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PREVIEW: Arkansas @ Auburn; Plus Q/A With Auburn Insider

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Opponent: Auburn Tigers
Date: Wednesday, December 30
Time: 6:00pm
Place: Auburn Arena, Auburn, Alabama
TV/Streaming: ESPN2
All-Time Series: Arkansas Leads 34-20
All-Time Series at Auburn: Auburn Leads 14-12

Keep Your Friends, But Your Enemies Closer

I caught up with Will McLaughlin, a college basketball writer covering Auburn hoops. He writes for our sister site, College & Magnolia. We chatted about the matchup between Arkansas and Auburn on Wednesday night. Here’s our conversation:

Ben: This has been a weird year for Auburn. The announcement of no postseason play and being without their presumed best player in Sharife Cooper. I’ve seen the #FreeSharife movement on Twitter. Do you think we see the 5-Star PG in an Auburn Tiger uniform at any point this year?

Will: This was always going to be a transition year for the Tigers after losing so much off of last year’s team. Auburn lost all 5 of their starters and there are no players left from the Final Four team of the 2018-2019 season. Four years ago, the NCAA did the same thing with Danjel Purifoy, where they waited and waited to make a decision on his eligibility in regards to a SAT score. That decision didn’t come until February so this isn’t the first time Auburn has watched the NCAA sit on a case for months and not make a ruling when it comes to a player. It’s unfortunate every way you look at it, especially with the amount of waivers that’s been handed out this season.

As for Sharife, I’m still fairly optimistic that we will see him at some point. Over the last few weeks, he has started practicing with the team and has been active and engaged during games on the bench as well. I just want the NCAA to make a decision, whether it be he’s eligible or he’s not. Cooper has the talent to be a 1-and-done type of player and if he had a big season, there was definitely the possibility of that happening. As of now, I think it’s very possible we might see him in Auburn for another season. At the end of the day, Sharife has been waiting long enough on a decision about his future.

Ben: While Auburn has missed Cooper, Justin Powell has been pleasant surprise this year. What about Powell’s game makes him so successful as a true freshman?

Will: Powell is a 6-6 guard from Kentucky who is an excellent shooter, particularly from 3. Powell’s a 51.4% 3-point shooter so far this season and leads the team averaging 13.9 PPG. (You think Kentucky would like to have him right now?) Coming into the season, he was a wild card and probably the least talked about freshmen as a lot of people missed out on him because he committed early and he hasn’t played a whole lot over the last 2 seasons. He was hurt most of last year and had to sit out a large portion of his junior year after transferring back home to Kentucky after a stint at Montverde Academy. While Powell has been awesome from 3, he’s also an excellent rebounder as well. He’s done a great job of handling the point and a lot of that credit belongs to Coach Pearl in that he trusts him to be the PG and Powell has flourished in the role.

Ben: Which Auburn player needs to do more now that conference play has arrived?

Will: I’m going to go with Devan Cambridge here. Devan was expected to take on a much bigger role this season starting at the 3 spot, but he has struggled mightily. Devan is shooting just 22.2% from 3 so far this season and that’s worse when 45 of his 64 shots this season have come from distance. He had a couple games last season where he made 6+ 3-pointers and then there were games he didn’t score at all so ultimately for Devan, he just has work on his consistency and getting his shot back.

Ben: Arkansas opened up as a 2-point favorite for Wednesday’s game. What are the keys to Auburn beating the Razorbacks?

Will: How well Auburn shoots the 3 and Auburn’s production from their Big 3: Powell, Auburn’s Jaylin Williams and Little Rock native Allen Flanigan. Flanigan of course is the son of assistant coach Wes Flanigan who played at Auburn and he has had a breakout season this year, averaging 13.8 PPG while improving his all-around game on both sides of the floor. Those guys have to carry the load if Auburn wants to win this game. I’m also fascinated to see the matchup in the paint with Connor Vanover going against the likes of J.T. Thor, Williams and Stretch Akingbola. This is a tall Auburn team, but they don’t have a 7-3 guy like the Razorbacks do so how they fare against him will also be huge.

Ben: What is your score prediction for the game and why?

Will: I think we’ll learn a lot about both teams in this one and this is a toss-up game for me. The Tigers have continued to get better the more they play together and are a team that could be quite a pest for teams in SEC play this year. I think Flanigan or Powell has a really big night and one of Auburn’s bench players steps up to give a huge lift off the bench. If this game was in Fayetteville tomorrow, I would pick Arkansas to win but just the fact that it’s in Auburn, even without the full Jungle, I like the Tigers to win a close win tomorrow night, 78-72.

A huge thanks to Will for giving us some great insight on Auburn basketball!

The Tigers

Record: 6-2
Head Coach: Bruce Pearl
Notable Wins: Memphis (96-91), St. Joseph’s (96-91 OT)
Notable Losses: #1 Gonzaga (90-67), Central Florida (63-55)

Many thought this would be a lost year for the Tigers after self-imposing a postseason ban, but that’s not how Bruce Pearl operates. This team may be young, but they have some pieces. They just need to put it together.

Auburn needed overtime to beat St. Joseph, was pulverized by #1 Gonzaga, then took an L to a solid UCF team. They continue to play better as the season goes along, but not have 5-star point guard Sharife Cooper has hurt. The freshman is still waiting to be cleared by the NCAA.

Justin Powell has been a huge surprise though. The true freshman is averaging 13.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists while shooting 51.4% from 3.

Little Rock native Allen Flanigan has also been a bright spot. Flanigan is averaging 13.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists with 39.0% from 3.

Auburn will start 5 player 6-6 or taller. This is length and athleticism that Arkansas has not seen this year.

The Tigers need to hit shots. Flanigan and Powell are the only players shooting above 34% from 3. If Auburn can take care of the basketball and shoot better then they can be a much better team.

The Razorbacks

Record: 8-0
Head Coach: Eric Musselman
Notable Wins: Abilene Christian (85-72)
Notable Losses: None

Finally we get a true test for this Arkansas team. We will learn a lot about this squad on Wednesday night. No matter the result of the game, it will be important not to overreact. Win or lose, this is 1 game. If Arkansas wins in convincing fashion, fans should be thrilled. If Arkansas loses, fans should be disappointed. With that said, this is 1 of 19 remaining games. Take this first one with a grain of salt.

Arkansas needs to get to the basket tonight. Auburn is allowing teams to shoot 50.7% from 2, but is defending the 3 well. If Arkansas can get to the rack early and often, there will be plenty of open 3s on the outside.

The first area of emphasis tonight for Arkansas is rebounding. Auburn and Arkansas both rebound the ball very well. Arkansas has a rebounding margin of +13.2. Auburn has a rebounding margin of +7.0. Because Auburn loves to shoot 3s, there will be a lot of long rebounds. Arkansas needs to come up with those loose balls and limit opportunities for the Tigers.

The other key for Arkansas tonight is defending the 3. Auburn shoots 29.6 threes per contest this year a unimpressive clip of 32.5%. The Tigers are going to shoot it. I don’t think there’s any doubting that, but the Hogs must close out quickly.

We know defending the 3 well as been a staple of the Musselman era at Arkansas thus far. I think we see that continue. Auburn has some weapons, but they are very young. I’ll take the Hogs.

Prediction: Arkansas 75, Auburn 67

Thanks for reading! For all things Arkansas basketball, follow me on Twitter @BenBrandonHoops