Auburn rode a wave of Senior Night emotion to a hot-shooting start and a 20-point first-half lead Saturday in the regular-season finale against Missouri.
But the emotional tide may have turned ahead of the rematch in the opening round of the SEC men’s basketball tournament around 8:25 p.m. Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., with the recent firing of MU coach Kim Anderson.
“I know Missouri will be ready to go, obviously, with the emotion of playing for coach Anderson,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Monday on the SEC men’s basketball teleconference.
Mizzou announced Sunday that Anderson, who is 26-67 overall with an 8-46 SEC record in three seasons, had been asked to step down and wouldn’t return next season.
A national search for his successor is underway, but that means the next loss will be his last game with the Tigers, for whom Anderson was the 1977 Big Eight player of the year and served two stints as an assistant coach under Norm Stewart.
“Kim obviously had a difficult situation that he came into,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Time wasn’t on his side, but Kim is a tremendous person, a tremendous coach and a friend of mine. I’m sorry to see that take place.”
It’s been an understandably difficult time for Kim Anderson, but he’s tried to make sure Mizzou remains focused on the SEC tourney and nothing else.
“(Sunday) was an emotional day for me and my family, but there are a lot of other coaches in the country that are in the same boat as me,” Anderson said. “ … I’m really at peace. I understand the decision and we’ve spent this morning going back through and getting ready for Auburn.”
Mizzou (7-23, 2-16 SEC), which is seeded 14th after tying for last place in the conference with LSU, trailed by 14 points at halftime in the regular-season finale at Auburn Arena before that cutting that deficit in half during an 89-78 loss.
The Tigers’ second-half performance provides reason for optimism after allowing Auburn (18-13, 7-11 SEC), the No. 11 seed in the conference tourney, to shoot 68.8 percent in the opening half.
“We talked with our guys beforehand about having to do a good job of trying to control the tempo of the game and slowing the game down a little bit,” Anderson said. “We obviously didn’t get that done. They had an abundance of fast-break points (16-0) and completely dominated the paint (44-16), maybe more so than any team we’ve played this year.”
Perhaps that familiarity will help Mizzou be more competitive in the rematch. Auburn certainly is leery.
“It’s difficult to beat a good team three times, for sure,” Pearl said. “We played well Saturday and it was a 10-point game — and we played well and at home.”
Pearl also professed his respect and admiration for Anderson.
“I told Kim before (Saturday’s) game just what a helluva coach I think he is,” Pearl said. “As far as our preparation is concerned, the stuff they run and what they do, from one basketball coach to another, it’s good stuff. I wanted him to know that.”
He doesn’t expect — and certainly hopes — Auburn won’t take Mizzou lightly despite a relatively easy win only five days earlier.
“I think our guys will be as excited about playing Missouri as they would playing anyone else in this tournament,” Pearl said. “Both teams have got a lot to play for, so I don’t think it’s going to come down to which team wants it more. Both teams are going to want it. It’s going to come down to which team plays better and executes.”