Auburn vs. Tennessee basketball preview: Tigers in search of first SEC win

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Two decent efforts from the Tigers so far in SEC play, but still no W. January offers no gimme wins as Auburn returns to the road.

The Auburn Tigers (8-5, 0-2 SEC) travel to Knoxville, Tenn., in their continued January gauntlet to face the Tennessee Volunteers (10-5, 1-1). After a four-game win streak that included two victories against the ACC (Clemson and Boston College), the Tigers have dropped their first two games in league play. The Tigers have lost in dramatic fashion, falling by a combined five points, and it could be argued that both of those games ended in a missed/blown call by the [begin sarcasm font] elite SEC referees [end sarcasm font]. Tennessee was expected to make a little noise in the SEC -- picked to finish third in the preseason -- but came up short at home against a pretty average Texas A&M team on Saturday, 57-56.

Kenpom.com has Tennessee in at No. 23 in the nation. After posting impressive wins against Xavier (64-49) and Wake Forest (82-63) in the Battle 4 Atlantis, Tennessee struggled and lost to Wichita State (70-61) and NC State (65-58). The Volunteers were able to reset with a win against Morehead State and took down Virginia (87-52). They opened conference play with a win against LSU (68-50) in Baton Rouge.

Only Mississippi State ranks lower than Auburn among SEC teams on Kenpom (200th, 158th, respectively). Auburn is expected to again fall short in Knoxville -- 78-62 -- with a 6 percent chance at a win. Tennessee leads the series, 72-37, which started in 1927. The Vols have the advantage at home, 43-7, and won five straight in the series. A win against the Tigers would mark Cuonzo Martin's 50th as head coach in Knoxville.

Team Numbers at a Glance

Auburn Tennessee
Scoring Average 75.1 74.7
Scoring Defense 70.3 61.6
Scoring Margin +4.8 +13.1
Field Goal % .458 .456
Field Goal % Defense .416 .414
3-Point % .313 .363
3-Point % Defense .388 .350
Free Throw % .682 .697
Rebounding Average 37.4 39.2
Rebounding Defense 34.5 30.5
Turnover Average 12.3 10.1
Turnover Margin +0.3 +1.7

Personnel

As usual, the expected starters for Auburn are familiar faces: guards Tahj Shamsid-Deen (5'10, 163 pounds), Chris Denson (6'2, 181) and K.T. Harrell (6'4, 216), forward Allen Payne (6'6, 225), who is recovering from a hamstring injury, and center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (7'0, 226). Off the bench, head coach Tony Barbee will look to point guard Malcolm Canada (6'3, 224), center Matthew Atewe (6'9, 250) and forward Dion Wade (6'5, 170). With the indefinite suspension of Chris Griffin, Alex Thompson (6'8, 204) stepped in and stepped up big for the Tigers against Missouri, scoring eight points and hitting two three-pointers. He was rewarded with a scholarship earlier this week. Auburn also welcomed back Jordon Granger (6'8, 200), who had previously been out on a personal leave of absence, against the other Tigers.

Harrell and Denson lead the SEC in scoring (19.3 and 19.1 points per game, respectively) and together, are responsible for more than half of Auburn's points this season. Harrell has scored 251 points through the first 13 games, a feat not seen since Marquis Daniels scored 259 in 2002-03.

Probable starters for the Volunteers include guards Antonio Barton (6'2, 178), Jordan McRae (6'6, 185) and Josh Richardson (6'6, 190), and forwards Jeronne Maymon (6'8, 260) and Jarnell Stokes (6'8, 260). Martin will rotate in Derek Reese (6'8, 215), Robert Hubbs (6'6, 195), Armani Moore (6'5, 215) and Darius Thompson (6'5, 181).

The Volunteers lead the league in defensive rebounds at 30.5 per game and are second in rebounding margin (+8.7). The two forwards, Stokes and Maymon, are second and fourth among SEC players in rebounding (9.3 rpg, 8.4 rpg, respectively) and are the second-highest rebounding duo after Kentucky's Julius Randle (10.9 rpg) and Willie Cauley-Stein (7.7 rpg). Auburn came away with 19 offensive rebounds against Ole Miss, but a measly nine against Mizzou shows the Tigers clearly have work to do in Knoxville.

McRae leads the Vols in scoring (18.3 ppg), assists (43) and blocks (17), and is second in steals (13). Tennessee's bigs come through for them on the offensive side of the ball, as well: Stokes averages 13.4 ppg, 4.1 O-rpg; Maymon comes in with 10.8 ppg, 3.7 O-rpg. The most important player off the bench is backup point guard Thompson, who is second in assists with 41 and first in steals with 18. He has played in every game and is averaging 17.5 mins per.

Thoughts

I won't go as far to say that Tennessee is a Jekyll/Hyde team, but one has to wonder what Wednesday brings. Will it be the Tennessee team that poured it on against LSU, or will it be the Tennessee that seemed less than inspired against A&M? My bigger concern is that while Auburn can score (thank you, KT and company), will the Tigers be able to handle fundamentals: playing solid defense without fouling, limiting turnovers, for goodness sake making free throws (looking at you, Denson, and your 61.2 free throw percentage)? One has to think something will give, but it hasn't so far.

While it is nice to have a consistent scorer like KT, it would be even nicer to see Barbee develop his bigs to make a stronger statement in the paint. I checked the stats for the last two games, and for all my complaining about lack of an inside game, I noticed that Auburn manages to at least keep up in the paint. Ole Miss only outscored Auburn by two points in that category, 22-20, and Auburn broke even with Mizzou, 24-24.

Based on the Mizzou game alone, Auburn still hasn't figured out a way to be physical and not foul -- this is something that has been consistent of Barbee's teams even before the new rules changes brought on this season. Even worse, Auburn cannot consistently make free throws. How many times can you recall a Tiger making only 1-of-2 shots at the line? Auburn made 10-of-15 against Ole Miss and hit a woeful 14-of-26 against Mizzou. While a player may be unable to do much in terms of "correcting" free throw shooting mistakes by the time they arrive at college, a little more practice couldn't hurt.

This season so far continues to eat at me. The past two games were within reach. Will this be more of the same? I cannot say for sure. Chin up, eyes bright. War Damn Always.

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