Fresh off an amazing upset of Kentucky Saturday afternoon, Auburn welcomes rival Alabama to Auburn Arena, tonight. Auburn is hoping to build off the momentum gained from that victory. Alabama is hoping to continue their run from last season when the Tide beat Bruce Pearl's Tigers in both games.
Two years ago, when Auburn hired Bruce Pearl (and before I was writing, here), I thought that Auburn hiring Bruce Pearl was the best thing that could happen for Auburn and for Alabama, as well. There was no way the Powers That Be at Alabama were going to let Auburn hire a marquee name in basketball and significantly improve the program without answering with their own.
Alabama is now under first year coach Avery Johnson, who has done great things in year one. The Tide have knocked off two ranked teams, already. They defeated Wichita State and Notre Dame in back-to-back games, which is a huge step forward for their program. Johnson and Pearl are both recruiting at high levels and setting up for what will hopefully be a great rivalry in the coming years.
It's a shame we're not getting Auburn's full roster in Year 2 under Pearl against Alabama's roster under Johnson in Year 1. The Tigers are down their most effective defender in Tahj Shamsid-Deen and one of the more dynamic scorers and overall playmakers in TJ Dunans due to injury. The bench isn't in much better shape, either, as New Williams is still dealing with the knee injury that's kept him off the court for most of the season, and it's to the point now where I think we have to believe there's no way Purifoy plays this year.
To make matters worse for Auburn, Kareem Canty, Auburn's primary scorer and best player on the court lately, may be limited after rolling his ankle late against Kentucky. Canty played through the final minute and a half of that game, but it was obvious he was in a lot of pain. Bruce Pearl said that he would test it in practice Monday and attempt to play, tonight, but who knows how much he'll play and how effective he'll be compared to his normal games.
Alabama comes into the game 10-6 on the season, compared to Auburn's 8-8. Even though Alabama has the better overall record, they are still 12th in the SEC compared to Auburn's 7th due to Alabama's 1-3 conference record and Auburn 2-3. Alabama's lone win is at home against previously undefeated South Carolina, a team who defeated Auburn in Auburn Arena. Auburn's two wins are at home against Tennessee and Kentucky.
If you're going purely on home-away records, you have to like the way this sets up for Auburn. The Tigers only have two losses at home this season, to Colorado and South Carolina. The Tide, meanwhile, have dropped two conference road games (and a home game to Kentucky).
The records won't matter in this one, though. Alabama is on a three game winning streak against Auburn and looking to prove that they're on a faster track of improvement. Auburn is going to once again have to overcome a depleted bench and hope to get the absolute best play out of its starters and what little bench players they have available.
From looking at these stats Bobby Barkley pulled from the Game Notes, the outcome of this game will likely be determined by the same thing the last few games have been decided by: how well Auburn shoots the three point shot.
Alabama is playing better in SEC play than Auburn in most every statistical category. Auburn is scoring more points, but they're also allowing more points. Auburn is rebounding more, but they're also allowing more rebounds. These are small things that can add up. Whether Auburn overcomes those differences depends on how well the Tigers are shooting threes. Make the three point shots and those opposing rebounds will drop (and, obviously, our points increase).
Auburn is also going to need to play like they did against Kentucky in pretty much every SEC game going forward if the Tigers want to have a good year. There was room for improvement even in that game, especially early, but the important thing was the effort and intensity on defense and lack of fouls. Auburn has struggled with key players like Canty, Harris, and Horace Spencer in foul trouble in a lot of games this year. Against Kentucky, no Tiger had more than three fouls. Playing clean will allow the Tigers to keep their best players on the court more and help with the issue of such a thin bench.
The keys for Auburn will be playing clean, not wasting possessions with quick threes (that we then fail to contest the rebound if they miss), shooting well, and defending strong under the basket. Alabama has some great three point shooters, as well, so Horace Spencer's ability to swat those down (without fouling) may be important. One of the most devastating things in Auburn's three SEC losses were the opponent's ability to get clean looks and drain three pointer after three pointer. In the two wins, the Tigers benefited from horrific shooting (Tennessee) and also limited attempts (Kentucky).
It's going to be a tough game for the Tigers given the injuries. If there's one thing the team showed during the Kentucky game, though, it's that they're not going to let depth affect their desire (and ability) to compete with the best in the SEC. Here's to hoping that carries over through tonight and the atmosphere inside Auburn Arena is just as electric and motivating for the home team.
How to Watch, Stream, Listen:
Time: 9pm Eastern / 8pm Central
TV: SEC Network
Listen: Auburn IMG Network