No. 23 Tennessee gets a crack at its old coach, when Bruce Pearl and streaking Auburn visit Thompson-Boling Arena for an SEC clash on Tuesday.
The Tigers (10-1) enter SEC play having won 10 straight games. They’ve posted wins over Connecticut and Dayton during the run, with their only loss coming against Temple on Nov. 17.
Auburn returned from a week off after the holiday break to rout Cornell 98-77 on Saturday. Bryce Brown had 19 points, and Mustapha Heron had 17 for the Tigers, who showed no signs of rust and improved to 7-0 at home this season.
“The most important thing is that we got back from the break, we took our opponent seriously and we took care of business,” said Pearl, who spent six seasons at Tennessee and took the Vols to the NCAA tournament each year.
Pearl is in his fourth season with the Tigers and has turned things around at Auburn. But he hasn’t had much success against his former program. Under Pearl, the Tigers are 1-5 against Tennessee. The Volunteers beat Auburn 87-77 in Knoxville in last season’s only meeting.
The Volunteers (9-3) are coming off a hard-fought, overtime loss at Arkansas on Saturday. Tennessee led by seven at halftime, but couldn’t slow down the Razorbacks in the second half and lost 95-93.
“We started off the game we wanted to,” said Tennessee guard Jordan Bone, who had 21 points in the loss. “We had control of the game for about 36, 37 minutes, and just like against North Carolina, we lost the game in the last two or three minutes. We didn’t execute the way we wanted to on offense down the stretch, and they made us pay by making a lot of tough shots.”
The Volunteers struggled with the Arkansas pressure, something that could be an issue against an Auburn team that also likes to push the pace.
Auburn is second in the SEC in scoring, averaging 86.8 points per game. Four players are averaging in double figures, led by Brown at 15.8 points per game.
“I didn’t think we handled the ball as well as I know we’re capable of in the backcourt,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes told reporters after the loss to Arkansas. “We felt any time we got into the half-court, we could get whatever we wanted.”
Pearl says his team is confident entering SEC play, but knows the league is talented and deep this season.
“The league is the best it’s been and the deepest it’s been,” Pearl said this week. “It’s going to be a grind night in and night out. Physically, it’s going to be a challenge, but I think we are also prepared.”
“I think we’re confident, but I think it’s a new season and a new year so the games are going to be a lot closer,” Pearl added “If we can continue to make sure that rebounding travels, shooting travels and defense travels are our focus and we can continue to stay healthy, we’ll continue to be competitive.”
Tennessee is allowing just 68.2 points per game, but allowed Arkansas to shoot 54.1 percent from the floor and surrendered a season-high 95 points, albeit in overtime.
Grant Williams leads Tennessee in scoring (15.1 points-per-game) and rebounding (6.6 rebounds-per-game). He had 17 points to lead the Volunteers in last year’s win over Auburn.
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