The Stretch 4: Why Missouri is 'the biggest game of the year' for Auburn
After three straight single-digit losses, the Tigers are now in a must-win stretch of their schedule. And Tuesday won't be easy at all.
SG K.D. Johnson (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn hosted College GameDay three days ago against Alabama — its biggest rival, the runaway first-place team in the SEC and a squad that was on the verge of climbing to No. 1 in the country.
The Saturday afternoon basketball environment couldn’t have been any bigger or better on the Plains. In front of a rowdy crowd that brought the volume for all 40 minutes, the Tigers led for more than half of the game but fell in the final minutes to the Crimson Tide.
With all of that in mind, you might have not expected Bruce Pearl to say what he said Monday, a little more than 24 hours ahead of Auburn’s early Tuesday night home tip against an unranked Missouri team.
“They're all big, but I think this is the biggest game of the year for us,” Pearl said.
Why is that? Because, after losing three straight games to Quadrant 1 opponents by single-digits, Auburn is projected to be the favorite for three straight games at a critical time of the season.
The first opponent will be the toughest of the stretch. Missouri has had its ups and downs in its first season under Dennis Gates, but it has a top-five offense nationally in adjusted efficiency and is fresh off a stunning upset win at Tennessee.
“Missouri is the No. 2 scoring team in the SEC,” Pearl said. “They just went to Tennessee, beat Tennessee and scored 86 at Tennessee. We scored 43. You do the math. This is a really, really good offensive team, a really hard-to-guard team. … They're not a great defensive team, but they lead the league in turning you over because they pressure you and make you go faster.
“I will tell you, it'll be as exciting and an up-tempo of a contest as we'll play at home all year long. They play a very exciting brand of basketball.”
And the stakes are extremely high. Auburn and Missouri are currently tied with Kentucky for fourth in the SEC with a 7-5 league record. The winner could be at least tied for third in the league by the weekend, as Alabama faces Tennessee on Wednesday.
There’s a lot on the line in terms of NCAA Tournament standing, too. Auburn’s current losing skid hasn’t caused it to fall out of the bracket projections and didn’t make a massive dent in its NET ranking.
But Missouri is currently a composite projected No. 7 seed in the tournament on Bracket Matrix, with Auburn as a No. 8 seed. Some projections have Pearl’s Tigers as low as a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. Missouri will be a Quadrant 2 opponent for Auburn, whose 15-2 record in non-Quadrant 1 games is the foundation of its current tournament status.
“When it comes to how many (tournament teams) go out of the SEC — is it six, is it seven?” Pearl said. “Who's it going to be? Clearly Auburn, Missouri and Kentucky, who are all tied for fourth in that situation with Florida and Vanderbilt one game behind, as well as Arkansas, there's a lot in the mix.
“This is a must-win for us. … Win this game, they have a chance to go to the tournament. Don't win this game, we're in sixth place, seventh place and we have an uphill battle. That's just where we are. We worked so hard to put ourselves in a great position. We're still in a great position, and we've earned the position we're in by virtue of our record and the quality of some of our wins. But if we don't start winning, then the NCAA Tournament is not going to be available to us.”
For a closer look at what makes Missouri such a tough matchup Tuesday night, the defensive issue that has to be corrected ASAP, the Tigers’ late-game struggles and a challenge to a bench that needs to break out again, here’s this week’s edition of the Stretch 4.
(take note of the timestamp on that tweet)
What makes Missouri so good on offense
Missouri is No. 9 nationally in points per game at 82.1, and KenPom currently has the Tigers at No. 4 in adjusted offensive efficiency. Their raw effective field goal percentage is 56.1%, which ranks No. 7 in the country.
As Pearl puts it, Missouri isn’t great on defense (No. 275 in defensive eFG%) or on the glass (No. 214 in offensive rebounding and No. 362 in defensive rebounding) — but it often doesn’t matter, because Gates’ squad plays fast and doesn’t miss shots often.
At the core of Missouri’s identity is a spread-out, fast-paced, small-ball identity that Gates brought to Columbia from a successful tenure at Cleveland State in the Horizon League. Outside of 5-foot-10 point guard Nick Honor, a Clemson transfer, everybody in Missouri’s rotation is between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-8.
And almost everybody is incredibly experienced. Missouri’s top eight players in minutes per game are all seniors. The one with the most experience in the program is Kobe Brown, an Alabama native who is averaging 16.5 points per game and should be in the running for SEC Player of the Year.
“They've got a great, great mismatch player in Kobe Brown,” said Pearl, who noted that Auburn recruited Brown out of high school. “He is a four-man who can play five who can play one. He is a dynamic mismatch and you've got to gameplan against him.”
Brown is shooting an incredible 46.1% from 3-point range this season, and he’s hit more than half of his triples over the last six games. The 6-foot-8 forward hasn’t had a monster game against Auburn in his career, but he’s scored in double figures in 13 straight games.
“What stands out to me about his game is definitely his quick trigger on the shot,” versatile forward Chris Moore said. “He has a very quick trigger for somebody with size. That's something that's always helped him in his game, and I feel like we've just got to key in, like we've been doing with a lot of key matchups lately. Just key in and just follow our scout.”
When Brown and Missouri get going from 3-point range, watch out. Missouri is a perfect 15-0 when hitting at least 33% of its 3-point attempts this season, and it lit up Tennessee’s ultra-elite defense with a 14-26 night from deep Saturday — including an improbable buzzer-beater from Milwaukee transfer D’Andre Gholston for the win.
Auburn is coming off a game in which it limited Alabama’s similar fast-paced, free-wheeling offense to an off day from behind the arc. For a high-scoring offense, Missouri has gone cold shooting in all six of its losses this season, scoring less than 70 points in each of them and only putting up a brutal 52 against Mississippi State.
But Auburn has to learn from its mistakes in Saturday’s loss, when Alabama hit more than 80% of its 2-point attempts. Missouri is top-10 nationally in 2-point field goal percentage and doesn’t get blocked very often, so Auburn’s defense behind all the on-ball action will be crucial.
“What stands out to me is their off-the-ball movement,” Moore said. “Their offense is never stagnant. They've got a lot of guys moving around when other players are trying to make plays. So I feel like that's gonna be something that we've really got to focus on and lock in on, just making sure we see the ball, and making sure we see our man.”
And, speaking of defense…
SG K.D. Johnson (Steven Leonard/Auburn Athletics)
Can Auburn defend without fouling?
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