AUBURN — Auburn's Isaac Okoro is listed as questionable to play Saturday at Missouri, but head coach Bruce Pearl said the team will not rush him back.
The standout freshman forward pulled his right hamstring late in the Tigers' overtime win over Alabama on Wednesday, falling to the floor as he chased a loose ball down the court. He was helped to the locker room by the team's athletic training staff as he held the back of his leg in pain, and did not return to the game.
Okoro did not practice Thursday. Pearl said he won't be cleared to return to game action until he is able to practice.
"When that happens I’ll let you guys know," Pearl said. "He’s working really hard to get back but we won’t rush it."
If there is a positive, it's that even if Okoro's injury does keep him out, it isn't season-ending. He was seen on campus Thursday walking with a limp and the help of one crutch, but he was walking. The start of the postseason is still almost a full month away.
But Auburn (22-2, 9-2 SEC) is right in the thick of the SEC regular-season championship race with seven games remaining. It could have to fend off Kentucky and LSU without one of its star players, at least for some period of time.
"With Isaac, it was all we could do to win in overtime. Now, without Isaac, if he can’t play, it’ll just challenge us in some other areas," Pearl said. "Obviously he’s of great value to us. So we’ll see. We’ll just have to see how that plays out."
Okoro would not be easy to replace — the 6-foot-6 freshman ranks second on the team averaging 13.1 points per game on 50.9 percent shooting in 32 minutes a game as a starter. He also contributes 4.8 rebounds, one steal and one block a game while serving as arguably the team's best backcourt defender.
"Other guys got to step up and be able to find a way," Pearl said.
The "other guys" at Okoro's position are freshmen Allen Flanigan and Devan Cambridge. Neither would need to step into a starring role on a team that would still be led by seniors Samir Doughty, J'Von McCormick and Austin Wiley, but they could both be asked to play a lot more minutes.
Flanigan, like Okoro, is a big-bodied and capable defender, but he has not produced much offense this season, averaging only three points in 12.9 minutes a game. He has scored more than five points only five times all season, and not since a Jan. 15 loss at Alabama.
Cambridge has produced more offense on the whole, but he has been inconsistent — he scored 26 points against South Carolina on Jan. 22, 21 against LSU this past Saturday and 10 against Alabama on Wednesday, but is still averaging only 5.5 points in 12.8 minutes a game since the start of SEC play.
Auburn could also decide to play senior Danjel Purifoy more at the small forward spot with Anfernee McLemore at power forward and Wiley at center. Purifoy has started 21 games at power forward this season and has played there for most of his college career, but he was a natural three coming out of Hargrave Military Academy before the Tigers moved him to the four out of necessity.
Purifoy missed Saturday's game against LSU due to the flu but returned Wednesday against Alabama. He scored only three points in nine minutes, but he is expected to be full-go against Missouri. For the season, he's averaging 9.3 points and 4.9 rebounds in 27.2 minutes a game.
"Danjel practiced yesterday," Pearl said Friday. "We did not go hard yesterday simply because physically and mentally these games take a toll. I know I hear from our fans all the time what kind of toll it takes on them. It takes a toll on us, too.
"We definitely wanted a rest yesterday, but he did get a good workout and we’ll practice today. We’ll have a contact practice before we get on that bus and head to the airport. Hopefully, we’ll see how he does, but I would anticipate he’s back."
Pearl said there's a chance that Auburn could extend the rotation with someone like freshman power forward Jaylin Williams, too.
"It's possible, with foul trouble, that Jaylin's got to be ready, for sure. That's definitely a possibility," Pearl said. "Jaylin is really good every day in practice. It's been great watching his maturity, his getting bigger and stronger and more physical. Offensively, he could play right now. He's good to go. Defensively, it's just about learning."