Here they go again.
Auburn Arena is stirring into another fervor this morning. The doors will open, the fans will flood in, and under bright lights and between rolling national TV cameras, that surge of energy like from a heavyweight bout will surely sweep its way back through the building.
No. 11 Auburn (20-2 overall, 7-2 SEC) hosts No. 18 LSU (17-5, 8-1) at 11 a.m. with first place in the SEC standings on the line. It’ll be all those things some could say about it. It’s a meeting between last year’s SEC Tournament champion and last year’s SEC regular-season champion. It’ll determine who’s in the driver’s seat charging into the second half of the SEC schedule. And, yes, one week after an instant-classic throwdown with Kentucky, the big-fight feel is coming back to the Plains.
These big-time games are starting to become more like the norm in Auburn. And for Auburn, to get where the Tigers want to go, they’re going to have to earn more of these big-time wins.
“Just when you think it can’t get any better than College Gameday and Kentucky, all of a sudden LSU comes in there and we’ve got a chance to play them for first place,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl on Friday afternoon.
As he spoke in the halls under Auburn Arena, the building was still gearing up for Friday night’s gymnastics meet, but later personnel would work quickly to get the floor back in place for an early tipoff. Last week’s tilt with Kentucky provided an electric atmosphere, with ESPN showcasing the game as Pearl mentioned, but today’s game somehow promises even more of the same.
There have been four games in Auburn Arena since the building opened nearly 10 years ago between two teams ranked in the AP’s men’s basketball Top 25. Two of those games came last season. The other two have come in the last seven days.
Auburn beat Kentucky in a thriller last Saturday, then beat Arkansas in overtime on the road last Tuesday. Then Wednesday, it was when LSU suffered its first SEC loss on the road at Vanderbilt that the door cracked open for Auburn to take control of first place going into the second half of league play. There are 18 SEC games lining the schedule. Both these teams have played nine. But only today’s winner will head into the stretch run with a leg up in standings.
“LSU is the real deal,” Pearl said. “They’ve got a terrific coach and they’ve got real dudes.”
Senior guard Skylar Mays leads LSU scoring 15.3 points per game. LSU has won five SEC games by four points or less this season, and Pearl attributes that clutch play to competitors like Mays. LSU leads the SEC in field-goal percentage, hitting 48-percent of its shots from the field. That’s in part attributed to how LSU plays with an emphasis on getting to the rim and playing strong inside — much like Auburn.
“Looking at film, they’re pretty physical,” Auburn guard J’Von McCormick said, looking ahead to the matchup. He said he thought his team matched up pretty well with Kentucky’s physicality, but that this game provides a different challenge. “They hit pretty hard when they shoot the ball, so it’s going to be a big game for us.”
McCormick says the players are keeping perspective. The team takes it one game at a time and doesn’t see this like it’s an opportunity to win a championship, because it isn’t. There are still eight conference games left to play after this one. But by the same token, the win would mean plenty.
“We’re just happy to play them in front of the Jungle,” McCormick said. “I’m just excited for this rematch from last year because we got whooped pretty bad.”
And it would mean a little extra for him, being from New Orleans: “I know some of the guys and some of the coaches so it’s kind of like a rivalry game for me.”
McCormicks scored 12 of his 16 points last Tuesday in the last seven minutes of regulation and in overtime as the Tigers clawed their way into this position. Pearl has spelled this stretch of games for a pivotal one for his team, starting with the Kentucky game and continuing with the games at Arkansas, against LSU and against Alabama, saying those results would determine whether Auburn is in position to make a run at the SEC’s regular-season championship down the stretch of the season.
And this game surely marks one of the toughest challenges of that stretch.
“We talked about the fact that this was ‘moving week’ last week,” Pearl said, when asked about how he discusses the importance of this game with his team. “And we said that we needed to win these games to have a chance to compete for the championship, so nothing’s changed.
“It doesn’t really matter from a standpoint of whether we are able to get into first place after this game or not. What matters is that this a team that’s going to be competing for the championship. This is the only time we’ll play them in the regular season. This would give us a leg up.”