With the 2022-23 regular season at its midpoint, Auburn basketball returns home to face Mississippi State on Saturday.
“It may be one of the best teams that Mississippi State has had in a while,” said head coach Bruce Pearl. “They started 11-0. They had some great wins early on in the season.”
It is a series that has been recently dominated by Auburn. The Tigers have won the last four games in the series, their third-longest active streak over an SEC opponent, trailing only a pair of five-game win streaks over South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
The No. 21 Tigers (13-3, 3-1 SEC) have won their last two conference games, but will likely be down a starter on Saturday. Chris Moore, who suffered a shoulder injury against Ole Miss, has not practiced since getting hurt.
“Chris Moore has not practiced with us,” Pearl said. “I don’t anticipate him in practice today.”
In his absence, Allen Flanigan will be expected to play a bigger role, much as he did against the Rebels. On if he was ready to play heavier minutes should Moore be unavailable, Flanigan had a simple answer — “Yes.”
Under first-year head coach Chris Jans, Mississippi State (12-4, 1-3 SEC) has been one of the nation’s elite defensive teams this season, holding opponents to 56.8 points per game, fifth-best in the country. Auburn will only face one scoring defense better than the Bulldogs’ this season — Tennessee, which allows 53.4 points per game.
“They’re really athletic, they’re really physical,” Pearl said. “They play really hard. They’re well-coached…one of the most athletic teams in the league and maybe one of the most athletic teams in the country.”
The Bulldogs have held 13 of their 16 opponents to fewer than 60 points, and have allowed their opponent to score more than 70 only twice.
Though the Bulldogs have kept their opponents off the scoreboard, they have struggled to score for themselves. Their average of 65.8 points per game ranks 313th nationally and 13th in the conference — only South Carolina scores less among SEC teams.
The Bulldogs are led in scoring by Tolu Smith, who scores 13.3 points per game, ranking 12th in the SEC. Mississippi State does not have another player among the league’s top 35 in scoring. Smith has attempted 114 free throws this season, making 60.
“Tolu Smith has shot the fourth-most free throws of any player in college basketball this year,” Pearl said. “They get the ball inside to him, he takes it to contact. He does a great job of getting to the foul line.”
The Tigers and Bulldogs have faced two common opponents thus far this season, earning the same result against both. Mississippi State earned a 10-point home win over Ole Miss before Auburn beat the Rebels by nine on the road. Both teams fell at Georgia, with Auburn losing 76-64 and Mississippi State suffering a 58-50 defeat.
In the Bulldogs’ loss at Georgia on Wednesday, they shot just 7-of-22 from the free-throw line and made seven of their 27 3-point attempts. This season, Mississippi State has made just 59.87% of its free throws and 30.32% of its 3-pointers.
“The only weaknesses they’ve shown is the ability to shoot from three and free,” Pearl said. “Their 3-point percentage and their free-throw percentage have both hurt them. Other than that, they’ve been elite.”
Though their shooting has been poor, the Bulldogs, much like Auburn, have had success rebounding their own misses. The Bulldogs average 13.75 offensive rebounds per game, ninth in the country. Auburn is 19th nationally with 13.19 offensive boards per game.
“They just fly to the boards,” Pearl said. “It will be one of our more physical games.”
Saturday’s game will be Auburn’s only home game in a two-week span, as the next two are on the road. Neville Arena has been one of the nation’s best home-court advantages over the past two seasons. The Tigers have won 27 consecutive games on their home floor, the second-longest active streak in the nation — only behind Gonzaga’s 75-game home win streak after then-second Kentucky lost its streak to South Carolina on Jan. 10.
“It’s definitely a boost playing at home,” Flanigan said. “The Jungle, the crowd, the atmosphere in the arena is amazing. Anytime a team has to come in here and play us, it makes it 10 times harder.”
The game between the Tigers and Bulldogs will tip off at 7:30 p.m. CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.
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Matthew is a junior from Huntsville, Alabama majoring in journalism. He started with The Plainsman in fall 2021.