By Jackson Love
The Auburn Tigers (8-7, 2-5 SEC) are on the right track, but they still have some important hurdles to clear if they want to get back into the thick of SEC competition. That first hurdle comes in the form of a road meeting with the South Carolina Gamecocks (3-4, 1-2 SEC), a team that has been as unfortunate as any in the country this season.
COVID-19 protocols have ravaged the Gamecocks’ season. They’ve played less than half as many games as just about every other team in the conference and were able to play just one game in the month of December, a 77-67 loss to the Houston Cougars.
The Gamecocks have dropped two-straight games coming into Saturday’s matchup, both on the road, but their home court has been a problem for Auburn in recent years. South Carolina has won the last three meetings at Colonial Life Arena, and though they are just 1-2 in conference play, their numbers have been significantly better since rounding out the non-conference schedule.
The Gamecocks are scoring 76 points per game against conference opponents, and they do a great job of sharing the ball, as well. 50 of their 87 made field goals (57.5%) across conference play have come off of assists.
Missed shots won’t be the end of possessions for this team, either. South Carolina ranks second in the SEC in offensive rebound percentage at 36.2%, and they’re averaging 16.7 offensive boards in conference play.
Auburn’s basketball season has been rocky as well, but for different reasons. 13 of the 16 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores, and after two months of basketball, the roster still isn’t at full strength.
Sharife Cooper will be playing in just his fifth game this season after missing. His highly anticipated arrival has intersected with a troubling injury to Justin Powell, who filled in for Cooper while an NCAA investigation kept him from seeing the court. Powell remains listed as day-to-day after suffering a head injury at the end of the Texas A&M game on January 2.
Cooper’s arrival in the lineup has boosted the Tigers in many ways. Auburn is scoring 81 points per game since he was cleared to play, a significant improvement from its mark of 74.3 points per game in the previous eleven games.
South Carolina’s rebounding ability will present a challenge. If the Gamecocks can continue their hot streak on the boards, second chance points could seriously hurt the Tigers. Both teams are virtually equal in defensive rating, so tomorrow’s matchup looks to be one where both teams will run neck-and-neck for the majority of the game.
Auburn will shoot more three-pointers than South Carolina, and the game may well rest on their ability to make them. But, the Tigers have always struggled with making shots on the road, and it’s led to tough losses—this season, Auburn is 1-4 away from home.
But, this Auburn team is different from the one that limped through the first several games of conference play. They’ll make just enough shots toward the end of the game and steal just enough rebounds from the defensive glass to head out of Columbia with a win for the first time since 2014.