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Mizzou Hoops Preview: Auburn

The newly crowned No. 1 team in the country will visit Missouri looking to continue its 15-game win streak.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

That’s better... I guess?

I’m sure Mizzou’s weekend loss to Alabama still isn’t sitting right with most of the fan base. After all, losing double-digit leads in the second half is always hard to stomach. But you have to at least give the Tigers some points for resiliency. Despite their fall from grace over the past few months, Alabama is still one of the country’s premier teams. They’re fast, they shoot the ball well and they’ve got high-end talent that Missouri can’t always match. Maybe coughing up the lead in the final quarter of the game isn’t ideal, but Missouri did what we’ve been clamoring for them to do all year long: make games competitive. They did so in a hostile environment too.

The numbers looked somewhat favorably on Missouri’s effort in Tuscaloosa, bumping the Tigers up a few more KenPom spots to 135. The Tigers are now breathing down the necks of Ole Miss and South Carolina, desperate to climb their way back to where they started the year in the top 100 area. In order to continue that climb, however, they’ll need to weather a minor storm headed their way.

Missouri has proven it can hold its own against better teams at this point. The Arkansas game notwithstanding, the Tigers have used January to prove they’re at least better than the team that got washed by the likes of Kansas, Illinois and Kentucky. That’s what they’re trying to convince everyone of, anyway. If they really want to prove a point, they’ll have to do so against possibly the best team they’ll face all season: the Auburn Tigers.

Saddled with a holster of high-end transfers and elite freshman, Bruce Pearl’s Tigers have taken the college basketball world by storm. You may have heard they’re the new top dog in the land and while KenPom doesn’t rate them quite as highly, they’re still fifth in adjusted efficiency. They’re also currently on a 15-game win streak, a tear only tarnished by a double overtime loss to Connecticut at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

Since then, they’ve dispatched Loyola Chicago , SLU, LSU, Florida, Alabama and, most recently, Kentucky. The underbelly of their schedule is a bit soft, but you can only win the games put in front of you. Auburn has done that 18 out of 19 times. Their only date with Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers comes tonight in Columbia, Mo. For Auburn, Missouri is a stepping stone to further glory.

For Missouri, however, their lone meeting with Auburn is a chance to prove their growth; that they won’t just roll over when the bigger, better team comes to town. Tonight is about proof-of-concept, even if the concept is simply providing your opponent a reason to show up in the first place.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (8-10) Auburn (18-1)
Position Missouri (8-10) Auburn (18-1)
PG Jarron Coleman (Jr., 6'5", 210) KD Johnson (So., 6'0", 204)
CG Javon Pickett (Sr., 6'5", 215) Zep Jasper (Sr., 6'1", 185)
WING DaJuan Gordon (Jr., 6'3", 190) Allen Flanigan (Jr., 6'6", 215)
PF Kobe Brown (Jr., 6'8", 250) Jabari Smith (Fr., 6'10", 220)
POST Trevon Brazile (Fr., 6'9", 215) Walker Kessler (So., 7'1", 245)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Players to Watch

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably Bruce Pearl’s best team in his time at Auburn, these Tigers are an enticing blend of NBA-level underclassmen and savvy veterans, the former of whom make up the bulk of the rotation. It starts up top with a dynamic duo of UNC transfer Walker Kessler and SEC Player of the Year candidate Jabari Smith. Kessler has been especially effective in SEC play, posting the conference’s best two-point shooting percentage and block percentage, the fourth best defensive rebounding rate and the second best overall offensive rating. He’s an interior nightmare on both ends of the court. Smith hasn’t been as good in league play, but he’s been an overall terror all season long. He’s a complete player with an excellent jump shot, defensive prowess on the ball and in the paint, a strong rebounder... I could go on. He’s just really good, believe me.

Sophomore Wendell Green has been a revelation since arriving from Eastern Kentucky, posting one of the country’s best assist rates while keeping his turnover rate surprisingly low for someone who’s such a dynamic creator. He also defends well and shoots enough to earn respect. Fellow sophomore transfer KD Johnson (sorry, Georgia) isn’t quite as prolific offensively, but he’s an opponent’s nightmare on defense, where he generates a lot in transition. Senior Zep Jasper (guess what, a transfer!) doesn’t chip in a ton on the scoresheet, but he’s a solid enough shooter and ball-handler that Pearl doesn’t have to worry about him complicating matters for the rest of the roster.

