Coming off yet another comeback victory at Auburn Arena against Georgia, No. 19 Auburn will try to carry over some of that intensity as they travel to face Missouri Wednesday night.
Auburn dropped two spots in the AP poll after a loss to Alabama ended the Tigers’ 14-game winning streak, but each game offers a new chance for Bruce Pearl’s squad to prove that they are for real.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Pearl said. “I think it’s one of those games that, like if we’re going to remain for the conference title—look, Florida has already beaten them there. Florida has already beaten Kentucky at Kentucky. Tennessee has some big road wins. It’s one that very few people are going to get.”
After trailing by double digits at halftime in three of their last four games, starting stronger will be a point of emphasis for the Tigers.
“I just feel like we’ve got to start putting our foot on team’s necks early because we can’t keep doing that, giving teams a chance to put us away early,” forward Malik Dunbar said. “Good teams will put us away early if we give them the lead fast like that in the first quarter. We’ve just got to learn how take over in the beginning of the game and keep our foot on their neck.”
Even without Michael Porter Jr.—the number two ranked player in the 2017 ESPN 100 recruiting rankings and projected NBA lottery pick—who will likely miss the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery in November, Missouri will still present a challenge.
The Tigers are currently ranked sixth in the SEC, but with the conference currently projected to have a record eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, league wins will not come easy for Auburn.
“I look at this game as Missouri—they lost once at home to Florida at the buzzer. They have played a very tough schedule,” Pearl said. “They’re really good, they’re big, they’re deep. They were picked really high in our league. They’re one of the better ball-screening teams that I’ve seen, and they shoot 3 really well.”
Despite an undersized starting lineup that includes a 6’3” power forward in Desean Murray, Auburn has held their own inside. SEC rebounding leader Yante Maten was largely a non-factor for Georgia Saturday.
Things won’t get any easier on Wednesday as the Tigers will face another skilled big man in Missouri forward Jeremiah Tilmon. Auburn will counter with Anfernee McLemore, who leads the SEC in blocks per game with 2.9.
“It's just to play him like any other big guy,” McLemore said. “I feel like I've been undersized all year and go in and play physical with him and then use my athleticism and my quickness to play with him."
With his team enjoying a dream season through the first 19 games, Pearl will have the difficult task of keeping his team focused through a daunting SEC schedule that includes games against Kentucky and No. 20 Florida.
The Tigers are currently projected as a four seed in the NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN, but Pearl understands they have a long way to go.
“[You] just take them one at a time, you keep grinding and you keep developing gameplans,” Pearl said. “I think it’s important that you balance off the big picture with the whole one game at a time attitude. If we were to go on a run and lose some games, people would ask what’s wrong. And my answer would be pretty simple, it has more to do with them than us. The competition is good enough to beat us any night, and we weren’t able to get it done.”
Even with Auburn’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 within reach, the Tigers are keeping their mind on the task at hand.
“We’re still hungry. We still feel like we’re the underdogs right now,” Dunbar said. “We’re still hungry for more wins, just to play better and keep playing as a team.”