NASHVILLE, TENN. • Tipping off roughly 19 hours after the completion of Wednesday’s 10-point win over Georgia, Missouri tries to extend its season another day at the Southeastern Conference, this time with perhaps the toughest possible matchup on the bracket.
The last time Mizzou played Auburn, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers ran Cuonzo Martin’s team out of the state of Alabama with a 34-point loss at Auburn Arena, back on Jan. 30. It was just a three-point lead for Auburn at halftime — then Mizzou absorbed a 58-27 spanking in the second half.
Mizzou was far more competitive with every other team in the SEC this year, including the top three seeds in this tournament: Louisiana State (overtime loss), Kentucky (two-possession game in final minute) and Tennessee (single-digit deficit most of the second half). The fourth seed, South Carolina, would pose a far less ominous challenge to the Tigers in Friday’s third round than Auburn in the second round, considering the Tigers have already beaten the Gamecocks this year.
Here’s a closer look at Thursday’s matchup in the second round;
No. 12 MIZZOU vs. No. 5 AUBURN
What • Southeastern Conference Tournament
When • 2:30 p.m.
Where • Bridgestone Arena; Nashville, Tenn.
Series • Tied 5-5. Last meeting, Auburn 92-58, Jan. 30, 2019
TV, radio • SEC Network, KTRS (550 AM)
Records • MU (15-16), Auburn (22-9)
NET rankings • Missouri No. 77, Auburn No. 17
KenPom rankings • Missouri No. 68, Auburn No. 14
Point spread • Auburn by 9
KenPom projection • Auburn 73, Missouri 65
Matter’s prediction • Auburn 77, Missouri 67
About Missouri • The Tigers have won three of their last four games with all three wins coming by double digits. … Freshman guard Torrence Watson missed all five of his shots on Saturday to end a four-game streak of double-digit scoring games. … Freshman guard Xavier Pinson shook off three early fouls to finish with 15 points, giving him 35 in MU’s last two games.
About Auburn• Bruce Pearl’s Tigers come to Nashville on a four-game winning streak, including Saturday’s 84-80 win over Tennessee. … Earlier this year the Tigers dealt Mizzou its most lopsided loss under Cuonzo Martin, when Auburn made 16 3-pointers. … Junior point guard Jared Harper, a second-team All-SEC selection, averages 15.2 points and 5.9 assists, while senior guard Bryce Brown leads the team with 15.7 points per game. Chuma Okeke, a 6-8 sophomore forward, averages 11.9 points and 6.8 rebounds. … Auburn has lost its first game in the SEC tournament each of the last three years.
LIKELY STARTING LINEUPS
G Jared Harper (5-11, Jr.): 15.2 ppg, 5.9 apg
G Bryce Brown (6-3, Sr.): 15.7 ppg
F Chuma Okeke (6-8, So.): 11.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg
F Anfernee McLemore (6-7, So.): 7.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg
F Malik Dunbar (6-6, Sr.): 7.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg
G Jordan Geist (6-2, Sr.): 14.5 ppg, 3.1 apg
G Xavier Pinson (6-2, Fr.): 6.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg
G Javon Pickett (6-4, Fr.): 8.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg
F Kevin Puryear (6-8, Sr.): 7.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg
F Jeremiah Tilmon (6-10, So.): 11.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
WHAT ELSE? TURNOVERS
Nobody forces more turnovers in college basketball at a higher rate than Auburn, ranked No. 1 in defensive turnover rate at 25.2 percent. Auburn has forced at least 20 turnovers in nine games. North Carolina State is the only one of those nine opponents to beat the Tigers with 20 or more giveaways. This has been Mizzou’s problem all season and should be the most pivotal factor today.
SAME PLAYERS, DIFFERENT TEAM
Missouri’s game at Auburn was just its second without Mark Smith. Martin was still figuring out his new rotation. Watson had a strong first half then faded. Pinson had 11 points and four assists but six turnovers. Puryear didn’t start and only played 14 minutes. Watson and Pinson have since become impact, valuable players on the offensive end. Mitchell Smith has figured out a role and become more productive. Does this team have a better identity heading into the rematch?
“I think we just matured a lot,” Geist said. “We've learned, been through some hard times. I think we just got to come out and focus on playing our game, stick to our principles on defense, get the kind of shots we want. We'll put ourselves in a position to hopefully win the game.”
Martin was introspective about the freshmen after Wednesday’s game and agrees with Geist that both Watson and Pinson are different players now than they were six weeks ago at Auburn. But, Martin made the point that this team has evolved according to plan.
“Sometimes people say, If you had X Pinson and Torrence playing earlier in the season ... for me, that wasn't a plan,” he said. “It's not God's plan. They have to grow when they grow. That's what it is. I'll take it. Losing is painful. It brings me to my knees. But they'll learn and we'll grow from it. It's part of the game. I'm happy they are where they are. I'm happy whatever did happen earlier in the season didn't happen, because it allows me and taught me how to learn, grow, and to become better. Sometimes in losing, though it's painful, it forces you to grow.”
AUBURN SCOUTING REPORT
The Harper-Brown backcourt is as good as any in the SEC. When they’re on they’re electric. On his best days, Harper is the SEC’s best point guard, better than LSU’s Tremont Waters, Tennessee’s Jordan Bone and the rest of the elite lead guards. He’s one of the SEC’s best guards at drawing contact and getting to the foul line and has lifted his 3-point rate to 38.0 percent. He’s third in the league in offensive win shares, fourth in total win shares and eighth in offensive rating. Pinson will likely draw his share of matchups with the junior point guard. Good luck, X.
Brown leads the SEC in 3-point attempts and ranks second in makes. He’s going to let it fly like always.
The really intriguing player for Auburn is Okeke. Check out these ratings:
Offensive rating: 121.7, No. 5 in SEC
Defensive rating: 94.6, No. 6 in SEC
Win shares: 4.5, No. 6 in SEC
Defensive plus/minus: 6.6, No. 2 SEC
Total plus/minus: 12.7, No. 3
He’s one of the most well-rounded players in the SEC, a threat on both ends of the floor and a more than capable 3-point shooter, making 39.1 percent against league competition.