With a tough schedule to close out their regular season on the horizon, Vanderbilt needs a win at Auburn on Saturday.
The Commodores will face their last sub-.500 (in conference play) opponent this weekend when they travel to Alabama and face the 4-9 Tigers on their home court. After that, things get tricky. The 'Dores get #2 Florida, a trip to Tennessee, and contests against LSU and Ole Miss to close out their regular season. That'll make Saturday's matchup a virtual must-win for a team that already punted an easy matchup when they lost to a 1-9 South Carolina team a week ago.
Auburn should be a tougher matchup than the Gamecocks were thanks to a pair of dynamic scorers in the backcourt. KT Harrell and Chris Denson have combined to average nearly 40 points per game this season. They'll look to key an upset victory that would get the Tigers over .500 for the first time since late January.
Can Vanderbilt pick up a key road victory with the postseason looming? They can if they follow Northwestern State's lead. Let's take a closer look at out the Demons ran Auburn off their home court back in November.
Auburn (12-12, 4-9 SEC, unranked in the Coaches' Poll, #113 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Other Losses: at Florida, vs. Florida, at Iowa State, vs. Kentucky, vs. Missouri, at Tennessee, at LSU, at Arkansas, at Ole Miss, vs. Illinois, at Mississippi State
Auburn didn't just lose to Northwestern State - they outright collapsed against the Demons. The Tigers led by 13 points five minutes into the second half before their defense allowed NWSU to run the game as if it were their pregame layup line. After trailing 69-63, the Demons scored on 22 of their last 24 possessions to lock down a blowout win. State's only two missed baskets in that span came thanks to a botched dunk and a tough layup.
Auburn has improved since their early November loss to NWSU, but first impressions are hard to shake. The Tiger defense collapsed down the stretch, allowing Northwestern State to crack the century mark in a road win. While Auburn has played tough as the season progresses, they still haven't been able to wash the stink of a 19-point home loss to a middling Southland team away.
Key to Destruction: Run, run, run. NWSU is second in the country when it comes to scoring thanks to a high-tempo pace that has them putting up 86.2 points per game. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, sits 286th among Division I programs by scoring 66.5 points per contest. Vandy won't be able to score in volume like the Demons did, but they can emulate State's style late in the game by pressing the ball upcourt and letting athletes like Damian Jones, Kyle Fuller, and Dai-Jon Parker finish at the rim. Auburn didn't have an answer for NWSU's attacks in the paint; while that isn't exactly a Vanderbilt strength, it's something that Kevin Stallings can exploit on Saturday.
Keys to the Game:
- Challenge Auburn's big men at the rim. NWSU finished off their win with points in 22 of their final 24 possessions. 18 of those possessions ended either with layups or free throws. Auburn center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum is playing better as a sophomore, but he's still a foul magnet who got tossed from the Northwestern State game after just 15 minutes on the court. James Siakam and Damian Jones will be able to chip away at him inside, but it will be the drives of guys like Fuller and Parker that lead to easy points at the rim for the 'Dores.
- Fire away. State's ability to get inside led to an all-out collapse from Auburn's over-extended defenders. Wing players kept slouching inside to stop the ball, and that led to plenty of open looks on the perimeter for the Demons, who made 14 of their 27 three-point shots. While Vandy doesn't have the personnel to push the pace for 40 minutes, the Commodores certainly have the horses to put up 25+ three pointers if the open looks are there.
- Create your own energy. This is unrelated to Auburn/Northwestern State, but tied to Vanderbilt's disappointing road loss to South Carolina last week. The Commodores played a postponed game in front of a dead crowd and never seemed to find their flow (outside of a great performance from Jones). Saturday's game could prove to have a similar environment with an indifferent crowd and vast swatches of empty seats. Vandy can't afford to fall into another hole if the 'Dores want to finish above .500 in SEC play this season. They'll have to come out hot if they want to avoid playing at the Tigers' energy level on Saturday.
Vanderbilt can climb to 7-7 in conference competition with a win against Auburn, but the Tigers are tougher than their 4-9 SEC mark suggests. Kris Denson and KT Harrell are both dangerous scorers who can lead AU to a home win on Saturday. However, Auburn's defense will give the 'Dores plenty of chances to steal a victory on the road and set up a rally with just three weeks to go until the SEC Tournament. If Vandy can attack the rim efficiently, they should be able to leave Alabama with a .500 record in league play.