By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl said his team is healthy, or as healthy as it can be as it continues to play without one player who has missed most of the year because of injury, another who left the team as the leading scorer and another who was never cleared to play.
Still, Pearl says the Tigers are better off than they were a few weeks ago now that T.J. Dunans has returned, and that's a plus as Auburn looks to duplicate last year's late-season run in the next week.
The Tigers close out the regular season at Mississippi State at 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network with a chance to win a bye in next week's SEC Tournament in Nashville. That's the place where Auburn closed out last season with three straight tournament wins.
Auburn will earn a Wednesday night tournament bye this year if it beats Mississippi State, Ole Miss beats Tennessee and Kentucky beats LSU on Saturday. If those things don't happen, Auburn will play either Mississippi State or Tennessee in the tournament opener Wednesday night.
Dunans' return from a knee injury four games ago has given Auburn more flexibility at point guard, and the outside game of Bryce Brown, TJ Lang and Jordon Granger gives the Tigers' a shooters' chance Saturday and again in Nashville.
"We have an opportunity," Pearl said.
Pearl said he likes his lineup now, one that still hasn't had guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen for the most of the season because of a shoulder injury, one that is without leading scorer Kareem Canty who was suspended and then left the team eight games ago, and Danjel Purifoy, who was never cleared to play.
Auburn is 11-18 overall and 5-12 in the SEC. Mississippi State is 13-16 overall and 6-11 in the league.
Auburn closed out the regular season last year with a loss to Georgia, then surprised all with tournament wins against Mississippi State, Texas A&M and LSU before losing to Kentucky.
Auburn will close out the regular season in Starkville this time, and should know by tipoff if Ole Miss has beaten Tennessee, a key element to determine if the Tigers would get a bye.
"It does bring some more meaning to the game if Kentucky beats LSU, if Ole Miss beats Tennessee, we're playing Mississippi State for the 11-seed, and that would be something worth playing for to not have to play on the first day," Pearl said.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine