Auburn basketball's season comes to a close Saturday as Mississippi State travels to Auburn Arena in a game originally delayed due to severe winter weather.
The Tigers have no senior players, or even managers to be recognized, so the game will be an anti-climactic conclusion, with no postseason to follow. The game represents a strange balance between looking back at the past year, because the two teams have not met in that long, and looking to the future, because Auburn’s focus will be shifting to preparation for the upcoming season.
“Going to practice [Thursday] was different because it’s just been a long time since we went to practice, I can’t even remember the last time, when we knew the season was going to be over at a certain point, because you’re always going to the tournament,” said head coach Bruce Pearl. “We’ve managed to continue to come to practice and try to lock in and find ways and game plan and grind.”
The Tigers have been without point guard Sharife Cooper for three games now and pressure remains on the rest of the team to step up in his absence, because the offense has inevitably struggled. Auburn was only able to put up 58 points against regular-season conference champion Alabama, but Saturday presents an opportunity to capitalize against a slower-paced, lower-scoring team.
“They’re not a juggernaut offensively, and they do play at a slower pace and they’ve not been a great free-throw shooting team overall,” Pearl said. “We’ve got to be able to defend, we’ve got to be able to rebound, and obviously we struggle right now without a couple of our best offensive players.”
Jaylin Williams was a big offensive contributor against the Tide, putting up a leading 13 points for the Tigers. Devan Cambridge followed him with 11 points and Jamal Johnson had 10. Scoring double digits will be a necessity for competing with Mississippi State.
“I think the fact that they’re in the middle of our league right now speaks to how good the league is. They’re 5-3 on the road and two of the losses came at Alabama and at Tennessee and they were single-digit losses,” said Pearl.
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Beyond overcoming skill, Auburn also is fighting the clock, because the Tigers have not met the Bulldogs in more than a year, because it was their SEC opener last season and was rescheduled as the closer this season. In the last matchup on January 4, 2020, Auburn came out on top with an 80-68 win, but a lot of change has occurred since then.
Auburn stands at 12-14 for the season thus far and the team looks to take advantage of the Bulldogs’ slow pace in securing a final win to pair with last year’s road victory in Starkville.
“Last year, we scored 14 points in the first 14 minutes and because we had also played pretty good defense, we hung in there,” said Pearl. “We got a really great road win last year because Mississippi State was really good last year.”
The Bulldogs will come into Auburn Arena with an overall record of 14-12, going 8-9 in conference play. They are scoring an average 69.4 points per game, which pairs well with their defensive trends lately.
“Mississippi State is a really good defensive team,” Pearl said. “In the last five wins, they were holding down teams to 55 points.”
With the Tigers struggling the past few games to end the season on a high note, Saturday presents a final opportunity to clinch a win heading into the offseason.
The game tips off at 12:00 CST from Auburn Arena, airing on SEC Network.
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