AU vs. MSU: SEC Hoops Tournament Preview

Coach Bruce Pearl's Auburn basketball team will look to win its rematch vs. Mississippi State to open the SEC Tournament on Wednesday in Nashville.

K.T. Harrell (above) is the SEC's leading three-point shooter.

Nashville, Tenn.--Looking to win an SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament game for the first time since the 2009 event, the Auburn Tigers will open the 2015 league tourney with a 6 p.m. CST tipoff vs. Mississippi State on Wednesday night at Bridgestone Arena.

Auburn (12-19 overall, 4-14 SEC) goes into the tournament on a six-game losing streak as the 13th seed. The Tigers’ last two losses were one possession games as they fell 63-61 at Missouri and 64-61 at home to Georgia during the final week of the regular season.

The Tigers played those games without their second-leading scorer, senior guard Antoine Mason, who returned to practice on Monday after spending time with his family following the death of his father, former NBA star Anthony Mason.

Mississippi State (13-18 overall, 6-12 SEC) defeated the Tigers 78-71 on Jan. 21st at Auburn Arena. Coach Rick Ray’s Bulldogs are the No. 12 seed. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.

In the previous matchup Cinmeon Bowers scored 16 points for the Tigers and pulled in 17 rebounds, but overall the Bulldogs dominated the boards, finishing plus 11 in rebound margin.

K.T. Harrell, who was named first team All-SEC by Scout.com on Monday, was the leading scorer vs. the Bulldogs with 22 points while Mason added 10 points. K.C. Ross-Miller scored seven points, Malcolm Canada added six points while Jordon Granger and Tahj Shamsid-Deen scored five apiece for the Tigers. Shamsid-Deen is injured and can not play.

I.J. Ready scored 18 points for Mississippi State vs. the Tigers while Gavin Ware did major damage with 16 points and 17 rebounds.

Bruce Pearl is wrapping up his first season as Auburn's head coach.

“Mississippi State is a very quick team,” Pearl said. “They are one of the quickest and most athletic teams in our league. They are very deep. They play 10 guys--they are tough covers.

“They had us down 18 in the second half and we battled and got within two points late,” Pearl noted. “It was a tough matchup for us and they were able to separate themselves from us the first time”

Mississippi State’s coach said he liked how his team played vs. the Tigers at Auburn Arena. “I thought we were able to handle their press fairly well,” Ray said. “I thought our guys did a really good job of throwing the ball over the top and attacking. We want to do that.

“When teams press, you want to be in attack mode and I think guys made smart decisions when they were attacking,” he added. “I thought we also did a pretty good job on the defensive glass. I think I.J. and Chicken (Craig Sword) both played really well in that game and really stepped up.” Sword scored 10 points while adding five assists vs. the Tigers.

Antoine Mason’s Return: Mason, whose father’s funeral was on Friday, returned from New York on Sunday night and practiced on Monday. “It is great to have him back after a difficult time, and it is still a difficult time for him,” Pearl said. “This says a lot about Antoine and our team.

Antoine Mason launches a shot in Auburn's victory at LSU.

“One of the things throughout this whole process is we let Antoine take the lead on when he was going to come and go,” Pearl said. “That is the way it has been through both his father’s illness as well as returning to play. We really didn’t discuss with him the particulars about it and if and why he was going to come back. I left that up to him and when he decided that’s what he wanted to do we worked with him on it.”

Ticket Deal: Although the tournament was previously announced as a sellout, tickets for the opening session on Wednesday night with just two games on the schedule will be available at the arena at a cost of $15 each.

Pearl on Recruiting: Asked what the feedback has been on the recruiting front with the 2014-15 Tigers struggling on the court, Pearl said, “So far there has been almost very little negative feedback in recruiting because of our season. Most of it has been positive because of the support we have received and how hard the kids are playing. That has been the majority of it.

“Could it have been a boost? Yeah. A better year could have really jumped us up in recruiting and could have really helped us. If things don’t work out, the rest of this 2015 class or 2016 class, it won’t just be because we didn’t have a great year in 2015. It could have helped us, but I don’t think it has hurt us much.”

SEC Scoring Leader: Harrell’s 18.1 points per game is the best in the league this year. Asked what that distinction means to him, the senior said, “It means a lot. It is just a credit to the work I have put in to improve my game. I worked hard to be a great high level scorer. I think I did a lot better at being efficient this year than I was last year. It is a credit to how much work I have put in.”

A Key to Victory: With Mason rejoining Harrell and Bowers, the Tigers now have three players in the lineup averaging double figures for scoring. If Pearl’s Tigers can get significant scoring punch from Ross-Miller, Granger, Canada or someone else on the roster their chances of handling the Bulldogs will be much better.

Up Next: With a victory the Tigers would play No. 5 seed Texas A&M in the second game of the Thursday afternoon sessions. With a loss Auburn’s next game will be next season.

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