It's not revenge Bruce Pearl is after—it's a reckoning (free high five if you can name me that movie without Googling it).
The Auburn Tigers (12-13, 4-8 SEC) certainly surprised this writer with a solid victory against the Georgia Bulldogs (in Athens, no less) on Saturday, and in the locker room afterwards, the next game was already on Bruce Pearl's mind. After a joke or two about Valentine's Day and starting Antoine Mason off the bench regularly (Mason had a solid game as a non-starter after being with his ailing father in New York this week), it was all business for Pearl:
"Let's get ourselves prepared for Tuesday night."
And what better preparation than fighting and clawing for a hard-fought win against then 4th-ranked (SEC) Georgia in Athens? The Crimson Tide (15-10, 5-7 SEC) may have a better record than the Tigers right now, but it hasn't exactly put together a stellar resume so far this season. In fact, it came down to a last-possession turnover by Tahj Shamsid-Deen in Tuscaloosa for Alabama to escape with a win earlier this year. Alabama's road record? 2-6 so far, which includes SEC losses to South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, and LSU. Bama has also lost to Xavier this season, a team that Auburn fought hard to beat in double-overtime in December.
But records won't win games for either of these teams as they both fight for postseason opportunity in this, the last stretch of the SEC schedule. Auburn certainly proved this weekend that when the chips are down, this team will fight to the end, and they'll certainly have to continue to fight for consistent offense and defense without Tahj Shamsid-Deen, who has been out with season-ending shoulder surgery since before the Georgia game. Interestingly, with three SEC teams ahead of Auburn holding a 5-7 record, a win tonight could give the Tigers a surprisingly huge boost in its quest for SEC redemption after suffering for years under a man who probably spent more time at Bourbon Street Bar, En Fuego, and Jimmy Johns funding personal bad habits than in the locker room or on the court giving a damn about his players.
In a game that saw Auburn squander a couple of leads, the Tigers still managed to keep it close in Tuscaloosa earlier this year. Close won't cut it in Auburn Arena, which is expected to be as packed and as loud as it's been all season for SEC play. Pearl and the Tigers will absolutely need a rowdy crowd for a full, hard-fought 40 minutes of basketball tonight. The home-court advantage needs a boost for Auburn, and a win over a tough Alabama away team could do just the trick.
Last season, because of icy conditions, Alabama's SGA President cited "safety reasons" for not showing up with the coveted Iron Bowl trophy, which was won, of course, after the everlastingly powerful and all-time greatest football play ever: Kick Six (hi, Chris). However, the basketball team, coaching staff, and a few fans managed to find their way into Lee County that night, which makes us wonder: did hell actually freeze over because of one little football play? Perhaps we'll never know.
Hopefully this time, Alabama will cite "safety reasons" for not bringing something else to Auburn Arena, such as free-throw shooting or an efficient full-court press. Both teams shot free-throws well in Tuscaloosa, but Bama showed its defensive toughness with consistent blocks, steals, and rebounding. Auburn will have to show the same toughness it showed against Georgia, as well as smart, fundamental basketball, in order to put away a fiesty Crimson Tide team looking to sweep Bruce Pearl in his first season with the Tigers.
KT Harrell will certainly look to shoot a better 3-point percentage earlier in this game. His late-game heroics against Georgia certainly sweetened the victory, but Auburn will need him to perform early and often to get the home crowd going. For Cinmeon Bowers, it's business as usual as he'll be seeking yet another double-double. It will be crucial for him to keep a level head as this game is sure to get heated throughout the evening. Let's hope officiating has improved to the point that a foul called within 50 miles of the big man isn't automatically assessed as a technical on him.
Without Shamsid-Deen's quickness and spark, and with Antoine Mason trying to get back into form after a tough week with his family, it'll be another tough task for Auburn's bench players. T.J. Lang didn't have the game he wanted in Athens on Saturday, and Trayvon Reed is still developing in Pearl's system. Both players will need to be ready when they get the call to action.
For Alabama, Anthony Grant will depend on the experience and one-two punch of Michael Kessens (the Tide's leading rebounder) and Levi Randolph (its leading scorer). No doubt that the elite hipster club of Bama hoops experts will wax and wane if these players don't produce against their hated little brother tonight.
In the end, the stats will be the stats. There's more on the line than, well, the line. Auburn has yet another chance to make a statement in front of the greatest basketball atmosphere in the SEC (don't take my word for it—ask Joe Dean, Jr.) and perhaps a much needed shot in the arm to turn the season around for a respectable SEC and overall record before March gets rolling.
If you're going to the game, wear orange. Also, cheer loudly. Prepare mentally and physically. Light calisthenics in between classes or work shifts will exercise lung capacity. Eat lightly to reduce painful gas and indigestion. Stick to foods with protein for energy and key vitamins for strength, such as grilled or baked chicken or fish and raw vegetables with plenty of water or Gatorade. Luden's or Hall's cherry lozenges will soothe and prepare an aching throat for intense yelling. Be sure also to wear comfortable and, if possible, super stylin' shoes for long periods of standing (in fact, what even is sitting?). It's going to be a bumpy ride. Bruce Pearl and your scrappy Auburn Tigers will need you for the entirety. Need any extra motivation?
A lot of loyal Auburn hoops fans have suffered both wins and losses against this Tide basketball program and its steroid-level delusional fan-base. Remember what's been established before you and earn your stripes tonight.
KT Harrell will hit the 1000-point mark (8 points away) tonight in front of the wildest home crowd of the season against Auburn's biggest rival. War Damn Eagle. Beat Bama.
When: 8:00 pm CDT
Stream: WatchESPN / ESPN3
Listen: Auburn IMG Network