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Heading into a massive weekend in the SEC, with two huge matchups on the slate, the Tennessee-Auburn game has all the feels of a ‘Final Four’ type outing, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl mentioned on Thursday. The Vols will host the No. 3 Tigers on Saturday in what will likely be the biggest game of the weekend.
We all know the history between Peal and Tennessee, so there’s no need to go down that road right now. But this game brings one of the most fascinating matchups we’ve seen this season, especially with the guard play. The way Tennessee plays with three guards at different stages of the game means that Auburn has to prevent them from causing chaos on the defensive end as well.
“I mean (Santiago) Vescovi, (Kennedy) Chandler and (Zakai) Zeigler, that three point guard lineup, that’s nothing like anybody in college basketball this year sees,” said Pearl. “…That’s a tough group to stay in front of, and those guys are all so pesky defensively. I think that’s one of the reasons they’ve turned people over. I mean, it’s a really, really hard lineup to go up against. Three playmakers, three shot-makers, three great defenders, it’s quite a weapon. That’s just finding a way to get your best players on the floor.”
But the guard play from Tennessee is not the only aspect that concerns Pearl. He’s also concerned about the defense, and he referenced the talented squad Tennessee had in 2019 to illustrate his point.
“I think this is one of the better Tennessee teams we’ve seen since 2019, which was one of the best Tennessee teams I’ve seen since we’ve been at Auburn. That 2019 team was one of my favorites from having a great respect for our opponents. This team here is, I think, equally as good. The difference (is) this year’s team is better defensively. They turn you over, they steal the ball from you, they put a lot of pressure on you and fly around. This is one of Rick (Barnes)’ better defensive teams and make it difficult to run your stuff, forcing you to play a little faster.
“That combination with an offense that is averaging, like, 16-17 assists a game. They do a great job at attacking close-outs, screening,” Pearl added. “They put some very interesting lineups out there. They’ll put four guards out there at times, they’ll put two centers out there at times, and they’ll put three point guards out there at times. Three very, very different looks that you have to able to adjust to.”
Pearl has his own group of weapons too. The Tigers bring Wendell Green Jr., Zep Jasper, K.D. Johnson and a huge presence in the paint with Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith. How Tennessee decides to guard Kessler and Smith in the paint will ultimately decide how this game flows, especially if the Tigers get hot from outside the perimeter. So shooting well and getting the Auburn bigs in foul trouble will be key for the Vols.
Pearl’s happy to see this Tennessee vs. Auburn game be on such a high platform, especially towards the end of the season. We all know the Tigers have caused the Vols heartbreak for a number of years, but Saturday will introduce a new chapter in the book. Pearl thinks this year’s Tennessee team is “Final Four-caliber,” which is yet to be determined, but he’s definitely giving the Vols respect.
“We’ve seen Final Four-caliber Tennessee teams before. This is certainly, I think, one of them. I am just glad that these games matter, ’cause there was a time when I was at Tennessee where the Auburn game typically didn’t mean as much. I’ll give you one exception and that was in Tampa, the last time the SEC Tournament was there and Auburn upset Florida and we played an Auburn team in the Saturday game. It’s just great to see for both Tennessee and Auburn, two places I coached, are able to play in big games that have championship implications.”
The Vols are going to try and force the Tigers into mistakes and to take advantage of the them in transition, which will be hard to do. But the way the Vols play defense as a group will be something Pearl will zero in on over the next two days in his scouting report.
“They play as hard and physically as anybody, I think, in our league. So it will be a great challenge for us. Championship-caliber game.”
Get ready. This monster SEC matchup is getting closer by the minute.