Auburn (19-11, 9-8) will close out the regular season Saturday in a rematch against Tennessee (22-8, 11-6). It will be senior day inside of Neville Arena. Auburn will honor all of its seniors, but due to the NCAA rule allowing for an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some seniors will be faced with a tough decision to return, transfer, or enter the NBA draft. However, those decisions will have to wait.
"I'm focused on the season and finishing this thing out the right way," said senior forward Allen Flanigan. "I haven't really thought about it," added senior forward Jaylin Williams.
This team has one focus - beating Tennessee and solidifying their spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The back-half of conference play has been tough on the Tigers. A team that once was seen as a near lock in the NCAA Tournament has now found itself on the bubble. The Tigers are 3-11 in their last fourteen games. However, it is not as if the Tigers have been playing weak teams.
"Besides Vanderbilt, everyone we've lost to is going to the NCAA Tournament," said Pearl.
To add on, the majority of the losses have also been very close. Senior Allen Flanigan put it this way: "It's about closing games out in the final four minutes."
In the many of Auburn's close loses, they led for the majority of the game, including in the final minutes. Those games are now in the past. The Tigers are looking to finally flip the script and get a marquee win against an elite team.
"I want to go out with a bang," said senior guard Zep Jasper.
Marquee wins do not come easy, hence the name, and if the Tigers are going to pull off the win, they will have to play some of their best basketball. The first meeting between these two teams took place at the beginning of February when the Vols defeated Auburn 46-43 in Knoxville. The game was quite memorable for the extraordinary defense and poor shooting by both squads. Auburn and Tennessee shot below 30% from the field in that game. Although holding Tennessee below 50 points again is nearly an impossible task, the Tigers will need to have another solid game defensively.
"We've been able to hold teams below their average scoring," said Flanigan.
The bigger question, maybe how Auburn scores more points against one of the best defenses in college basketball?
"It was all we could do to score 43 there," said Pearl on the previous matchup.
One possible answer offensively in this game for Auburn could be Wendell Green Jr. Green's offensive production has been quiet during the last few games, with the exception of Ole Miss. However, Tennessee's starting point guard, Zakai Zeigler suffered a season-ending injury in their game Tuesday night against Arkansas.
"I wish Zakai a speedy recovery," said Jasper.
Zeigler is one of the top point guards in the SEC and one of the best defenders in all of college basketball, being named a Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Semifinalist this season. With Zeigler out, will that open up more opportunities for Green?
Not only could Zeigler's absence have an impact on Wendell Green Jr's play, but it also completely changes the dynamic of the Tennessee team. Zeigler plays the second most minutes on the team behind veteran guard Santiago Vescovi. Despite his injury early in the game Tuesday night, Tennessee was able to rally and win by eighteen against the Razorbacks. The Vols turned to point guard by committee in that game with three different players playing the position.
Tennessee will return Tyreke Key from injury on Saturday, and he could end up getting the start at point. He averages eight points per game coming off the bench, but has flashed with multiple 20-plus games this season. If he gets hot from beyond the arc, he could be dangerous. Zeigler was also the shortest player on Tennessee's roster by a wide margin. With him out of the lineup, Tennessee will have a significant advantage in height at all times against the Tigers.
"They're going to be bigger at virtually every position on the floor," said Pearl.
Due to the height disadvantage, the Tigers will have to be locked in on rebounding. Second-chance points by Tennessee could be detrimental to them in this game. "The keys to the game are rebounding," said Pearl.
Auburn can win this game, and history suggests they will. Bruce Pearl hasn't lost a regular season finale since his second season on the plains. He's also never lost a regular season finale at home. This team has been through its fair share of adversity this season, most recently coming after their loss to Alabama on Wednesday.
"I give my assistant coaches a lot of credit... trying to heal some of the souls that were just hurting, you know, so many close loses and disappointments," said Pearl.
Despite it all, this team still controls their destiny. "Adversity reveals character, and we've had our share of it. But we're still in position to be in position," said Pearl. Senior guard Zep Jasper put it plainly, "This is a game that can lock us into the Tournament." Is there still some magic left in Neville Arena? We will see tomorrow afternoon.