AUBURN, Ala. — Though Auburn students are still be on winter break, but Bruce Pearl’s team will experience their most important basketball exam yet when the Tigers take on Oklahoma (6-4) in the Hall of Fame Classic tonight (8:30 ET, CBS).
Through the first 10 games the Sooners have played a difficult non-conference schedule complete with matchups against Northern Iowa, Clemson, Wisconsin, Wichita State and most recently, an overtime thriller to Memphis.
For Auburn, who benefited from the addition of Austin Wiley in Sunday’s last-second win over Mercer, Oklahoma might be the toughest opponent yet.
“They’re very athletic, they’re very deep. They play really hard,” Pearl said. “They’re great in transition and they’ve got some really terrific players. This will be the biggest and the most athletic team that we’ll have played so far and one of the most athletic, deepest teams we’ll play this year.”
While the Sooners are no longer led by Wooden Award Winner Buddy Hield, but they are coached by Lon Kruger, who’s in his 31st season of coaching.
“He’s been incredibly successful every place he’s been,” Pearl said. “He’s a Hall of Fame coach. He represents our profession about as well as anyone does in this business. For me, it’s an honor and a privilege to coach against him.”
Another key Sooner is senior Jordan Woodard, one of two starters from last year’s Final Four team (OU would fall to a hot-shooting Villanova team in the title game).
The 6-foot, 187-pound guard is dropping in 17.6 points per game while simultaneously distributing the ball to other Oklahoma scoring threats including Christian James (12.6 ppg) and Khadeem Lattin (9.4 ppg).
“Jordan Woodard is a guy that you have to game plan for,” Pearl said. “And they’ve got really good personnel.”
The mid-week contest resembles a matchup of one of Auburn’s two losses so far this season — a 25-point defeated doled out by Purdue in the Cancun Challenge.
Like the Boilermakers, Kruger’s squad will be patient, but also attempt to control tempo with zone defense and offensive patience. They’ll also, as has been the case with most of Auburn’s opponents this season, have an edge in size, athleticism and experience.
“The Oklahoma game could be a track meet. It could be an unbelievable up and down affair because they want to run and they’re really good running,” Pearl said. “We’re not afraid to run, but they can run us out of the gym. They can run us right off the floor because that’s how good they are running. We’ll play fast but if we play too fast, that will play in Oklahoma’s hands.”
Auburn (8-2) is off to one of the best starts in recent history, but a win would push the Tigers to 9-2 for the first time since the 2007-2008 season.
It’s another chance to incorporate Wiley and for Pearl’s freshmen-led team to gain quality experience ahead of SEC play.
“It’s huge for us,”Connecticut, native Mustapha Heron said. “We would like to get both of these games but we need at least one of them. I think we’re improving definitely every day and I think we improved over the last two games. It’s going to be exciting going up there, and we’re going to be ready to compete.”
And while the game will asses Auburn’s toughness, it will also be an indication of how the Tigers, and the SEC as a whole, could fare if Auburn is playing in the postseason.
“It’s a litmus test again. Are we going to be a postseason tournament team or not,” Pearl said. “And I know it’s early in our development, but this is going to be a real challenge and a real test and a real opportunity. The second thing is going to be how do we fare for the league in the sense that our league continues to need some quality wins to help us when it comes to postseason and so we carry that banner and that torch as well. No, I don’t think you can overplay the opportunity here.”
Auburn basketball tonight
Projected starting 5
* Blocks per game