Alabama @ Auburn: Game Preview

After two straight wins at home, the Crimson Tide basketball team will travel to the Plains Saturday to face the Auburn Tigers. In addition to being a rivalry game, the Tide is looking to get above .500 in SEC play, and any road win from this point on would be huge for Bama's postseason hopes in Year 1 of Coach Anthony Grant's "Process".

Tip-off is set for 3 p.m. local time, and Bama fans can buy tickets online here. A big showing by Bama fans on the Plains could help negate Auburn's homecourt advantage.  For those who can't make it, the game will be televised throughout the Southeast on the SEC Network. Check here for local affiliate listings, but in most cases it will be the same station that brought you the old JP/LF/Raycom games. For those outside the Southeast, you can watch the game online at ESPN360.com.

Following a record-setting defensive performance in holding LSU to 38 points on Wednesday night, the Tide is now 3-3 in SEC play and 13-7 overall for the season. In order to be in contention for a surprise NCAA berth this year, Alabama will need to finish above .500 in SEC play. To do so, Bama will need to win at minimum two more road games this season, and seeing as Auburn is one of only two road opponents left on the schedule below .500 in SEC play, this is a game we really need to find a way to win.

Speaking of Auburn, the Tigers are currently 1-5 in SEC play after losing a hard-fought shootout to #18 Ole Miss on Thursday night. Coach Jeff Lebo's team is 10-11 on the year in his 6th season at the helm.  Despite the worst record in the SEC over the past decade and the worst basketball fanbase in the SEC, Auburn always gives Alabama problems when the Tide travels to the Plains.  Whether it's because they actually have fans show up, because their players play so hard in the rivalry game, Alabama's road struggles under former coach Mark Gottfried, or some combination of the above, Alabama has only won twice in the last decade at Auburn--and that includes several years when Alabama was near the top of the SEC and Auburn at the bottom.  Bama will have to play an excellent game to beat the Tigers on their home court,seeing as Auburn has given #1 Kentucky and #18 Ole Miss big scares at home in just the last month.

Read below the jump for more pre-game analysis...

This year's Auburn team seems to be pretty much your typical Auburn team under coach Jeff Lebo.  As in most years at Auburn, you won't find any five-star talent on the roster, and you'll have to look real hard to find a four-star, if you find one at all. That said, they have some nice guards with good quickness and decent skill, and they have a little more size in the post than in recent years. As always, they are a perimeter-oriented team that lives and dies by the 3. In fact, they are jacking up 3s at the rapid rate of over 25 per game (by comparison, we shoot less than 16), so obviously defending the arc is a big key to this game, as is the simple question of whether or not Auburn is able to hit their 3s when they take them. When they are hot as a team from behind the arc, they are extremely dangerous, as evidenced by their controlling large parts of their games against ranked opponents Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ole Miss when they were hitting.  I've praised Alabama's perimeter defense a good bit recently, but it will truly be put to the test in this one.  I'll go ahead and say that the biggest key to this game is likely to be our perimeter defense vs. the Auburn perimeter shooters.  We have to rotate quickly outside on defense, get around and switch on screens smoothly, and avoid fouling 3-point shooters while closing down space.  Finally, we have to just hope that Auburn's shooters don't get hot and bring the crowd into it when they do get open shots.

Lebo is fortunate to have the services of one of the SEC's more underrated point guards, senior DeWayne Reed.  Reed leads the team in both scoring and assists, with 16.4 points and 4.6 assists per game. Alabama has done a good job defending opposing point guards lately, and it will be very important for us to continue that streak against Reed.  Auburn's other two starting guards are also very solid players.  Sophomore Frankie Sullivan is a talented player who supposedly wanted to come to Alabama, but was never offered by the former coaching staff.  Let's hope that snub doesn't come back to bite us.  Sullivan is the team's second-leading scorer at 13.5 points per game, and he leads the team in steals while hitting 40% from beyond the arc.  Senior Tay Waller is the last of three Tiger guards averaging double-figures at 12.1 points per game.  He is the best 3-point shooter on the team, averaging 2.7 made 3s per game while shooting 39% from beyond the arc.  All three of Auburn's starting guards are threats from deep, as they each average over 1.6 made 3s per game.  Auburn has a pair of 6'5" freshmen guards, Andre Malone and Earnest Ross, who provide depth in the backcourt.

The leader of the Auburn frontcourt is senior forward Lucas Hargrove, who plays somewhere in between a small forward and a power forward.  Hargrove leads the team in rebounding, with 7.3 per game, and also averages double-digits in scoring at 13.1 points per game.  He is exactly the type of player Coach Grant likes to match up Chris Hines on defensively, so look for that to be the case when Lebo goes with only Hargrove and one true post player.  When Hargrove is in the game with two other forwards, Tony Mitchell will likely draw the matchup.  Senior forward Johnnie Lett usually starts down in the post, but senior center Brendan Knox actually gets the most minutes at that position.  Knox averages 8.8 points while shooting a very high 68% from the floor.  Sophomore forward Kenny Gabriel and freshman forward Ty Armstrong provide depth for the Tigers in the post.

Lebo deserves credit for being a very good defensive coach.  Auburn uses smaller, quicker lineups to pressure perimeter players and make it difficult for opposing offenses to get comfortable.  They are known for executing traps in their halfcourt defense which usually generates a lot of turnovers.  Although Auburn is a very well-coached defensive team, I actually think that both of our star players, Mikhail Torrance and JaMychal Green, have the potential to have big games down on the Plains.  First off, for Green, none of Auburn's post players are known as particularly dominant defenders or strong rebounders.  He needs to be aggresive offensively throughout the game and really look to score in a lot of different situations.  He also needs to avoid silly fouls, because we're really going to need his scoring in this one.  Torrance has potential for a big game because none of Auburn's starting guards is over 6'2".  At 6'5", Torrance can use his size advantage when driving in the lane and getting off floaters and layups.  Torrance abused smaller Vanderbilt point guard Jermaine Beal earlier this year until Commodore coach Kevin Stallings switched the much taller Jeffery Taylor on him. Although Auburn does have two 6'5" guards on their bench, neither has the athleticism that Vandy's Taylor does.  Tony Mitchell will also be a key part of this game for Alabama, as Auburn's 3-point attempts will generate a lot of loose ball situations where he excels in rebounding, and Auburn will be forced to match a much smaller player on him when they go man.  Finally, as always, we will need Charvez Davis and Anthony Brock to knock enough 3s down to keep Auburn honest in the likely event that they go zone for much of the game.

As noted earlier, this is a crucial game for Alabama.  Winnable road games like these are what will decide our fate down the stretch.  Fans should not glance at Auburn's record and discount them though.  If one thing is for certain about Auburn basketball, it's that the Alabama home game for them is their one game to fill the stands and the players know it and always seem to play above their heads when we come to town.  A win over Auburn in their gym would not only be sweet, but it would also be a much needed step in Grant's Process.  Beat Auburn.  Roll Tide!

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