Bruce Pearl is heading back to Knoxville, and this time, he's bringing the Tigers with him.
The Tennessee Vols (12-7, 4-3 SEC) will be looking to break a 2-game losing streak on Saturday, and with Pearl coming back to Knoxville for the first time as the coach of another team, it will be a prime setting for a win. Auburn (10-10, 2-5 SEC) will once again attempt to earn its first road win of the season, having ridden a recent losing streak of its own against Texas A&M (home), Alabama (Tuscaloosa), and Mississippi State (home). For Pearl, it will be an emotional return to a school that he (arguably) single-handedly made relevant in NCAA basketball again. For the Tigers, it's another stop in the middle of the season that could determine how March shapes up.
Both teams are riding losing streaks, yet both have established solid home records (the Vols at 8-2, the Tigers at 9-3). Since the Tigers are winless on the road this season, the advantage clearly goes to the Vols, yet in terms of talent, the two teams are not very far apart. In fact, Auburn does have the better shooter in KT Harrell, who despite a lackluster performance earlier this week against the Aggies, leads the Tigers with just over 17 points per game (17.1). Tennessee is led by senior guard Josh Richardson, who is averaging 15.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. He's scored in double digits in the Vols' last three games.
Auburn established Cinmeon Bowers a fan favorite before the season even began, but the big guy has struggled to put together a complete game recently, despite the fact that he's averaged just over 14 points per game in the last six. Defensively, the Tigers have not been able to answer their opponents in the paint—a weakness that was especially exposed against Texas A&M earlier this week at home. While Tennessee should not pose a more serious shooting threat than A&M, the Tigers will need to step up on defense in order to prevent easy drives to the basket.
This hostile road trip could potentially be a mid-season turnaround win for the Tigers. Sitting at .500 is one thing; to fall behind in the loss column at this point in the season is another. Pearl will need to corral his players to focus on fundamental basketball in the middle of a rowdy Vols home crowd.
The key for Auburn will be getting more players involved to help KT Harrell. Tahj Shamsid-Deen showed flashes of brilliance against the Aggies at home, but as he continues to nurse a nagging shoulder injury, players like Antoine Mason and Jordan Granger will need to step up and produce consistent shooting from behind the arc. The problem for the Tigers lately, however, has been finding a way to carry momentum late into the second half to finish out games.
It will be interesting to see if Pearl draws up some new schemes on offense to get the Tigers going early. The Vols crowd will be relentless, and the only way to match that ferocity will be to silence them early with consistent shooting, solid defense, and keeping cool under pressure—something there will be plenty of, and the main factor that Pearl has prepared for all week.
How to Watch, Listen, Stream
When: 11:00 am CDT
Watch: ESPN 2
Stream: WatchESPN / ESPN3
Listen: Auburn IMG Network