We are 24 hours from tip-off between Auburn and Alabama inside Auburn Arena. If Alabama wants to win in Auburn Arena, tomorrow is the time to do it. The Tide come in 3-0 in the SEC while Auburn fell to 0-3 after their loss Wednesday night to Ole Miss.
Today, I’m very excited to have Matt Landry from Crimson Crossover join us to talk Alabama Basketball with us. Matt’s answers are below in bold.
WM: Expectations in Tuscaloosa were very high coming into this year but your team got off to the same kind of start we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the last few years. But after the loss to Western Kentucky, it seems like the Tide has figured things out and started playing up to those expectations. What changed?
ML: Expectations were very high in Tuscaloosa prior to the season. Alabama had a nice mix of new faces and veterans to bring together a pretty talented roster. The loss to Stanford was expected, just not in the fashion it occurred. That Clemson game was one that realistically could’ve been the win if Alabama could’ve found a way to score in the last couple of minutes. The Western Kentucky game that you mention is one that will give nightmares to fans for a little while between the bizarre ending and a Quadrant-3 home loss. It was easy to see doom and gloom after that game and after barely squeaking by Furman after trailing for the fist 38 minutes or so. The biggest thing I’ve noticed is that the players have finally started to buy in to being a defensive-minded team and giving great effort for 40 minutes as opposed to only giving effort once they begin to trail. Coach Oats and Coach Charlie Henry are both good defensive coaches, and Alabama is starting to really show what they can do on that end when they’re mentally bought in. On the offensive end, they’ve started to put more pressure on the rim rather than jacking up the first 3 that comes available. That has led to easy buckets down low and becoming a dynamic offense that can score from every spot on the floor. Early on it was a lot of standing around and just hoping a shot would fall. It’s now much better movement wise and guys are beginning to make extra passes to take the best shot they can get on every possession.
WM: Nate Oats at Alabama, Bruce Pearl at Auburn. Both coaches are bringing top level talent in from across the country to play College Basketball in the state of Alabama. For a state where football is first, second and third, how great is it for the state of Alabama to see both of these basketball programs where they are at today?
ML: It’s great to see basketball on the rise in our state. Both Alabama and Auburn have phenomenal coaches on their roster who are great at promoting their programs. Bruce Pearl taking Auburn to the final four woke up a lot of fans statewide that this state can produce good college basketball teams after years of not really doing so. I do believe Nate Oats has Alabama on the rise and that they will be a great team for years to come with him at the helm and his style of basketball. Not just Alabama and Auburn are doing this, though. UAB and South Alabama are also doing a phenomenal job as they both have great coaches in Andy Kennedy and Richie Riley. It’s a fun time to be a basketball fan in the state of Alabama as all of these programs continue to improve.
WM: John Petty has had what I would call an up and down career, but when he’s on from 3 like he was last Saturday (4-4 in the win over Tennessee), he’s an excellent 3-point shooter. In his first two seasons, he was a combined 3-16 from 3 in Auburn Arena but was 6-11 last season. What are your thoughts on Petty as he progresses through his senior season?
ML: Petty finally showed the type of player he was recruited to be on a consistent basis last season. He improved in so many areas. He was finally a consistent shooter, he bought in on defense and really helped the team in that area, and has improved as a passer. Last week against Tennessee, like you mentioned, he finally started to get going from 3 again this season after starting the season cold after what was a weird off-season. The past few games John Petty has been huge for the Tide. He’s been great on defense and has left his mark on that side of the floor which he doesn’t get near enough credit. On offense, everyone knows he is a threat from 3, but he’s getting better at attacking the rim to either get easy buckets for himself or to set up shooters/players in the dunker’s spot of the offense. Petty has really come on here late to help push Alabama to this 3-0 start in conference play.
WM: It may be just me but I feel like the player who we don’t hear about enough happens to be your leading scorer, Jaden Shackelford. I’m always impressed with him when I watch Alabama play. Talk about the season he is having.
ML: Yeah, it seems like Shack has kind of been underrated for two years now. He’s a phenomenal offensive player with how dynamic he is. If he gets hot from 3 then Alabama is a tough team to beat regardless of who they are playing, but he has gotten much better as the season has progressed at putting his head down and driving to the rim with purpose. He used to drive a bit too soft and just hoped to get bailed out with a foul, but now he’s putting his head down and fighting through contact and finishing at a better rate. When Shack sets his feet on his 3-point shots it seems like, more often or not, it’s a bucket, so I look for more balanced shots moving forward as opposed to some of the pull-ups that have occurred throughout the year now that the offense is evolving a bit more. He has grown a lot as a defender as well. He gets picked on by opposing offenses at times due to his physical build of not being extremely athletic and being a bit short at the 2-guard position, but he’s gotten much better about not getting beat as often off the ball and getting himself in position to deflect passes and stay in front of his man. There’s always room for improvement, but Shack has really started to come into his own the last 4 games and he makes Alabama a more dynamic team.
