Tennessee's current men's basketball coach sure is having a much better season than one of Tennessee's former coaches.
Although Rick Barnes and his No. 25 Volunteers have not lived up to expectations as the preseason Southeastern Conference favorites, they still have a slew of attainable goals entering Saturday's noon showdown against Bruce Pearl's scuffling Auburn Tigers inside Auburn Arena. For Pearl, the only coach in Tennessee history to take the Vols to six consecutive NCAA tournaments and to the Elite Eight of the March extravaganza, waking up from this winter nightmare can't occur soon enough.
Auburn began Pearl's seventh year at the helm with a self-imposed postseason ban and with five-star freshman point guard Sharife Cooper facing an eligibility issue. Fellow freshman Justin Powell ran the point for most of the first 10 games before suffering what has become a season-ending concussion, and Cooper's dazzling play after being cleared by the NCAA was abruptly halted by an ankle injury last weekend.
Cooper, who has played in 12 games and averaged 20.2 points and 8.1 assists, did not dress out in Tuesday night's 74-57 loss to visiting Florida that saddled the Tigers with an 11-13 overall record and a 5-10 league mark. He isn't expected to play against the Vols (16-6, 9-6 ).
"It's just a culmination of how many times we're going to get hit in the gut," Pearl said this week on a Zoom call. "Before the season even starts, we made the decision to penalize ourselves because we think that is what's coming, and we're trying to get something that happened four years ago behind us. That was a tough shot for the kids.
"Then we don't have Sharife Cooper for the first 11 games, and that's just a lot to go through as a team. We're really guard short, and that's our biggest issue."
Pearl guided the Tigers to unprecedented heights the past three seasons, which was reflected by an 81-23 record that included the 2018 SEC regular-season title, the 2019 SEC tournament championship and a run to the 2019 NCAA tournament's Final Four. Amazingly, there might be a 2018-19 national championship banner hanging in Auburn Arena had current Orlando Magic forward Chuma Okeke not torn an ACL late in his 20-point, 11-rebound performance during the 97-80 thrashing of North Carolina in that year's Sweet 16.
Last year's Tigers capped a 25-6 regular season with an 85-63 win at Tennessee before the coronavirus shutdown, and Pearl's current team was displaying success when an 88-82 win over No. 12 Missouri represented a fourth win in five games to get Auburn to a 10-7 record.
The Tigers are just 1-6 since, however, and are coming off their ugliest showing of the season. Auburn committed 14 turnovers in the first half alone against Florida, when the Tigers fell behind 44-22.
Sophomore wing Allen Flanigan ran the point and committed seven turnovers while suffering through an 0-for-6 shooting performance.
"When you're two guards down, it's tough," Pearl said. "When Allen Flanigan has to play 35 minutes at the point guard spot, you take him off his good position. We were built to have Sharife in the middle of the floor playmaking and doing what he does."
Tennessee is seeking to halt a five-game series losing streak to Auburn, and a victory by the Vols would give them a winning record (5-3) this season in true road contests.