Middle Tennessee has given Power Five conference teams fits over the last few years, and Auburn will look to turn the tide on Saturday inside Legacy Arena in Birmingham.
“We scheduled this series when I first got to Auburn,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “I had played (Middle Tennessee head coach) Kermit (Davis) on a regular basis when I was at Tennessee. I knew how well-coached his teams were. They always competed for conference championships. They have continued to get better.”
The Blue Raiders are ranked No. 12 in RPI entering Saturday’s tilt. They have already knocked off SEC foes Vanderbilt and Ole Miss this season.
“(Davis) has gotten Middle Tennessee to a place where they are nationally prominent,” Pearl said. “To be No. 12 in RPI right now, on a neutral site, gives us a huge RPI opportunity. This is one of the most experienced teams in the country. They start four seniors. They have 11 juniors and seniors on their roster. They play really hard. They play very physical. Of all the teams we play, this would be as hard a playing team as we would go up against.
“I’d say Middle Tennessee would finish in the upper division of our league in the SEC. They’d be an NCAA Tournament team in our league this year. That is how good they are. That’s going to be a real opportunity for us to see where we are at.”
Nick King leads Middle Tennessee averaging 24.3 points per game, which ranks No. 5 in the country. Pearl said that Desean Murray and Chuma Okeke will have the responsibility of limiting King.
“It’s pretty fun knowing your player is the best player,” Murray said. “Knowing you have a chance to really defend him and give your team a big chance to win, that’s going to be fun. I can’t wait for that.”
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Mustapha Heron, who missed Auburn’s win over UAB with back spasms, will return to practice for the first time on Thursday.
“Mustapha is going to try to practice today,” Pearl said. “He’s had a very good week. The trainers have done a great job with him. He’s worked out individually with the coaches and with the trainers. Today will be his first day back and we will see how he responds.”
The Blue Raiders defeated Auburn two years ago 88-81 in an overtime affair at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The Tigers will look to avenge that loss with its biggest win of the year on Saturday.
“Middle Tennessee is going to be a big challenge,” Murray said. “It’s going to be really fun. They’re supposed to be ranked pretty high in RPI. We get to play them in Birmingham, so that will also kind of count a little bit for us. They beat us a couple years ago, so that’s going to be a chance for us to redeem ourselves.”
Auburn and Middle Tennessee will tipoff at 5 p.m. CST on Saturday. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.
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