Auburn first-year head coach Bruce Pearl - who has never had a losing season in his 21-year coaching career - did not hold anything back during his Monday press conference when it comes to the competitiveness of his basketball team.
“With the exception of (No. 1 and unbeaten) Kentucky, I have said there isn't a team on our schedule we can't beat," Pearl said. "I don't know if we can beat Kentucky at Kentucky. I just don't know… Can we (go on a run)? Yeah, we can."
Auburn (11-12, 3-7) will host Arkansas (18-5, 7-3) who is No. 23 in the USA Today Poll and No. 24 in the Associated Press - rankingsTuesday night at 8 p.m. on ESPNU and hope to start its run then.
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson - who also has never had a losing season - is 5-0 against the Tigers in his career and the Razorbacks are unbeaten in three career games at the 9,121-seat Auburn Arena, which opened in 2010.
Arkansas - who has a 5-4 record as a ranked team this season - has also won its last seven games against Auburn.
“It is the next game and it is a going to be a challenge,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said. “It’s going to be a challenge. It is a different year, different team, different coach, different philosophy so we have got our work cut out for us. We have got to play awfully well.”
Pearl does have the Auburn faithful excited about basketball again with two sell-out crowds this season and seven home crowds of around 8,000.
“Yeah, that’s a great atmosphere, and I’m sure it’s one that their kids are thriving in. I think they’re playing with a lot of energy, so there will be a lot of energy in the building.”
Auburn is coming off a 86-79 home loss to Ole Miss while the Razorbacks leaped back into the Associated Press poll with a pair of 20-point home wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State.
“Arkansas is a terrific team,” Pearl said. “They've been kind of fun to watch as far as throughout the season because I just like the way Mike coaches and the freedom he gives those gives both offensively and defensively. And the way they play together, as far a they play, as bad as they make you look.
“I can't say you're looking forward to playing against them because they just take you out of what you like to do,” Pearl said. “They're one of those teams that no matter how you play, they just always play harder. So you've got to be able to handle the pressure and not turn the ball over. You've got to be able to defend in transition and defend early, and you've got to keep them off the boards. All that's easier said than done.”
The Tigers are led by 6-4, 215-pound senior guard K.T. Harrell (17.5) - the SEC’s second-leading scorer behind Arkansas’ Bobby Portis (17.7).
Harrell joins 6-1, 216-pound senior guard Antoine Mason (15.2) - the son of former NBA player Anthony Mason - as well as 6-7, 278-pound Cinmeon Bowers (13.5, SEC-leading 11.1 rebounds per game) to lead Auburn.
“I think with the players he has, he inherited a team, he brought some guys in there,” Anderson said. “They’re playing much better than they were earlier in the year.
“... So, that means the timing of guys really starting to figure out, you know, what it is he’s wanting them to do. It’s starting to take place with their team. They’ve had some guys that have been injured, but they’re playing good basketball right now.”
Bowers will be given the task of trying to slow down Portis according to Pearl.
“He leads the league in so many categories, scoring and field goal percentage,” Pearl said of Portis. “He is one of the better offensive rebounders, and he is able to block shots. Stat-wise he is probably the best center in the league as far as numbers are concerned.
“It should be a great matchup for Cinmeon (Bowers) and for him to have to guard him and try to score on him,” Pearl added. “ They will both have to keep each other off the board, so it is a great matchup.
“… Arkansas has a full roster and three or four guys that are on the bench that can play,” Pearl continued. “They are the closest thing to Kentucky in our league as far as depth and quality of their roster.”
Pearl is having to play three players an average of 30 minutes per game and really only plays seven players significant minutes.
At the start of the second half (against Ole Miss), we did not have energy,” Pearl said. “That is something we can control. That has happened a time or two before. Heavy minutes are a factor, but not an excuse. There are some things we can correct there.
“There is a lot of defensive positioning and places that you are supposed to be, and when you are not there, we are not going to be able to defend,” Pearl said. “We gave up 86 points to Ole Miss. We can’t win that way. I thought there were a lot of things we could have done defensively to guard them better. When you don’t, you’re not going to win.”
Arkansas is 3-4 in all road games this season, 2-2 in SEC road contests and has won 15 of its last 20 games against SEC opponents.
The Arkansas-Auburn game will be the first road test since the Razorbacks’ 57-56 loss at Florida, where the visitors shot just 7 free throws to the home team’s 25.
“I think that is going to be important,” Anderson said of his team getting to the free throw line. “We can’t settle. We have seen a lot of teams play a lot of zones and I think there are times when we settle. I think as we get the tempo up to how we want to play, it will help.
“Auburn is a team that is going to get up and down the floor,” Anderson added. “They won’t hold the ball. So we have got to be in attack mode as I am sure they will, too.”
The two road games this week - both with 8 p.m. starts - could help Arkansas’ push toward a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it is very important,” Anderson said. “When you look at the last four weeks - I think we have four weeks left in the season - and I think people are just trying to finish up the conference race and then just try to put themselves in position for that next season - which is the postseason."
“This game is like any other game - it’s important,” Anderson added. “This week is like any other week - it’s very important.”
?Anderson’s squad has bounced in and out of the top 25 this season.
“I have always said that its great for the fans, great for the University, but our focus is just to get better every day,” Anderson continued. “You want to be in the poles when it is all said and done. That’s my take on that."
He does think it shows Arkansas is trending in the right direction.
“It is great for the University and it tells me that we are going in the right direction,” Anderson said. “Last year we were one of those teams that kind of received votes and people talked about you a little bit and now it just seems like we are in and out of it.
“But that ain’t important to me,” Anderson continued. “What’s important is that we get better as a program, get better as a team. We want to be there when it is all said and done. That’s the bottom line. That’s the focus of this coaching staff, that’s the focus of this basketball team when it is all said and done.”
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