Auburn basketball set for crucial battle with Mississippi State on Thursday

By Jackson Love

Auburn (11-11, 5-8 SEC) suffered a painful last-minute loss to Kentucky on Saturday, falling to 1-3 in the SEC since a loss to Baylor in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. Mississippi State (11-11, 5-8 SEC) has been identical since a win over Iowa State, but the Bulldogs have regularly given Auburn fits with their size and style in recent years.

Though there are no SEC accolades on the line, Mississippi State is fighting for a better seeding in the upcoming SEC Tournament (Auburn is ineligible due to its self-imposed postseason ban). Here’s how both teams stack up:

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs are tall, an attribute that has given Auburn trouble in the past. The frontcourt houses the 6-foot-11-inch Abdul Ado and 6-foot-10-inch Tolu Smith, a pair that combines for 14.5 rebounds per game. Both also make over 50% of their shots. In the backcourt, Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart both play over 32 minutes per game and total 33.6 points per game between each other.

Mississippi State plays slow, with Ken Pomeroy ranking their pace of play at 291st in the country. While none of the Bulldogs’ numbers are remarkable, they excel at rebounding, hauling in 38.6 boards per game as a team. Winning the battle at the glass will be key to netting an upset win.

Last Saturday, the Bulldogs fell by 21 points to Vanderbilt, the SEC’s worst team. In five of its last seven losses in conference play, the Bulldogs have failed to score more than 55 points. Which version of Mississippi State that shows up Tuesday could be a deciding factor in the game. If the offense is rolling, look out. If it’s not, Bulldog fans will not be confident.

Auburn

The Tigers have had their share of frustrating losses this season. The offense routinely scores a lot of points, but the defense is often unable to keep the opposing team off the scoreboard enough times to seal a win. In fact, Auburn has lost five SEC games in which it scored 80 points or more.

The most important stretch of the game for Auburn continues to be the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half. Last Saturday, Kentucky scored 17 points before the under-16 timeout in the second half, taking a lead that it never relinquished. The Tigers have to figure out how to bring energy to the first frame of the second half and prevent inferior teams from getting the jump on them.

Sharife Cooper has changed the state of this team, but he needs to learn how to be more efficient from the floor. He made just six of his 23 shot attempts last Saturday, and he probably cost Auburn a win by not giving enough of those shots to the red-hot hands of JT Thor and Allen Flanigan. Still, his team-leading 19.6 points per game make him a threat at any point, and if he can get to the free-throw line when he drives to the basket this time around, Auburn’s fortunes may well be different.

Keys to the Game for Mississippi State

Win the rebound battle. The Bulldogs are 55th in the nation at rebounding. Auburn ranks in the top 40, but State’s tall frontcourt pulls down a lot of rebounds on either side of the court. Mississippi State needs to out-rebound Auburn and set themselves up for lots of second-chance points.

Keys to the Game for Auburn

Stay hot. JT Thor and Allen Flanigan combined for 47 points against Kentucky. Flanigan’s 23 points were his second-most of the season, and Thor’s 24 was a career high. Now that they’re back on the home floor, both players need to continue that streak and outpace Mississippi State.

Prediction

Both teams are in the middle of a serious skid, and both have a great chance to catch themselves and break their fall. Mississippi State is falling faster and harder than Auburn after a 21-point home loss to the SEC’s worst team, and now they have to go on the road.

It will probably end up closer than comfortable thanks to the size matchup, but Auburn will do enough to win its sixth SEC game.