WM: We’ve seen Herb Jones the last few years but the new addition to this year’s frontcourt was Yale grad transfer Jordan Bruner. I know you are really high on him but what can we expect to see from him?
ML: I’m definitely not afraid to show my love for Jordan Bruner. A lot of fans across the SEC, including Auburn and even Alabama fans, mocked those who were excited for the Yale grad transfer to arrive in Tuscaloosa. There’s still people who only see box scores and don’t realize the value Bruner brings to Alabama. He is the highest IQ player on the Alabama roster, and may be the highest IQ player that plays in this game this upcoming Saturday. He isn’t the biggest player, but for where he lacks size he makes up for by just making the right play on both ends. He is constantly in great help position to deflect a pass, get a steal, get a block, or just alter a shot on the defensive end. There were multiple times against Florida on Tuesday that he easily ripped Florida guards attacking the rim just by being in the right position and stripping the ball at the right time. He’s part of what has made Alabama such a great defensive team here lately. On the offensive end, he is a great decision maker. If he wanted to put up more shots every game he could easily average double figures in points, but he’s more concerned with making the right play every possession. He is a threat from the 3-point line so defenses have to respect him there which opens up so much for him in the offense. When he gets it down low, he’s more than capable of scoring low, but what he is great at is finding an open teammate cutting to the rim or in the opposite corner for an open 3. He reads the defense incredibly well and having a center who can do that opens up so much for any team. He’s also made a huge difference in rebounding for Alabama. He does a great job of bringing plenty down himself, but also does a great job at tipping out offensive boards and defensive boards to keep plays alive. I could go on and on about the value he brings, but you can just expect to see someone who makes the right play on both ends of the floor 99% of the time.
WM: Is there another under the radar player Auburn fans need to be aware of going into this game?
ML: There’s two guys I’m excited to see this weekend and what they bring to the table. One is Joshua Primo who I don’t think has gotten enough attention just due to his box scores. He has grown a lot lately and was huge for Alabama in their upset at Tennessee. He is a threat from 3, but also does a great job of making extra passes to set up teammates for great shots. He’s also a lengthy defender who is great on and off the ball. He just turned 18 in December, so he is still growing up as he is playing. He really struggled against Florida, so I look for him to have a much better game on Saturday.
Another player is Keon Ellis who deserves a lot more credit than he has gotten and is a bit under the radar heading into this matchup. He is coming off his best game of the year against Florida where he was 5-6 from the field and 3-3 from 3 to total 16 points and pulled down 8 rebounds. He is a scrappy player who always makes the right play – especially on the defensive end. He is one of Alabama’s best on-ball defenders and makes life tough for opposing guards. He is great off ball as well at taking away passing lanes when in help. Ellis is a JUCO guy that I was very high on coming into the year, and it is great to see him starting to get more confident game by game. He is a name to watch for sure.
WM: Finally, Alabama is 3-0 in the conference, Auburn is 0-3. Auburn Arena has been (mostly) a house of horrors for the Tide the last few years. But this is your best chance to come out of Auburn with a win. How do you see this game playing out and do you have a final score prediction?
ML: Regardless of records, I will always be nervous about a game heading into Auburn Arena. Other than last year, it seems Auburn doesn’t miss many shots against Alabama when playing in Auburn, so that is definitely a fear of mine heading into this game is that Auburn gets hot from 3 after a couple of ice-cold games. This Alabama team has been much better on the defensive end than in year’s past, though. I think Alabama is going to force Auburn into some tough looks and the players, in my mind, to watch for Auburn would be Allen Flanigan, Jamal Johnson, and Jaylin Williams. Flanigan has grown a lot on the offensive end this season so I am interested to see what he will do against Alabama. Johnson is a sniper who could really make an impact on this game if Alabama doesn’t contain him. Williams could present issues on both sides of the ball. He’s a big body who is a good athlete and a smart player. He offers a lot as a bigger-playmaker and if his shot is falling he is a real threat. Will Justin Powell be back? Will the NCAA rule on Sharife Cooper by game time? Those are two other key questions involving players who could have a big impact on this game.
For Alabama, how does the offense attack Auburns defense? How do they defend Auburn’s offense that is bound to get going at some point? Can John Petty and Jaden Shackelford get hot? Those are two of many different headlines to keep track of for Alabama. Like you said, this is the best shot in the last few years to leave Auburn with a victory and to start SEC play 4-0 after a tough four game stretch. I think this game is going to be extremely close, and I never thought I’d predict a win in Auburn Arena after the last few years but give me Alabama coming out on top with a 76-70 win. I really think this game could go either way despite what anyone may say. Rivalry games always bring out the best in both teams and there is a lot on the line for both teams right now no matter how early it is in SEC play. I expect the Tigers to keep this one very close and for Alabama to ride their hot streak down the stretch to pull out a win.