Role Players

NCAA Basketball: Central Florida at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Pearl is truly spoiled rotten this season. As if his elite first five weren’t enough, he’s got a deep bench full of useful pieces to make this team a terror come March. Junior Devan Cambridge gets the most minutes of this group and provides two-point scoring depth for when Kessler needs a breather. Jaylin Williams plays a similar role as a combo forward, but he also brings the element of rim protection, as if Pearl needed more of that! Oh shoot, I forgot about Dylan Cardwell who actually blocks shots better than anyone on the team except for Kessler while hitting the offensive glass hard and shooting over 61 percent from close range. Truly an embarrassment of riches. Allen Flanigan has a handful of starts to his name, and he’s proven somewhat useful providing rebounding and scoring depth from the wing. The Tigers don’t need him too much, though, so he only gets about 22 percent of the minutes.

Chris Moore and Lior Berman have been battling through injuries over the past few games, so they may or may not see the floor against Missouri. Moore is an aggressive defender and rebounder off the wing, but he’s a bit loose with the ball. Berman is a strong shooter, but he’s more of a spot-up threat than a true lead guard at this point.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Auburn Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 103.5 (168) 17.4 (184) 46.4 (298) 21.1 (303) 32.5 (52) 29.1 (200) 27.1 (344) 49.2 (200) 73.3 (111) 9 (171) 10.5 (288)
Auburn 89.9 (12) 16.5 (27) 45 (19) 21.9 (40) 28.1 (157) 33.1 (253) 31.6 (101) 43.6 (13) 71.7 (205) 22.5 (1) 13 (18)
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Embrace the equalizers

Facing Auburn will be the Tigers’ stiffest challenge on offense thus far this season. The Tigers rank 12th in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency, mostly due to their elite shot-blocking, ball-hawking and two-point defense. However, if there are weaknesses to be found, Missouri may be able to exploit them. By far Auburn’s weakest point on defense is their fouling, where they actually rank below Missouri in the amount of free throws they give up. Surprisingly enough, they also struggle to defend the three, ranking 101st in the country.

In the past three games, the Tigers have found their stroke, shooting just over 45 percent from deep. They’ve also found success in some of their upset wins by getting to the line and slowing the game down. Auburn, with its focus on turning defense into offense, could be thrown off kilter by regular disruptions in rhythm. If Missouri wants a chance, they’ll need to embrace the three (scary stuff for this team, but sure) and work the refs for some extra trips to the line.

When Auburn has the ball...

Auburn Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Auburn 117.1 (13) 16.9 (111) 53 (65) 16.1 (31) 31.8 (82) 29.9 (179) 34.3 (136) 54.1 (54) 73 (121) 9.4 (205) 9.2 (153)
Missouri 101.4 (138) 17.4 (167) 51.8 (258) 18.2 (206) 29.9 (241) 32.8 (248) 35.6 (276) 50.7 (223) 66.7 (33) 11.7 (76) 9.2 (183)
Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

What to Watch | Pick your poison!

Auburn’s offense ranks just a hint behind its defense — 13th vs. 12th — in KenPom efficiency. Unlike its defense, however, the offense doesn’t contain any true weak spots. The Tigers aren’t excellent three-point shooters and don’t get to the line a lot, but they’re not necessarily bad at anything either. They mostly ride their two elite big men, who provide Bruce Pearl scoring options all over the floor. Kobe Brown and Trevon Brazile will undoubtedly spend most of the night on Smith and Kessler, but the Tigers won’t be able to contain them both all night, at least not without opening themselves up to harm elsewhere.

Perhaps the Tigers would be best served packing the paint against Kessler and forcing the rest of the team to shoot their way out. It’s not a perfect strategy, especially given Smith’s excellence behind the arc. But Missouri may not have the horses right now to do otherwise.

KenPom predicts...

Auburn 78, Missouri 64 | Much like this past weekend’s trip to Alabama, this game almost goes beyond a win or a loss. Auburn is, by KenPom, the best team Missouri has faced this season and they’re riding an all-time hot streak. Never count out a Cuonzo Martin team’s ability to muck up a game, but the chances of a win here aren’t great. Ideally, Missouri is able to keep this one close until the closing 5 to 10 minutes. Anything can happen from there, but you’d have to feel good about even approaching an upset of that magnitude.