In the middle of a tough stretch that features three road games in 11 days, the Auburn Tigers will be back on their home floor Saturday night.
That return home, however, won’t be a pleasant one if the Florida Gators have their say.
No. 9 Auburn (13-1, 2-0 SEC) is back in Auburn Arena at 7 p.m. Saturday to face Florida (9-4, 0-1 SEC). The Tigers enter the matchup riding a 10-game winning streak, while the Gators are hoping to shake off an 83-70 loss to Alabama on Wednesday.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl noted his Tigers have traditionally struggled against Florida, and entering Saturday’s matchup the Gators have a two-game winning streak over Pearl’s program. Pearl also pointed out Florida has one of the SEC’s best non-conference victories in the form of its 71-68 win over Ohio State on Nov. 24.
Now, the Gators come to town hoping to ruin the Tigers’ unblemished record in Auburn Arena.
“Florida is another really good defensive team,” Pearl said Thursday. “They force turnovers, they make it difficult, they press. So it’ll be a great matchup.”
Pearl raved about Florida forward Colin Castleton, a preseason first team All-SEC selection who’s responded by averaging 15.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per game with 31 blocks so far this season. Pearl added he might use Castleton’s status as a first teamer as a bit of motivation for Dylan Cardwell and Walker Kessler since neither were included as first teamers or second teamers before the season.
Given Castleton’s success, Pearl said he was one of the conference’s top shot-blockers.
“They run a lot of good stuff for him. He draws fouls like crazy. He spreads out. He’s really physical,” Pearl said. “He provides effort and energy and confidence, I think, to their team. He’s their leading scorer. He’s their leading rebounder. You know he does a terrific job.”
Pearl’s team will have its hands full with Castleton and company, but the Tigers enter the matchup with plenty of momentum on their side.
Auburn enters Saturday’s action after an impressive 81-66 victory over South Carolina during which the Tigers’ bench took its play to the next level. The Tigers’ depth has been no secret this season, but the group’s 40 points – headlined by point guard Wendell Green Jr.’s 22 – showed the drop-off between the starters and the reserves is minimal at most.
Pearl said getting his reserves to come off the bench and produce boils down to recruiting, explaining he doesn’t promise prospects what he can’t deliver and that no one is promised a starting role or minutes. He said the message to Auburn players is that they’re going to share, they’re going to play hard and they’re going to play unselfishly.
Pearl credited this year’s team for buying into that mentality going back to the offseason.
“They became friends this summer. They became best friends this fall,” Pearl said. “They respect each other. They care about each other. They’ve competed against one another to try to establish position to the team.
“Now they know it’s time of the year when it’s time to not compete against ourselves anymore but to compete against our opponents.”
Pearl added the Tigers will play many other starting-five lineups throughout the year, explaining he didn’t feel like the Tigers have started well as of late – especially to begin either half against South Carolina.
As for the team’s health, Pearl said Thursday it was a day-to-day situation, though he noted wing Allen Flanigan was unavailable for Thursday’s practice. Flanigan missed Saturday’s victory over South Carolina due to “medical reasons.”
“We hope to get [Flanigan] back for Saturday. That’s definitely a possibility,” Pearl said. “Other than that, I think we’re good to go.”