Tennessee basketball is looking to do something it hasn’t done in over five years Saturday afternoon – beat the Auburn Tigers.
Call it bad luck, call it fate, it doesn’t matter – Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl, former head coach at Tennessee from 2006-2011, has beaten the Vols six times in a row. Super-senior John Fulkerson is the only player on Tennessee’s active roster who has seen the Vols come out on top against Auburn.
“I'm still trying to get my first win against them,” junior guard Josiah-Jordan James said. ”they've won the last couple fair and square and now we're just trying to level the playing field."
Pearl has taken the Tigers from a program that dwelled near the bottom of the SEC year after year and turned it into a squad that is perhaps one of the best in the nation this season. The No. 3 Tigers reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in their history earlier this season.
“They are good. Bruce (Pearl) does a really nice job coaching his team and he knows how he wants to play,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said Friday. “He has done a terrific job building this program and they are a good basketball team – they have done well.”
“If you go back and look where they've been the last couple years and how they are doing things, they have worked hard to get the program where they want it and he has done a terrific job with it."
Pearl’s main success at Auburn has come off the court. The Tigers landed coveted North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler and added former five-star recruit Jabari Smith, as well as Eastern Kentucky transfer Wendell Green and Georgia transfer KD Johnson to bolster a roster than finished last season 13-14.
Kessler and Smith have been especially impressive for the Tigers. Kessler leads the nation with 3.7 blocks per game and Smith is widely regarded as a future No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
"It is a great combination to have when you think about the length and skill level they bring,” Barnes said. “The fact is that they both really understand what they need to do to be successful together.”
“They both affect the game in different ways. Certainly, you can talk about Walker's shot-blocking ability but offensively he does a lot of things. Jabari is another guy whose versatility creates problems. When you have two guys like that it makes for a good team."
Freshmen big men Jonas Aidoo and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield will face perhaps their biggest challenge of the season against the duo of Smith and Kessler Saturday. The two have each shown flashes of potential, but will be forced to run much more often against the Tigers.
Pearl and Company like to speed things up both offensively and defensively, sitting behind only Alabama in the SEC in terms of average tempo. The Tigers rank second in both offensive and defensive efficiency in conference play, per Kenpom.
Despite this, the Volunteers are favorites heading into Saturday’s game. Tennessee is a perfect 14-0 at home this season with signature wins against Arizona and Kentucky, both teams vying for No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers, conversely, have struggled on the road as of late. Auburn has lost two straight games away from Auburn Arena in the past few weeks, dropping close matches against Florida and Arkansas. The Tigers also escaped a late scare against 6-22 Georgia, winning by a narrow margin of 74-72 behind a go-ahead field goal from Green in the final seconds.
"I give credit to TBA and our fan base,” James said. “They give us the energy that we need, they have so far, and I don't expect it to be any different on Saturday. We feed off the crowd's energy and they get us going. Credit to them for all the success that we have had at home."