AUBURN, Ala. — True freshmen Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper fought furiously to get Auburn its first SEC win, but the Tigers came up just short in their comeback on Saturday night at home against Ole Miss.
Instead, Bruce Pearl’s team will travel for back-to-back road games this week with hopes of earning its first conference win.
Though one game looks like easier on paper, no SEC wins will be handed over. The Missouri Tigers have played a tough schedule, and John Calipari’s Kentucky team is two losses from being undefeated.
In the end, the trips this week are about more than wins and losses. Auburn’s inexperienced team needs to respond with maturity and fix key defensive errors or its impressive start to the season will start to diminish.
Tuesday: at Missouri
Where: Mizzou Arena, Columbia, Mo.
Time/TV: 7 p.m. ET/SEC Network
Missouri’s record: 5-9, 0-2 SEC
Missouri also is sitting at the bottom of the SEC and in desperate need of a conference victory. The Tigers have lost nine games, a few of which, quite frankly, shouldn’t have been close (they fell to North Carolina Central and Eastern Illinois earlier this season at home).
Still, Mizzou has played a difficult schedule. First, the Tigers opened the season with an overtime loss to then-No. 11 Xavier. Then, in early December, Missouri suffered a 19-point loss to then-No. 20 Arizona.
LSU and Georgia bested the Tigers in their first two league games. Unlike Auburn, however, Missouri traveled to Athens. Georgia’s J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten combined for 33 points, which made all the difference in Mizzou’s 71-66 loss.
Missouri will try to end its six-game losing streak at home.
Tigers to watch
Mizzou doesn’t have one person dropping in 20 points every night, but it has multiple scoring threats including a few key bench contributors.
Most of Missouri’s scoring comes from inside. Forwards Jordan Barnett (11 points per game) and Kevin Puryear (11.9 ppg) will test Auburn freshman Austin Wiley down low, but they’ll have help from senior guard Russell Woods (7.7 points). Barnett has performed at a higher level through Mizzou’s last two games and has been all over the boards, too (team-high 7.6 rebounds).
Bench play has made a difference for Auburn this season, and that’s also the case with Missouri. Guards Terrence Phillips and Frankie Hughes have exploded for 20-plus point games this season and are averaging double-digit scoring. Phillips’ 4.3 assists per game and Hughes’ 6-foot-4 frame potentially could present big problems for Pearl’s team.
Saturday: at Kentucky
Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Time/TV: 4 p.m. ET/ESPN
Kentucky’s record: 13-2, 3-0 SEC
It’s no secret that Kentucky is one of the best teams in the country. The Wildcats have earned quality wins against top 15 teams including Michigan State and North Carolina. Their only losses have come against UCLA and in-state rival Louisville.
Through their first three conference games, the Wildcats have dominated Ole Miss at home, steamrolled Texas A&M and physically beat up on Arkansas. The Tigers are catching the Wildcats at a tough time. The Razorbacks came in and tried to bully Kentucky’s young stars. That led to a heated response and a 26-point loss.
Wildcats to watch
Kentucky is so talented that any player has the potential to seriously hurt Auburn. For the most part, Calipari plays his starting five and maybe a couple of subs. Each one has gained valuable experience and had big games this season.
If you aren’t familiar with true freshman Malik Monk, you’re probably familiar with his highlights from this season. Monk posted 47 points against North Carolina and then had two consecutive high-scoring games to open SEC play (34 points against Ole Miss and 26 against the Aggies). Monk also has the potential to pick up a string of steals. If the young offensive star gets in the heads of Auburn’s young guards, who’ve struggled defensively lately, it could be a long night in Rupp Arena.
De’Aaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe, Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Derek Willis will join Monk on the floor for most of the game. Though Auburn’s quick tempo has the potential to be a problem for a team that really only plays five or six, tempo and high-pressure situations haven’t been too much of an issue for Kentucky.