AUBURN — You can still count the number of SEC championships the Auburn basketball program has won on just one hand. The Tigers claimed the regular-season crown in 1960, 1999 and 2018 and the league tournament in 1985 and 2019.
But after winning just three before 2018, the Tigers are in position to compete for a third straight in 2020.
Bruce Pearl believed this week would be significant to Auburn's hopes. He called it "moving week," referencing Saturday at PGA Tour golf tournament. The Tigers were coming off a huge victory over Kentucky last Saturday, but they had a difficult trip to Arkansas — a place they had won just four times ever — on deck before SEC-leading LSU came to town on Saturday.
That was Monday. Since then, No. 11 Auburn came back from 11 points down with fewer than six minutes to play to defeat the Razorbacks 79-76 in overtime. No. 18 LSU (which had won 24 of its last 26 SEC games) fell 99-90 at Vanderbilt (which had lost 26 straight SEC games) on Wednesday.
Now, Tigers vs. Tigers at Auburn Arena on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN) will be for first place in the SEC standings. That would certainly be a big move.
"Just when you think it can’t get any better than College GameDay and Kentucky," Pearl said Friday.
LSU (17-5, 8-1 SEC) still sits atop the standings even after its loss Wednesday, but Auburn (20-2, 7-2) and Kentucky (17-5, 7-2) are only one game back.
There would still be eight more regular-season games to play, of course (including one at Kentucky on Feb. 29), but a chance to move into first place in February is no small matter for an Auburn program still not fully accustomed to that type of success.
"We said that we needed to win these games to have a chance to compete for the championship," Pearl said. "Nothing’s changed. It doesn’t really matter from a standpoint of whether we are able to get into first place after this game or not. What matters is that this is a team that’s going to be competing for the championship. This is the only time we’ll play them in the regular season. This would give us a leg up."
It'll be a difficult matchup. There's a reason LSU won 10 straight games before falling to the Commodores, and Pearl doesn't see that as a "breakdown" — "I told you that the best teams in our league could beat the teams at the bottom or the top," he said. "Vanderbilt was at the bottom of our league, and they were able to beat the team at the top of our league. And that just doesn't come as any surprise. Vanderbilt almost beat us in here."
Even in a losing effort, LSU scored 90 points. It's arguably the best offensive team in the SEC. It ranks second in the league scoring 80.2 points a game (Alabama scores 81.6) and first in field goal percentage hitting 48 percent of its shots. All five starters average more than 11 points a game, led by guard Skylar Mays (15.3) and forward Emmitt Williams (14.2). No team in the conference is more efficient, per KenPom.
"Both teams like to get the basket and attack the rim," Pearl said. "Both teams rely on offensive rebounding. Neither team is great from 3. So it’s going to be difficult to score in and around the basket. It’s probably going to be a tough game to officiate for that reason. But I would say it’s probably got to be, just by virtue of the size factor and the athleticism — boy, they’re really athletic. They’re really bouncy."
The last time these two teams met, on Feb. 9 of last year in Baton Rouge, LSU won 83-78 on its way to winning the SEC regular-season championship. Pearl's team would like to return the favor at Auburn Arena on Saturday.
"We’re just happy to play them in front of The Jungle," point guard J'Von McCormick said. "I’m just excited for this rematch from last year, because we got whooped pretty bad."