The Stretch 4: Defense wins championships (and, potentially, road games)
Auburn locked down Ole Miss the first time around. Repeating that on the road won't be easy — but it could mean a ton for the season.
C Johni Broome (Grayson Belanger/Auburn Tigers)
Over the final 10 games of the regular season, Auburn will play nine times against teams currently ranked in the top 70 in the NET rankings.
Four of the Tigers’ next five games are set to be Quad 1 matchups — the most valuable for a team’s NCAA Tournament resume in the eyes of the selection committee.
According to KenPom, a 6-2 Auburn team has played the easiest SEC schedule so far. That is about to change in a hurry.
“This’ll be as challenging a 10-game stretch as Auburn basketball has had,” Bruce Pearl said Friday afternoon.
Auburn is used to high-profile showdowns against Alabama, like it will have next Wednesday night at home. The Tigers are familiar with tough games against traditional SEC heavy-hitters like Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. All of those will happen in the month of February.
But Auburn’s gauntlet of a final stretch before the postseason is starting somewhere new, at least for big-time basketball games: Oxford, Mississippi.
Two weeks ago, Auburn beat Ole Miss by 23 points in the first-ever ranked matchup between the two programs. At the time, it felt like the result could be a harsh reality check for a Rebels team that had been boosted by a softer non-conference slate.
Instead, Ole Miss has rattled off three straight wins since losing to Auburn. Those victories include a tough road matchup at Texas A&M — and a surprisingly high-scoring rivalry bout against a Mississippi State team that just beat Auburn.
“Ole Miss is obviously playing great right now,” Pearl said. “Never thought that they'd put up — what'd they put up against Mississippi State, 86 points? … It's hard to put that number up against Mississippi State. And if you look at the numbers they put up at home, they’re big numbers.”
In the first matchup against Ole Miss, Auburn played what Pearl called its “best game of the year.” The Tigers held the Rebels to just 59 points, forcing 17 turnovers and limiting one of the nation’s top-shooting squads to a 4-17 (23.8%) mark from deep.
But that game was in the friendly confines of Neville Arena. At the Pavilion in Oxford, Ole Miss averages 83.8 points per game in SEC play, which is more than 15 points than it is averaging away from home. Similar to Alabama, Ole Miss is a different animal in front of its home crowd.
And what a home crowd it’ll be Saturday evening. Ole Miss has announced a sellout, and it’s immediately coming off of setting an arena record for attendance. The atmosphere should be a far cry from Auburn’s last two trips to Oxford, when Tigers fans made the most noise for the majority of the games.
It’s not easy to beat a quality team twice. (To that end: Auburn opened as a 3.5-point favorite for this game.) Auburn knows it played some of its best ball against Ole Miss the first time around — and it also knows that the Rebels are much better than what they put on the floor on the Plains, as evidenced by their current winning streak.
“We just couldn’t play any better, and as a result, we had a dominating effort,” Pearl said. “Ole Miss did not play great, so they contributed a little bit to it. But I know, as soon as they walked off that court, there was some, ‘We’ll see you in Oxford in a couple weeks.’”
That time is now. For more on Auburn’s Quad 1 matchup at Ole Miss on Saturday evening, here is this week’s edition of The Stretch 4.
(Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
Can Auburn defend Ole Miss like it did in Round 1?
More than halfway through the regular season and nearly halfway through conference play, there’s no question: Auburn has one of the best defenses in the entire country.