AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s win over TCU in the Big 12/SEC Challenge was exactly what Bruce Pearl’s team needed heading into the coming week.
A solid effort from the freshmen Tigers put Auburn back on pace before its return to SEC play. There couldn’t have been a better time for Mustapha Heron’s hot start (15 first-half points) or Austin Wiley’s career night (25 points).
Perhaps the most important factor in the Tigers’ win over the Horned Frogs though, was their second-half defense, which for the most part has been lacking this season.
Losing momentum isn’t an option for Auburn this week (and the Tigers shouldn’t be lacking any motivation). First, Tennessee comes to visit, with the Vols’ recent upset over Kentucky still shining on their schedule. After that it’s a short trip to Tuscaloosa, where Auburn will try to fend off Alabama on the Tide’s home court.
Tuesday: vs. Tennessee
Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, Ala.
Time/TV: 9 p.m. ET, SEC Network
Vols’ record: 12-9, 4-4 SEC
Tennessee has gotten Bruce Pearl’s attention (and it’s not just because it’s his former program). The head coach has dubbed the Vols the hardest-working team in the conference, and he hasn’t been wrong.
Though the Vols are sitting at .500 in conference play (4-4), they’ve won four of their last five games. Most notably, Tennessee upset No. 4 Kentucky in Knoxville on Jan. 24, earning its first win over a ranked opponent so far this season.
Most recently, along with conquering John Calipari’s Wildcats, Rick Barnes’ team has defeated Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and in its last outing Kansas State, adding an SEC win in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Vols to watch
Youth is a common denominator for Auburn and Tennessee. Though senior Robert Hubbs III has played a key role for the Vols, especially in late games, his help comes mostly from underclassmen (Tennessee’s roster is composed of 8 freshmen and 5 sophomores).
Hubbs, a 6-foot-5 guard, plays the most minutes (31.6) and is the leading scorer (15.0 points per game). He’s efficient from the floor (52 percent) as long as he stays inside the 3-point line, which he usually does (he’s taken only 20 3-pointers this season). The Tigers also have to watch out for Hubbs on the boards, as he’s his team’s second-best rebounder.
Freshmen Grant Williams and Jordan Bowden have started the most games outside of Hubbs. Williams doesn’t bring a lot of size to Tennessee’s forwards (he’s only 6-foot-5), but he still leads his team on the glass (5.5 rebounds per game) and consistently pours in double-figures in points.
Bowden’s stats on the year aren’t too striking, but he does a little bit of everything and is one of the Vols’ best free throw shooters.
Saturday: at Alabama
Where: Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Time/TV: 8:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network
Tide’s record: 13-7, 6-2 SEC
Alabama sits near the top of the SEC standings despite falling to the Tigers during their Jan. 21 trip to the Plains.
Since that 20-point loss, the Crimson Tide took down Georgia in Athens and followed with a win over Mississippi State at home. Avery Johnson’s team didn’t compete against a Big 12 opponent in the challenge, but has won four of its last five games. Before facing off against Auburn, Alabama will trek to Fayetteville to play Arkansas on Wednesday.
Alabama’s record to this point in the season doesn’t matter much for this game. Anything can happen in this heated rivalry, and the Tide will be looking to avenge their 20-point loss in Auburn Arena.
Home-court advantage has been a huge factor in this series of late, and that likely won’t change on Saturday afternoon.
Tide to watch
Austin Wiley was the difference when these two teams faced off a couple of weeks ago. The freshman made life difficult for Alabama bigs Donta Hall and Braxton Key (the two played 37 minutes combined and totaled 6 personal fouls).
This time, the duo will have a better idea of what to expect against Wiley. It has all started to click for Wiley, who put up a career-high 25 points in Auburn’s win over TCU on Saturday. Unfortunately that means Alabama will have more film to watch and plenty of time to game plan.
Key was the better of the two against Auburn. He scored 18 points and got to the free throw line a good bit, too. It will be up to Key and junior guard Riley Norris (10 points, 2-for-6 3-point FG against Auburn) to rally their team against the Tigers.