Auburn, Ala.--Bruce Pearl says his basketball team can’t afford to overlook any opponent, even one that has had its struggles against SEC opponents.
The Auburn coach made those comments as his Auburn team prepares to play host to Mississippi State on Wednesday. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CST at Auburn Arena and the contest will be televised on the SEC Network.
The Tigers, who are 2-2 in league play, have a chance to push above the .500 mark five games into their SEC schedule for the first time since the 2002-2003 team advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
Pearl’s goal for the Tigers is to win enough games to earn a spot in a postseason tournament, but says the thing he is concerned about this week is the next game rather than the big picture. “I do not even know if we will get on a roll,” he says. “We will just take them one at a time...I cannot even begin to go there because there is no margin for error.”
Mississippi State comes into the contest with an 8-9 record and a 1-3 mark in the SEC after defeating Vanderbilt 57-54 to end a 16-game losing streak vs. SEC teams. The victory kept the Bulldogs from setting a new school record for consecutive SEC losses.
On Saturday night Mississippi State will try to end another streak. The Bulldogs have lost 22 consecutive road games, including 19 in SEC play.
Despite that Pearl notes that his Tigers have no reason to go into the game overconfident. “We have to not only not overlook them, we have to play really well to beat them,” he says, pointing out the Bulldogs beat a Vandy team that handled Auburn in the SEC opener and that Mississippi State has an impressive victory vs. FSU.
“They have great size, great length and really great depth,” Pearl says. “They run good stuff. The only thing they do not do well statistically is shoot the three-ball as a team.
“They get to the foul line probably second or third-most in the league,” the coach adds. “They shoot a lot of free throws. They shoot a good percentage from the foul line. It is a good team. It is a really good team. It is not the Mississippi State team of the last couple of years.”
The Bulldogs are expected to start a lineup that includes 6-7 senior forward Roquez Johnson (10.3 points, 5.4 rebounds), 6-9 junior forward Gavin Ware (9.5 points, 6.4 rebounds), 6-8 junior guard Travis Daniels (7.3 points, 5.1 rebounds), 5-11 sophomore guard I.J. Ready (7.5 points, 1.4 rebounds) and 6-3 junior guard Craig Sword (4.7 points, 1.0 rebound).
Fred Thomas, a 6-5 junior guard, is expected to provide a scoring boost off the bench. In addition to being the team’s top three-point threat with 116 treys in his career, he leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 10.4 points per game.
Fred Thomas has made seven of his last 15 three-pointers after making just four of his first 25 this season.
Defense is the strength for Coach Rick Ray’s team. The Bulldogs are allowing just 59.6 points per game, which ranks third in the SEC and 33rd nationally.
Auburn is coming off a 71-68 home victory vs. South Carolina, a game in which Pearl says the Tigers didn’t play their best basketball, but found a way to win.
“Tahj Shamsid-Deen scored a little bit. He broke down on the ball screen a little bit. He could be better defensively. He had some breakdowns, which is unusual for him, but it was just a good team effort and obviously the environment was intense.
“We have not started games as well,” Pearl adds. “We have not started halves as well. When both teams are fresh, it is hard to score. We have to find a way to be more effective when both teams are fresh.”Cats and Dogs: The Tigers and Bulldogs split their games last year. Auburn won 92-82 last season at home in the rematch while falling 82-74 at Starkville. Auburn leads the series 73-67 and has a 45-22 record in home games vs. Mississippi State.
Whiteout Wednesday: AU has asked fans to wear white to the game and the first 1,000 entering Auburn Arena will receive a free white T-shirt.
Auburn Streak: The Tigers have won seven consecutive games at home and are 9-1 this season at Auburn Arena.
Senior guard K.T. Harrell launches a three-point shot.
Behind the Arc: Led by senior guard Harrell, the Tigers are hitting 38.5 percent of their three-pointers vs. SEC teams compared to 31.1 percent vs. non-league opponents. Harrell is 11-18 (61.1 percent) on threes in four SEC games after making 35-84 (41.7 percent) prior to opening league play.
Up Next: The Tigers head to Tuscaloosa for a 7:30 p.m. CST tipoff on Saturday vs. Alabama.
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