Getting back home for after two road losses should give No. 13 Auburn a boost for Saturday’s Southeastern Conference matchup with Tennessee.
Getting Isaac Okoro back in the lineup would be an even bigger help.
The freshman forward, who has emerged as a huge factor for the Tigers at both ends of the court, sat out Auburn’s last two games — losses at Missouri and Georgia that dropped the Tigers (22-4, 9-4 SEC) into a tie with LSU for second place in the conference, two games back of Kentucky.
More critical than just the league race, however, is the impact that losing to a pair of second-division teams could have on the Tigers’ seeding when the NCAA Tournament field is announced next month.
The NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee awarded the Tigers a No. 4 seed in its initial rankings for the potential 2020 field, but that status is very much in jeopardy following the double-digit losses to 10th-place Missouri and 13th-place Georgia.
With three of the remaining five games left in the regular season at home plus the SEC Tournament still to come, there is plenty of opportunity for the Tigers to enhance their postseason credentials. But getting Okoro back from the hamstring injury he sustained late in the overtime win over Alabama on Feb. 12 is paramount.
His influence on the game goes far beyond the 13.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists he is averaging in his initial collegiate season. He has become the key figure in Auburn’s defense and has shown an ability to take over close games late.
“He’s one of the best players in all of college basketball,” coach Bruce Pearl told reporters before his Tigers lost at Athens. “We’ve got to have that next-man-up mentality.”
Pearl has gone with a mix of freshmen Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and Jaylin Williams to fill in for Okoro, but they combined for only 10 points and 24 rebounds in the two losses.
Okoro has not been officially ruled out against the Volunteers, but his return is more likely for next week’s home game against Ole Miss or the trip to Kentucky on Feb. 29.
“We’ve got to find a way to win without Isaac, and win with him when he gets back,” Pearl said. “And see if we can capitalize on all that we’ve done to put ourselves in such a good position.”
Tennessee has dealt with injury issues all season, but the Volunteers (15-11, 7-6) had Josiah-Jordan James on Tuesday for his second outing after a four-game absence for a hip injury. He started and played 13 minutes in the 65-61 victory over Vanderbilt, but was held scoreless on 0-for-2 shooting.
In his first game back, he had nine points on 3-of-8 shooting in a 63-61 loss at South Carolina.
“I think when you miss two weeks it isn’t an overnight fix when you come back,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought he did some good things against South Carolina, but tonight he never had a chance because he wasn’t doing his work early on the defensive end.”
Junior John Fulkerson has averaged 18.8 points in his last five games, a stretch that includes a career-high 25 against the Gamecocks.
–Field Level Media