why they’ve turned people over.”
Auburn is 25-3 on the season, still tracking for a No. 1 seed. However, as of late, the Tigers have really struggled on the road. Auburn has dropped games to Florida and Arkansas, and barely escaped disaster at Georgia and at Missouri.
Tennessee, of course, has yet to lose at Thompson-Boling Arena this season. The Volunteers already hold top five wins over Kentucky and Arizona, and they’re looking to add Auburn to that tally.
“I would think playing Tennessee at Tennessee would be as difficult as winning a Final Four game,” Pearl said. “That’s what it would be very much equated to.
“Playing Tennessee on the road would be the biggest NET gainer, if you could get (the win), of any game we played all year long. We’ve got some great wins, but because of how tough they are at home, how well they shoot the ball at home, how they share the ball at home, we’re absolutely going to have to have our best afternoon of the year.”
Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. ET, with ESPN carrying the action.