AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl knows everything is out of his control with the exception of leading his own team. But Auburn's coach is fine with that. And while he is far from pleased to have ended the regular season with six straight losses, he believes only part of it is due to his team being shorthanded. In Pearl's mind, the quality of the SEC has every bit as much to do with it.
But if Auburn (12-19) can knock off Mississippi State in the opening round of the conference tournament tonight in Nashville, Tenn., Pearl said that would be a step in the right direction.
"It would be something that we could put in the left column as an accomplishment," he said, before going into what he views as the keys to the game for the Tigers. "We have to get back in transition. Mississippi State did a really good job of guarding us and we are going to have to guard them. My focus is, what can we do to score and stop them? The reflection on the season or how important a win would be for our program is stuff that I can’t control right now. I have to focus on what game plan will give us a chance.”
The only matchup between the two teams this year came Jan. 22 in Auburn, which saw the Bulldogs jump out to nine-point lead at halftime. In the second half, they extended it to 18 points — 48-30 at the 15:22 mark — before the Tigers rallied back. Auburn made it 67-65 thanks to a 3-pointer from KT Harrell. In the end, the Tigers fell just short, losing 78-71 to have their seven-game win streak at Auburn Arena snapped.
Pearl remembers his opponent well.
"Mississippi State is a very quick team. They are one of the quickest and most athletic teams in our league," he said. "They are very deep — they play 10 guys. They are tough covers."
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray didn't dispute that his team handled Auburn's press well the first time around.
"I thought we were able to handle their press fairly well. I thought our guys did a really good job of throwing the ball over the top and attacking. We want to do that," he said. "When teams press, you want to be in attack mode and I think guys made smart decisions when they were attacking. I thought we also did a pretty good job on the defensive glass."
Despite the baggage that the previous defeat to the Bulldogs brings — on top of their six-game skid — the Tigers received a bit of good news Sunday when Antoine Mason rejoined the team. The team's second-leading scorer missed Auburn's last three regular season game following the death of his father, Anthony Mason, on Feb. 28.
How much he'll play or how effective he'll be is anyone's guess.
But Pearl said that's not the most important thing right now.
"We really didn't discuss with him the particulars about it and if and why he was going to come back. I left that up to him and when he decided that’s what he wanted to do, we worked with him on it," the coach said. "We have had some conversations about what the spring will be like, as far as representation goes, what events they will be invited to and what they should or should not go to, and summer leagues, and things like that for the guys that want to play professionally. I did have some conversations with him about that.”
The last thing Pearl wants to do is look too far ahead, though. They'll have time for that whenever the season finally comes to a close.
"We will point to a lot of positive things, and there are also a lot of negative things to point to," he said. "(But) we'll have time to focus on that when it is over.”