T.J. Dunans (above), who has been bothered by injuries this season, should be closer to full speed on Saturday.
Auburn, Ala.--Looking to build a bit of positive momentum heading into the SEC Basketball Tournament and possibly avoid having to play on the first day of the event in Nashville, Coach Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers will look to win on Saturday at Mississippi State.
Tipoff is set for shortly after 1:30 p.m. CST at Humphrey Coliseum where the 13-16 Bulldogs await. Mississippi State is a game ahead of Auburn in the SEC standings at 6-11.
If Auburn can get past the Bulldogs and if Ole Miss wins at Tennessee on Saturday and if Kentucky defeats visiting LSU that same day, the Tigers would hold the tiebreaker over Tennessee and Mississippi State, which would all have 7-11 league records. If that happens the Tigers won’t play in Nashville until Thursday.
The tournament opens on Wednesday night with just one game as the No. 12 seed plays the No. 13 seed. Missouri, which is on probation, is not competing in the event.
The Bulldogs, coached by Ben Howland, are led by 6-9, 260 senior forward Gavin Ware, who is averaging 16 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Another senior, 6-3 senior guard Craig Sword, is averaging 12.9 points and 3.0 assists per game.
“Right now they are playing great defense, playing real aggressively,” Pearl said of the Bulldogs. “I've always been a huge fan of Gavin Ware.
Quinndary Weatherspoon, a 6-4 guard, is averaging 12.1 points and 4.6 rebounds.
“It kills me that Craig Sword from Montgomery, Ala., kills us all the time, every time he plays against us,” the coach noted. “Fortunately that may not happen but one or two more opportunities for him.
Craig Sword played high school basketball at Carver in Montgomery.
“I love Weatherspoon, their freshman,” Pearl said. “As you know, Mississippi State has had a top five recruiting class in the country so Ben is going to get that going.”
Saturday’s game will be televised on the SEC Network. This is the first meeting between the Tigers and Bulldogs since Auburn won 74-68 at Nashville in the 2015 SEC Tournament opening round.
“We’re as healthy as we’ve been right now in a while so we have an opportunity,” Pearl said. “I felt that way against Texas A&M and we didn’t take advantage of it so, obviously, I was disappointed.
“We probably have too many hot and cold players that don’t play with the kind of consistency that you need to have to be able to put a run together,” he said. “People will ask, well, compare this year to last year. How did you make that run last year?
“I think the run last year was basically for two reasons. One, we were totally bought in defensively. It’s all we had, and so we really guarded, and we were playing small ball. And the second thing was, at the end of the year, it was just about K,T. (Harrell) and nobody tried to do too much else. Roles were clearly defined over the period of the season. It took us a while, but that’s what it was, and nobody really too much got out of character unless K.T. went over and took over. That made us a really efficient team.
Cinmeon Bowers is averaging 10.7 points and 9.8 rebounds as a senior playing power forward and point guard.
“This team has more size and a little bit more talent, although we don’t have the depth because of the injuries and not having a point guard,” Pearl added. “The roles are not defined because sometimes Cim (Cinmeon Bowers) is hot and sometimes he’s cold. Tyler (Harris) played with great offensive efficiency against Texas A&M, but he doesn’t always finish, and he’s got to be able to physically step up against bigger, physical players even though he’s a small forward playing center for us sometimes.
“Bryce Brown is hot and cold. T.J. Lang is hot and cold. Now the good thing is there is some hot there. And so when I say that, I’m not saying it to be critical, I’m just saying it to be analytical, and part of it is because we’ve had so many moving pieces.
“The game against Texas A&M, I talked about it in the postgame, we didn’t have T.J. Dunans for Sunday or Monday, and I was told Monday night he wasn’t playing Tuesday. He lived in that training room and he got his way back in where at 11:30 the day of the game we found out he was going to play. If you don’t think the game plan offensively and defensively is completely 180 when you’ve got Cim vs. you’ve got T.J. Dunans and we’re literally scrambling around having undone everything we did Sunday and Monday to redo it, that’s just sort of the way it’s been. We have none of those excuses this week. T.J. is healthy. He’ll play ad we’ll go down and match up against Mississippi State.”