By Adam Brown
The Ole Miss men’s basketball team returns home on Saturday to play host to the No. 4 Auburn Tigers inside the SJB Pavilion. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and can be seen on SEC Network.
Ole Miss (9-6, 1-2 SEC) is coming off of a 67-51 loss at Texas A&M on Tuesday night. The Rebels were led by Matthew Murrell with 11 points and Daeshun Ruffin with 10 points against the Aggies.
Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis expects with a limited number of tickets remaining for the game it will be a sale out.
“It will be a great environment to play an unbelievable team,” Davis said on Friday. “I have played against Bruce’s (Pearl) teams throughout the years for a long time now and he has done such a good job with all of them. Looking back this may be his very best one.”
Auburn stands at 15-1 and a perfect 4-0 in SEC play, with their lone blemish on the season coming in double overtime to UConn on Nov. 24 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, 115-109. Since Auburn has ripped off a 12-game winning streak during which they’re beating opponents by an average of 15.8 points per game and is shooting lights out at 46.1 percent overall and 35.8 percent from three while shutting down opponents from beyond the arc to just 28.7 percent.
“When you combine how hard they play and how good they run an offense,” Davis said. “They are one of the best defensive teams in our league defending the two and the three.”
Auburn’s season stats and national rankings are impressively indicative of a top-five team. The Tigers own a bruising shot defense, leading the NCAA in blocks per game (8.3) while ranking second in the SEC and 19th nationally at opposing field goal percentage (38.1 percent). Auburn is also superb on the ball, forcing the NCAA’s 24th-best turnover margin at +4.1 (No. 4 SEC) and the NCAA’s 19th-most steals per game at 9.7 (No. 4 SEC). A blinding scoring offense ranked No. 22 nationally at 80.6 PPG (No. 3 SEC) helps the Tigers own the NCAA’s 20th-best scoring margin at +15.0 PPG (No. 3 SEC).
The Tigers are led by freshman Jabari Smith, who was the highest-rated commit in the history of Auburn basketball last season. Smith averages 16.1 points (No. 5 SEC), 6.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 45.5 percent overall, 45.1 percent from three and 78.5 percent from the free-throw line. Smith also leads in total threes made with 37 trifectas.
“(Jabari’s) got great maturity as a young guy,” Davis said. “His talent just pops off and what he did in the first half against Alabama in that environment as a young guy it was unbelievable. He scored at all three levels made threes with mid-range isos drove it and blocked shots.”
Other Tigers averaging double-digit scoring include Wendell Green Jr. (13.1) and K.D. Johnson (12.8), while Walker Kessler ranks third nationally at 4.0 blocks per game alongside 9.4 points and 7.3 rebounds.
In this game, the Rebels will have to get back defensively to guard. In the past few years when Ole Miss has had success against the Tigers, they have kept the number of turnovers down.
“We’ve gotten back defensively,” Davis said. “(Auburn) is deserving of being a top-five team.”
On Saturday, it will be the 142nd all-time meeting between the two programs on the hardwood. Auburn holds a 79-62 advantage in the series. The Rebels hold an 18-game edge in Oxford at 43-25, including a 4-2 record since SJB Pavilion opened in January 2016. In the last meeting, Ole Miss defeated Auburn 86-84 in Oxford.