Auburn basketball: Previewing the start of SEC play

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn kicks off conference play with a trip to Ole Miss, hosts Missouri and returns to the road for Tennessee.

Auburn basketball still has a couple of non-conference games on the schedule, but as the calender turns to a new year, SEC play draws closer.

Looking back over the slate Iowa State (ranked No. 14 in the AP poll on Dec. 23) has played somehow makes the 99-70 loss to the Cyclones less brutal. They are a good team with solid wins over Michigan and Iowa (No. 22). They currently rank second nationally in points per game (89.6) and are one of the nine remaining undefeated teams in the country. Illinois had a one-point victory over Missouri (No. 25) on Saturday, 65-64. I can't say I feel better about the 81-62 loss in Atlanta because Auburn plays Missouri in less than a month and, well, maybe because I find Fightin' Illini fans to be a lot like Dabo Swinney: a little too mouthy for my tastes. I digress. The wins against Clemson (66-64) and Boston College (77-67) were much needed before the Christmas break from a morale perspective and from a W-L perspective. Auburn hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Dec. 30 and Florida A&M on Jan. 4 before league play begins on Jan. 9.

Let's take a look at the January conference competition based on overall play through Dec. 22. Note that before we start, I do not believe in transitive victories -- if Clemson beat Arkansas and Auburn beat Clemson, then Auburn will beat Arkansas. No worries if you buy into that, it just doesn't do much for me. January is clearly offering no favors to Auburn but could galvanize the Tigers into a team that could handle the February slate.

At Ole Miss (8-3), Jan. 9, 6 p.m. CT

Notable Wins/Losses: losses to Kansas St, No. 12 Oregon (OT), Mercer. Yes, MERCER.

Conference play opens on the road against the Dynamic Pitbull Look Alike Duo of head coach Anthony Kennedy (old Pitbull) and student section bird flipper Marshall Henderson (baby Pitbull). Senior guard Henderson will be absent from this game as part of his three-conference game suspension. Henderson's numbers are holding steady from last year (18.7 ppg, 35.1 FG %, 37.6 3PT %), but it is worth noting that his teammate junior guard Jarvis Summers is hitting more than half of his treys (21 -of-40). Ole Miss is also without their big men Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, who more than made up for the lack of defense from Henderson. Junior forward Aaron Jones (6.7 rpg, 2.8 bpg), senior center Demarco Cox (6.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg), and freshman forward Sebastian Saiz (6.0 rpg, 1.0 bpg) lead the team in rebounds and blocks.

Thoughts: If this game were at home, I would easily give the nod to Auburn. Granted, Auburn's last two road trips were against significantly better competition (better meaning better than Auburn and Ole Miss), but I am still hesitant on this one. The again, I was completely wrong about Clemson so I hope to be completely wrong here, too. A good win would do wonders for the return home to face a tough opponent.

Missouri (10-1), Jan. 11, 1 p.m.

Notable Wins/Losses: win over UCLA, one-point loss to Illinois

Auburn returns home only to face one of the better teams in the SEC: Mizzou. Remember Earnest Ross? He left Auburn on his own and transferred to Missouri a couple of years ago, but it did "help" Tony Barbee to make room for a few of his own signees: forwards Willy Kouassi and Bernard Morena and guard Cedrick McAfee. Note that none of those three are currently on the roster. Ross, a senior guard, sat out a year and then came out strong for Mizzou last season. He has impressive numbers across the board thus far this season: 14.1 ppg, 42.6% from the field, 32.1% from three and 72.6% from the line. He does work on defense too, averaging 5.8 rpg (the bulk of which occur on defense) and compiling 18 steals and 17 blocks on the season. Together, with two other transfers, junior point guard Jordan Clarkson from Tulsa and junior guard Jabari Brown from Oregon, they lead Mizzou in scoring. On defense, Mizzou is led by freshman Johnathan Williams, averaging 8.1 rpg and totaling 17 blocks. Ross and Brown are solid on both ends of the court.

Thoughts: I had a conversation with a Mizzou alum recently and was intrigued that while he appreciates Frank Haith's success at Mizzou, he, at times, remains slightly enraged by him. He rattled off a list of games that were lost in the last minute because Mizzou took an early shot, missed, and gave the ball back to the opposing team, which, in turn, scored to win. I had never thought too much about Haith being "overly emotional" but assumed he just placed a lot of trust in his point guard from last year, Phil Pressey. Interesting how perspectives differ. Anyway, Mizzou has too many offensive weapons and too many defenders hungry for boards. They also boast a solid inside game. If Auburn stays competitive, a loss to Missouri won't be the worst thing that could happen this season. Regardless of the outcome, the key is to reset and prepare for a trip north.

At Tennessee (6-4), Jan. 15, 6 p.m. CT

Notable Wins/Losses: 1-1 with Xavier, losses to UTEP, No. 10 Wichita State, NC State

Only the third game of conference play and Auburn is back on the road. Tennessee was just five votes shy of a preseason ranking, but with a 6-4 record, the Volunteers are having a harder-than-expected run through the non-conference schedule. However, this follows the pattern established under Cuonzo Martin -- struggle early, finish strong. The leading scorers are senior guard Jordan McRae (19.7 ppg), junior center Jarnell Stokes (13.7 ppg) and senior forward Jeronne Maymon (10.6 ppg). Look for Stokes and Maymon to dominate in the post.

Thoughts: If Auburn played Tennessee tomorrow, I would feel good about saying it would be a good game. If KT Harrell and Chris Denson can continue to set the tone on offense, the key to this game will be which team can dominate in the paint. At this point, I would give the edge to the Volunteers.

We will take a look at the remainder of the January schedule -- Florida, Arkansas, and Alabama -- later this week.

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