Wednesday March 2nd, 2022
Auburn Tigers at Mississippi State Bulldogs
Humphrey Coliseum: Starkville, Mississippi
Time: 8:00PM CT
Network: SEC Network, Auburn Radio Network
Well folks we’ve made it. This is March.
And while this might be somewhat of a hot take: tonight is Auburn’s biggest game of the year.
Auburn (25-4, 13-3) looks to break their 3-game road losing streak as they head to Starkville for their road finale to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs (17-12, 8-8).
Win this game and you clinch a share of the SEC Regular Season Title.
Win this game and you prove to the critics that you can win away from Auburn Arena (and they’ve grown in numbers the last couple of weeks).
Win this game and build some momentum as you look to start playing the best basketball of the season now that the calendar has flipped to March.
My Thoughts on Saturday
Saturday was absolutely a winnable game and early in the second half, Auburn was up 39-28 and looked ready to blow that Tennessee team out of the gym as Thompson-Boling Arena was really quiet. Then a technical foul, which I thought was a pretty quick trigger, but nonetheless, really changed the momentum of the game. Auburn has built an early second half lead the last 2 Saturdays, they led by 9 at Florida and quickly let the lead slipped away both times.
Tennessee got back into it and Auburn couldn’t make a shot for about 9 minutes. But the most frustrating thing about Saturday was the rebounds. Auburn was -23 on the glass and a lot of those were Tennessee getting a lot of long rebounds off of missed shots. I think I saw somewhere the Vols ended up with 20 more possessions than Auburn because of that.
Auburn is at their best when they get contributions across the board. Jabari Smith and KD Johnson had 45 of Auburn’s 62 points Saturday. Smith was terrific leading the way with 27 points and 8 rebounds. KD Johnson had 18 points and had his best game in about 3 weeks offensively. But Auburn has to have more from their role players, particularly off the bench.
Give Tennessee credit though. They changed the way they played after getting blown out in Lexington and Zakai Zeigler has made a tremendous difference in their offense. They attacked Auburn and outhustled the Tigers to a lot of 50-50 balls that make the difference in a game.
Get to Know Mississippi State
Now that we’ve talked about Tennessee, let’s look at tonight’s opponent, the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Bulldogs were my sleeper team going into the season as they brought in several high-profile transfers, but they have had mixed results this year. As far as their NCAA Tournament chances, this is a must-win for them. A win tonight would certainly get them back into the bubble conversations. Otherwise, they will need to go to Tampa next week and win the SEC Tournament to get into the Field of 68.
We appear to be in for a wild SEC coaching carousel this offseason and part of it will like revolve around Mississippi State as there are rumblings that Ben Howland may not be back next season so tonight could be Howland’s final game coaching at the Hump for the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs are averaging 71.6 PPG and allowing 66.2 PPG this season. As a team, they shoot 30.2% from 3 and 72.4% from the free throw line. The Bulldogs are a taller team as they have 9 guys on the roster that are at least 6’7”.
They are led by junior guard Iverson Molinar (#1) who is averaging 18.1 PPG this season. Molinar gets to the free throw line quite often as he has attempted 160 free throws this year and made 140 of them (87.5%). He is shooting 26.5% from 3 as well.
Junior forward Tolu Smith (#35) will likely draw the assignment of Walker Kessler this evening. The 6’11 Smith averages 13 PPG and 5.8 RPG and had 22 points and 8 rebounds Saturday in their win over Vanderbilt. Smith has been limited to 16 games this year due to injuries.
A pair of former North Carolina Tar Heels will be on the court tonight as Kessler’s faces off against his former teammate tonight in grad transfer forward Garrison Brooks (#10), and an Auburn High School alum. Brooks is averaging 10.8 PPG and 6.8 RPG so far this season in his first year in Starkville. He is shooting 33.9% from 3 and 69.6% from the charity stripe.
Junior forward D.J. Jeffries (#13) is averaging 9.6 PPG and 4.5 RPG. Jeffries was another transfer brought in last offseason as he began his career at Memphis. He is averaging 29.7% from 3-point range.
Another transfer who joined the program last offseason is sophomore guard Shakeel Moore (#3) who came to Mississippi State after leaving North Carolina State. Moore is averaging 8.8 PPG and leads the team in made 3s this year (39) while shooting 33.3% from long distance.
The Bulldogs will be without Michigan State transfer Rocket Watts who is out with an elbow injury. Watts is averaging 4.4 PPG this season.
Ben Howland said Rocket Watts will not play for Mississippi State this week vs. Auburn and Texas A&M because of the sprained ligaments in his elbow. He visited a doctor again Monday to check in, and he's not in a position yet to return.— Andy Kostka (@afkostka) March 1, 2022
Hope is he'll be back for SEC tourney
Rounding out the rotation for Miss State is Alabama transfer forward Javian Davis (#2), sophomore guard Andersson Garcia (#11), sophomore guard Cameron Matthews (#4) freshmen guard Cam Carter (#5), and sophomore forward Derek Fountain (#20). All 5 of these guys average between 2-4 PPG but in classic Auburn fashion, one of these guys will likely have a much better game than their averages indicate.
Folks I have Peacocked and picked Auburn to win these last 3 road games and the Tigers have lost all 3 games. This is an interesting matchup for Auburn with all of the big men the Bulldogs can throw at you, but what a great opportunity for guys like Kessler to bounce back, and Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell as well. I think you’ll see more from those 2 off the bench as well. Auburn knows what is at stake here and there’s no room for error if Auburn wants to win this SEC title outright, or hang onto a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Can Auburn respond to some adversity that they haven’t faced a lot of this season? I haven’t been too concerned about the 3 losses in February but losing tonight’s game would be a bit concerning to me going into the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. We’re going to find out a lot about this team tonight which goes back to what I said at the beginning: tonight is the biggest game of the year. I think Auburn gets it done but it won’t be easy.
Auburn 76 Mississippi State 70