Auburn vs. NC State men’s basketball

Danjel Purifoy (3) shoots the ball over Markell Johnson (11) during the Auburn vs. NC State men’s basketball game at Auburn Arena on Dec. 19, 2019.

Bruce Pearl knows what’s waiting for his team over in Starkville.

And it’s mostly bad news.

Auburn men’s basketball is 2-15 in its last 17 games at Mississippi State — where the Tigers open 2020 today in their SEC opener. Tipoff is set for 3:30 p.m. and the game is set to be televised on SEC Network.

Auburn is undefeated at 12-0. Mississippi State is 9-3.

But the most important record going in might be that history in Humphrey Coliseum, where Pearl has seen some tough defeats.

“Obviously it’s been a tough place to play,” Pearl said Friday as his team prepared for league play. “We’ve played well there but lost to good teams. You go down there, you’re always going to get really good teams.”

Auburn enters with a perfect record so far this season, but none of those wins have gotten Auburn any closer to another SEC championship. That effort begins today, and so does the treacherous SEC schedule, with its rhythm of two conference games a week, almost every week, until tournament time.

To that end, Pearl said his team is healthy and rested on the way into league play. He plans to rotate nine players at the start of the SEC schedule, barring any foul trouble.

Mississippi State, though, can cause that foul trouble with the biggest challenge it presents to Auburn: its powerful frontcourt led by 6-foot-10 Reggie Perry and 6-foot-11 Abdul Ado.

Perry leads the Bulldogs almost averaging a double-double, scoring 15.4 points per game and bringing in 9.8 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-7 wing player Robert Woodard is scoring 11.8 points a game with 7.3 rebounds per game, while Ado is pulling down another 6.4 rebounds per game.

“Ado, Perry and Woodard, starting at the 3, 4 and 5, they’re monster men,” Pearl said. “I’m sure their football program is trying to recruit those guys to get on that defensive line.”

“But it’s not just that they’re big. They do things to get those guys in good position to rebound the ball,” Pearl also said. “It’s not by accident. They played a tough schedule. They’re 9-3, but they’re 77 in the NET. They’ll be an NCAA Tournament team this year. They’re good.”

Auburn’s struggles at ‘The Hump’ go back to 2001, with its only wins there coming in 2009 and 2018 in that 2-15 stretch since then. Pearl, though, has four wins at The Hump in that same span, having gone 3-0 there as the head coach at Tennessee and now 1-2 at Auburn.

“These are opportunity games,” Pearl said. “Mississippi State is going to win most of their games at home in the SEC. There’s only a handful of teams that are capable of beating them or that could beat them there.

“These are the kinds of games that give you one-up on the league if you can get them. But for us to get this game, we’re going to have to play our best game so far.”

After today’s game, Auburn returns home to play Vanderbilt on Jan. 8 at home in Auburn Arena.

“I think we’re a good team; I don’t think we’re a very good team yet,” Pearl said. “And it’s not criticism. It’s just that I know how much we’ve got to do offensively, defensively to get there.

“We’re improving. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Today, at least, Auburn has the chance to take a big step forward.

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