Tigers open Battle 4 Atlantis with UConn in top 25 matchup

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Walker Kessler walked into Auburn’s media availability Tuesday with his bucket hat on. It was fitting. Kessler and his teammates are in The Bahamas this week for the Battle 4 Atlantis. What better place to spend Thanksgiving?

But make no mistake about it. The Tigers are there for one reason only – to win. 

“This is an opportunity to play three great teams,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “It’s an opportunity to build or destroy your resume. It’s an opportunity to play against the best teams in the country and to get tested in all the different ways that you’re going to be tested. 

“This is a business trip. There’s not going to be a lot of swimming with the dolphins. This is not a cultural summer tour. We won’t be visiting many museums or spending much time on the beach. Now we’ll enjoy the climate, we’ll enjoy a beautiful setting, and the guys will get a chance to see that. But we’re here for business.”

The field for the Battle 4 Atlantis is as strong as ever with six teams who made the NCAA Tournament last year, including last year’s national champion Baylor. There are perennial powers with UConn, Michigan State and Syracuse as well as a Loyola Chicago team that went to the Final Four three years ago and reached the Sweet 16 last year. 

Auburn, ranked No. 19 in the latest AP poll, opens the tournament Wednesday against a UConn team ranked No. 22 that Pearl thinks might be the best of the bunch. 

“Our offensive execution is going to be challenged,” Pearl said. “UConn is going to extend and make it difficult for us to try and run our stuff. We’ve got to do a better job executing offensively. Defensively, it’s handling their physicality, their post-up game and their rebounding.”

“We’re not where we want to be yet, and we know it. But we know where we’ve got to get to.”

The Tigers and Huskies will be the second game of the day in The Bahamas on Wednesday and will tip off at 1:30 p.m. CT or approximately 30 minutes following the conclusion of Michigan State and Loyola Chicago from Imperial Arena.

The game will be televised on ESPN with Karl Ravech and Jimmy Dykes on the call. Andy Burcham and Joe Ciampi will have the call on the Auburn Sports Network. 

Auburn will player either Michigan State or Loyola Chicago on Thanksgiving Day. 

For the third-straight game, sophomore guard K.D. Johnson scored in double figures off the bench to lead Auburn to a perfect 3-0 start to the season. He recorded a team-high 15 points – his 15th career game in double digits – in a 58-52 road victory at USF. Johnson sparked a 15-0 run in the second half in the Tigers’ come-from-behind win. He is averaging a team-leading 15 points per game and is currently among the top 50 scorers in the nation (45th).

Auburn holds a 2-1 advantage in the all-time series with UConn. This will be the second time the two programs will match up in a neutral-site tournament. Auburn and UConn met in the 1989 Great Alaska Shootout where the Huskies prevailed 95-81 in the consolation semifinals. Since that initial meeting, the Tigers own a two-game win streak in the series, including an 89-64 win at Auburn Arena on Dec. 23, 2017, in their last meeting. 

In the last two games, victories over ULM and South Florida, Auburn has outscored its opponents, 88-45, in the second half. The Tigers held ULM and USF to 34.6 percent shooting from the field after halftime and forced a combined 18 turnovers. They will look to continue that success against a UConn team who is averaging 92.0 points per game. 

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