Auburn was “still stinging” a day later, head coach Bruce Pearl said Thursday after the team’s disappointing loss to Texas A&M the night before.
That was a tough defeat to swallow. Auburn didn’t play well, by Pearl’s own grading, and soon enough the margin for errors like that will be gone in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
Then, the Tigers won’t have any opportunity for do-overs in single-elimination postseason play.
But for now, though, the fortunate fact is that they do.
Auburn (24-6 overall, 11-6 SEC) has one more chance to bounce back into form today in its regular-season finale at Tennessee (17-13, 9-8), set for 11 a.m. and for broadcast on ESPN2 from Knoxville.
There, Auburn will look to sweep the season series with Tennessee, and, like last year, use that game against the Volunteers as a springboard into the tournament season.
Auburn is hitting that opportunity in a different way this season, though. Last year, Auburn had won three straight games going into an electric finale in Auburn Arena with a top-10 Tennessee team. Auburn won that game, went on to beat Tennessee again in the SEC Tournament finals, then take a magic ride to the Final Four.
This time, instead, Auburn goes to Knoxville after losing to middling Texas A&M 78-75 on Wednesday, and giving up on defense 15 points more than Texas A&M’s scoring average.
It’s defense that Auburn has hung a hat on all season — and it’s defense that the team will surely have to turn around in tournament time.
It’ll certainly be needed to beat Tennessee today, too.
Tennessee leads the SEC in scoring defense, giving up only 63.5 points per game. The Volunteers lead the SEC in blocked shots and are eighth nationally in that category with 5.7 rejections per game.
“We’re going to have to be elite defensively because they’re so good defensively,” Pearl said Thursday as the team prepared for its trip to his old stomping grounds.
“We’ve been inconsistent, I think, at times, with our offense. We were able to score against Texas A&M because they kind of pressed us. We were able to score out of space, which was good, to be able to do that,” Pearl said. “But we’re going to have to really work hard to execute.”
Auburn beat Tennessee 73-66 in the teams’ first go-around this season back on Feb. 22 at home — but had to come back from down 17 points to do it.
“Obviously there’s a lot of math against us going to Tennessee,” Pearl said. “We’re 8-47 there all-time. But we played well against Tennessee the last few times we’ve played them — and we had to play well, because they’ve obviously been good.”
With the challenge, though, comes that opportunity, to jump into next week’s SEC Tournament across the state with a full swing of momentum.
The SEC Tournament begins March 11. Auburn will open play at the tournament on March 13, next Friday, having already clinched a top-four seed in the bracket.
Auburn could still take a No. 2 seeding into the tournament with a win and a Florida loss to Kentucky today. Auburn could fall to the No. 4 seed if Auburn loses and both Florida and LSU win.