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#3 Auburn at #17 Tennessee Game Preview and Open Thread

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Auburn heads to Knoxville looking for 7 in a row against the Vols

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday February 26th, 2022

Auburn Tigers at Tennessee Volunteers

Thompson-Boling Arena: Knoxville, Tennessee

Time: 3:00PM CT

Network: ESPN, Auburn Radio Network

Maybe it’s just me but it seems like some of the national media around the country are starting to doubt this Auburn team. And for one of the few times all season long, Auburn comes into today’s game as the underdog, which has been good to Auburn over the years. Today is a great chance to make a statement to those naysayers.

Auburn’s in Knoxville today to take on a Tennessee team that the Tigers have matched up well against the last 4 seasons. Auburn (25-3, 13-2) has won 6 straight in the series including the last 2 trips to Knoxville. Tennessee (20-7, 11-4) was ranked in the Top 25 in four of those games. It’s the first time these two teams have faced off in the regular season (not including the SEC Tournament) where both teams were ranked since the 1999-2000 season.

It’s also a massive game in terms of the SEC standings as the Top 4 SEC teams will face off against each other. Kentucky, a game behind Auburn, is in Fayetteville to take on Arkansas today. The Razorbacks and Vols are 2 games behind Auburn in the standings so an Auburn win eliminates Tennessee from SEC Regular Season Title contention. An Auburn win and a Kentucky loss today would allow Auburn to clinch at least a share of the Regular Season Title in Knoxville today.

But getting a win today will be no easy task as Tennessee is 14-0 at home this season knocking off the likes of Arizona and Kentucky this season.

Auburn comes into tonight’s game off a 77-64 win over Ole Miss Wednesday night. It was a game where Auburn had contributions from multiple guys other than Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler who seemingly carried the load in the Tigers previous 2 games against Vanderbilt and Florida. Kessler was 2 blocks away from another triple-double and now has the Auburn single season record for blocks by a Tiger. The biggest takeaway from that game was the performance on the offensive end by Zep Jasper.

To my fault, I don’t I have given Zep a lot of credit this year in these previews but he’s been an extremely important part of this year’s team. Wednesday night, Jasper had a season-high 15 points and knocked down 4 3s in the win. The Honey Badger, more known for his effort on the defensive end, showed Wednesday night he can be an offensive weapon as well and showed glimpses of that during his time at Charleston. If Auburn could get 8-9 a game from Zep, I think he could be quite the X-factor for the Tigers as March is right around the corner.

Wendell Green had a nice bounce back performance on Wednesday as well knocking down a trio of 3s in the first half on his way to a 14 point performance. Green’s 3 on that first possession was huge for him as it seems like that shot was a confidence boost for him. He had only made 3 3-pointers in Auburn’s previous 4 games. But it was his passing that wowed the Auburn fans the most on this night.

Jabari Smith had a “quiet” 15 point, 9 rebound and 5 assist game on Wednesday night. After averaging 29.5 PPG against Vanderbilt and Florida and a big game on the horizon, I think you’ll see Jabari look to score more this afternoon.

Get to Know Tennessee

Since getting blown out in Lexington on January 15th, the Vols have won 9 of their last 10 SEC games with their only setback coming last Saturday in a 58-48 loss to Arkansas in Fayetteville. That seems to have been a season changer for Tennessee as the Vols have, for the most part, been much better on the offensive end, especially from 3.

On the season, Tennessee is averaging 73.7 PPG and allowing just 62.8 PPG as the Vols have continued to be solid on the defensive end. As a team, Tennessee is shooting 34.6% from 3, which is 2nd best in the SEC, only behind Kentucky.

Tennessee’s guard play has been the strength of this team this season and the matchups between Wendell Green and Zep Jasper will be fascinating to watch today.

Junior guard Santiago Vescovi (#25) is averaging 13.6 PPG and 4.6 RPG this season. He is an excellent 3-point shooter making 39.3% of his 3-point attempts this season and has had some of his best games this season against the likes of Kentucky and Arizona. Vescovi is 3rd in the SEC this season in 3PM knocking down 79 3s so far this season. He is also shooting 73.9% from the free throw line.

Freshmen point guard Kennedy Chandler (#1) could be a 1-and-done prospect for Tennessee but he has not disappointed in his first season on Rocky Top. Chandler is also averaging 13.6 PPG this season. along with 4.8 APG and is 3rd in the SEC in steals this season, averaging 2.3 SPG. Chandler shoots 63.6% from the free throw line.

Junior guard Josiah-Jordan James (#30) is the Vols 3rd leading scorer averaging 8.8 PPG and 5.5 RPG. James is shooting 27.5% from 3 so far this season and 79.1% from the free throw line.

One of the Vols unsung heroes this year is freshmen guard Zakai Zeigler (#5), a 5’9” guard from Long Island who has endeared himself to the Tennessee fanbase. For a comparison, think of it as the way Auburn feel about KD Johnson in that you having the guy on the team and know he’s likely going to be around for 3-4 years. Of all of the offseason additions to this year’s Tennessee team, Zeigler has the least heralded among them but he has made quite the impact on this team. Zeigler is averaging 8.7 PPG coming off the bench, shoots 37.1% from 3 and is the team’s best free throw shooter at 87.5%.

Moving over to the frontcourt and there are concerns about the status of super senior John Fulkerson (#10) who has been in Knoxville for seemingly forever. Fulkerson is averaging 7.4 PPG and 4.6 RPG this season but played just 6 minutes Tuesday night in their win over Missouri after suffering a hip pointer injury last Saturday at Arkansas.

Tennessee lost one of their key frontcourt pieces a couple of weeks ago for the season in Olivier Nkamhoua (#13) who was averaging 8.6 PPG and 5.6 RPG so that has meant more chances for junior Uros Plavsic (#33), a 7-footer averaging 4 PPG and freshmen forward Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (#2), a player who was considered a Top 5 player in the 2022 recruiting class before reclassifying to 2021. He is averaging 3.3 PPG this season.

Senior guard Victor Bailey (#12) had his best scoring output of the SEC season on Tuesday against Missouri with 11 points and of course, I would be remised if I didn’t mention sophomore Justin Powell (#24) who will face Auburn for the first time since leaving the school last March. Powell’s averaging 4.4 PPG off the bench this year and is shooting 38.7% from 3 this season. He didn’t play Tuesday against Missouri but I have a feeling he will get some minutes today.

Prediction

I’ve felt pretty confident about this game for a long time but have to admit Auburn’s last 2 road game struggles have lessened my confidence a bit. I think the biggest key to today’s game for Auburn is to be able to take care of the advantage in the paint and for Walker Kessler to be able to stay on the floor and out of trouble. For Tennessee, will they be able to knock down 3s?

Thompson-Boling Arena will surely be rocking this afternoon and with a 6-game losing streak against Auburn and Bruce Pearl, there’s certainly some motivation for Tennessee in this one. But there’s also some motivation for Auburn here. It’s a chance to take a massive leap towards a SEC Title and a chance to silence some critics who think Auburn is only a great team playing at home. Over the years, Bruce Pearl has had Rick Barnes number and this feels like a game where Auburn makes another statement that they are going to be a Final Four contender this year.

Auburn 78 Tennessee 72