The 8-0 Arkansas Razorbacks sport the undefeated record. The 6-2 Auburn Tigers the Monday before tonight’s SEC season-opener knew who head coaches them tonight. They know they’ve played a far more big name nonconference schedule than the Razorbacks who hadn’t traveled together out of Fayetteville until boarding Tuesday’s plane to Auburn, Ala.
So several advantages it seems ride for Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers tonight tipping off the SEC season against Arkansas at 6 p.m. on ESPN2 at Auburn Arena.
Pearl, whose Auburn future could be determined by the NCAA reaction to the FBI investigation into his program that didn’t stop Auburn from advancing to the 2019 Final Four but has prompted Auburn to self-impose a postseason ban on this season’s Tigers, will coach Auburn tonight.
Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman couldn’t announce until Tuesday that he’s cleared the covid-19 contact tracing protocol to coach Wednesday’s game.
Assistant coach David Patrick had to head coach Arkansas’ last game, a Dec. 22 victory over Abilene Christian.
Forced to cancel games in Tulsa against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane because of TU’s then covid-19 issues and postponing until 2021-2022 the neutral site 2-games series there against the Oklahoma Sooners in hopes the covid-19 virus by then will abate so a full house of Arkansas and Oklahoma fans can jam BOK Arena, the Razorbacks haven’t left Walton Arena while defeating among others Texas-Arlington, University of Central Arkansas, North Texas, Oral Roberts and Abilene Christian.
Musselman prefers a tougher schedule but says in this covid influenced season he more preferred playing a lot of games against opponents who could drive to Fayetteville than traveling at greater risk of contracting covid or the game cancelled.
“To me, the most important thing was how do we get the maximum amount of games,” Musselman said. “We felt like limiting our travel would help us. This is an abnormal year, so we scheduled abnormally from how we have in the past.”
Pearl maintains Arkansas played a tougher schedule than generally perceived.
“We know we’re going to go up against an undefeated Arkansas team that won’t get enough credit for the schedule they’ve played,” Pearl said. “They’ve played a lot of really good teams that a lot of people would be afraid to play against. Even though they’ve played them at home, those teams can beat you, whether it be Oral Roberts or Central Arkansas or North Texas, UT-Arlington. Abilene Christian was in the (NCAA) tournament a year ago.”
The 2019 NCAA Tournament with Auburn in the Final Four was the last tournament played. The 2020 March Madness was covid cancelled before it could begin.
Other than junior reserve guard Jamal Johnson, Pearl returns nobody from that Final Four team.
These Tigers proceed undaunted.
“I like my team,” Pearl said. “We’re really young. Let’s see, nine freshmen and sophomores in my top 10. We’re going to have to see what kind of step up that we have now that we’re entering into conference play. Can we step up physically, athletically?”
The Tigers, always loaded with 3-point shooters under Pearl, most rely offensively on 6-6 guards Justin Powell, a freshman averaging 13.9 points, and sophomore Little Rock Parkview alum Allen Flanigan (13.8) and son of Auburn assistant coach and former Parkview great Wes Flanigan, and 6-8 freshman forward Jaylin Williams (10.8 scoring average) not to be confused with Arkansas freshman reserve forward Jaylin Williams of Fort Smith Northside.
“Right now we’re making nine (threes) a game, which is a lot,” Pearl said. “I would be thrilled if we could continue to average making nine. I don’t know that our shooting percentages are going to go up or improve just simply because of the quality of the defenses that we’re going to be playing against. Arkansas is fourth in the country in blocked shots. They do a great job defensing the three ball because of their length and the ball pressure, the quickness that they have.”
Musselman says Auburn with Powell and Flanigan and sophomore guard Devan Cambridge, only averaging 6.6 points but a history of double-digits scoring can explode on any defense.
“Justin Powell played at Monteverde Academy with Moses (Moody, the freshman guard leading Arkansas’ scoring),” Musselman said. “He’s a really good off guard who has transitioned also playing point guard. Flanigan, a lefty, can play three different positions and is a much improved player. Cambridge can get hot from three and had some big scoring nights last year as a freshman. They are a great offensive rebounding team.
Defensively, Musselman calls Auburn “a great shot-blocking team. We are going to have to finish around the rim. They create steals. We have our work cut out for us. Auburn is a very good team that is well coached and has an incredible record in their own building.”
Arkansas with its top six averaging from 7-3 center Connor Vanover’s 8.8 points to Moody’s 16.9 ,as a team leads the SEC in scoring, rebounding, 3-point shooting and blocked shots.
Tonight starts determining whether that holds in SEC play.