Vols two men down

Counting a 1-6 start this year, Auburn's league record over the past eight basketball seasons is a putrid 41-78. Simply put, the Tigers have been the SEC's weakest link.

Still, Tennessee can't expect to win tonight's game at Auburn Arena just by showing up. That's because two key team members won't be showing up - head coach Bruce Pearl and leading scorer Scotty Hopson.

Pearl will be sitting out Game 7 of an eight-game SEC suspension. Hopson (16.5 points per game) will be resting a sprained left ankle. Both remain in Knoxville and will watch the 9:05 tipoff on ESPN2. Associate coach Tony Jones again will fill in for Pearl, while senior Josh Bone is expected to replace Hopson as the starter at shooting guard.

Here's another reason the Big Orange can't take tonight's game for granted: As pathetic as Auburn has been lately, it is the only SEC campus on which Tennessee is winless since Pearl took the reins in 2005-06. Coached by the since-fired Jeff Lebo, the Tigers beat Pearl's Vols 83-80 in 2007 and 78-77 in 2009.

"Both times at Auburn we played well enough to win," Pearl recalled this week. "And both times at Auburn we got big-boyed."

The Vols won't get "big-boyed" tonight because Auburn's roster features no big boys. The 2011 Tigers lack the heft they boasted in 2007 and 2009.

"This is a different Auburn team," Pearl conceded. "They're a little bit more athletic, not quite as physical."

And they're 1-6 in SEC play. Still, Pearl says Auburn is a team on the rise. After starting league play 0-6, the Tigers shocked South Carolina 79-64 last Saturday in Columbia.

"Auburn is a completely different team in its last four SEC games, compared to the vast majority of their season," the Vol coach said. "They've figured out a way to win, figured out a way to compete. Their defensive numbers in the last four games are completely different. Teams were shooting 50-something percent against them ... the last four games 30-something percent."

First-year head man Tony Barbee inherited a mess from Lebo. Auburn has very little SEC-caliber talent on its roster. As a result, the Tigers must try to keep the pace slow and the score low each time they take the floor.

"They know who they are," Pearl said, "and they understand how they have to win - patient offense, changing defenses, getting people to settle (for shots) from the perimeter and playing with great effort and energy."

Asked how Auburn has improved in its last four games, Pearl replied: "More than anything, I think it's 'How do we have to play to win? We can't take bad shots. We can't get in a track meet. We've got to play great defense and limit the opponent.'"

There are two keys to tonight's game. First, Tennessee needs to assert its superiority on the backboards from the opening tip.

"When Auburn has outrebounded their opponent they've won seven out of eight games," Pearl noted.

Secondly, Tennessee must run good sets and make shots against an Auburn defense that limited Florida to 45 points on Jan. 20. Asked how the Tigers held the high-scoring Gators to such a paltry total, Pearl replied: "Zone, zone, zone, zone."

GAME NOTES: Tennessee brings a 14-7 overall record and 4-2 SEC mark into tonight's game. Auburn is 8-13 and 1-6.... The Tigers shoot just 39.4 percent from the field and 65.8 percent from the foul line.... Auburn's projected starters are 6-10, 222-pound Rob Chubb (8.1 points, 4.1 rebounds per game), 6-8, 190-pound Kenny Gabriel (9.6 points, 6.4 rebounds), 6-6, 205-pound Allen Payne (5.9 points), 6-5, 215-pound Earnest Ross (12.7 points, 7.0 rebounds) and 5-10, 160-pound Josh Wallace (5.8 points, 4.0 assists per game).

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