As the regular season hits its home stretch, Auburn will make a trip to Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tennessee, to take on the No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday.
After a dominant win over Ole Miss Wednesday night, the Tigers will now look to end their two-game road losing skid after losing at Florida last Saturday. While Auburn is looking to build some momentum heading into March, it will be no easy task, as Tennessee is undefeated at home and winners of eight out of their last 10.
“Playing Tennessee at Tennessee would be as difficult as winning a Final Four game,” said head coach Bruce Pearl.
The Tigers will have their work cut out for them, as Tennessee loves to share the ball. The Volunteers rank first in the SEC in assists, averaging 16.3 assists per game. They also are able to disrupt offenses very well, averaging 9.6 steals per game.
Tennessee has been very tough to defend from the 3-point line as well. It ranks second in the SEC in 3-point percentage, shooting 34.6%. Auburn will need to defend beyond the arc as it has done all season, holding teams to 31.2% from that distance.
The Tigers will have to defend the whole court well though, as Volunteer guards Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler have been lethal from all shot ranges.
Pearl made it clear just how talented this trio has been when asked how they played.
“It reminds me of when I would play Jared [Harper] and J’von [McCormick] and Samir [Doughty] together. That’s a tough group to stay in front of,” Pearl said. “Three playmakers, three shotmakers, three great defenders … it’s quite a weapon.”
Chandler, Vescovi and Zeigler are Tennessee's top three scorers on the season. On top of this statistic, Chandler ranks fourth in the SEC in assists per game at 4.8 and is tied for first in steals per game, averaging 2.3. He can certainly be a difference on both sides of the ball.
The defensive game will likely be a deciding factor in the outcome of this game. Both teams have been outstanding in limiting points this season, as they are holding opponents to under 67 points per game.
A big part of Auburn’s success on defense has been Walker Kessler, who is leading the nation in blocks right now at 131. Historical implications are on the table for the second consecutive game for Kessler as well. He needs 10 blocks in order to pass Shaquille O’Neal’s 1990-91 season for seventh all-time in SEC single season blocks. He might just do that this Saturday.
The Tigers will have to be tough trying to force turnovers, which is something Tennessee does not do very often. If they are able to do this, Tennessee will be under a lot of pressure to make shots quickly.
Tennessee will have to move the ball quickly to find open shots against this shifty Auburn defense. If they can do that they will have a good chance to come out on top. For the Tigers, it is all about playing aggressive.
“We’ve seen Final Four-caliber Tennessee teams before, and this is certainly one of them,” Pearl said.
The game starts Saturday at 3 p.m. CST and will be broadcast on ESPN.
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Tyler Raley is a junior from Birmingham, Alabama, majoring in journalism.