We've all heard that old sports saying: "this game is [Team X]'s Super Bowl. [Team Y] better be ready."
Well, the old saying certainly applies to the Crimson Tide basketball team's road game against the Auburn Tigers tomorrow evening. Tip-off is set for 5:00 CST Saturday, with the game being televised regionally on CSS and streamed world-wide by ESPN3.
Auburn has been bad this year, at times historically bad, but they've shown just enough fight here lately--especially at home--to lead many to believe they will ultimately chalk up an SEC win or two along the way. If they're going to avoid becoming the first 0-16 SEC team in modern college basketball history, a good time for them to do it would be against an undermanned rival Alabama team in the one game all season where Auburn fans will actually show up to create a real home court advantage for their team.
Auburn enters the game with a 6-11 record, with four of their six wins coming against teams ranked below 300 in the Pomeroy ratings. One RPI ratings expert predicted that if Auburn doesn't win at least a couple of conference games this season, they could finish as the lowest ranked major conference team in the history of college basketball. That said, much like with Alabama, Auburn is playing at a significantly higher level now than they were when they incurred some of their embarrassing non-conference losses back in November. Furthermore, in their last three home games they've actually shown the ability to compete--and even win--against NCAA tournament-level competition. They stunned Florida State (an NCAA bubble team) in their last non-conference home game for their only win against a team ranked in the top 200. Then in their first SEC home game they thoroughly outplayed LSU for a half, but couldn't overcome a slow start. Finally, just last night on ESPN they took Florida (a projected NCAA #6 seed) down to the wire before falling in the final minute. Bottom line: Auburn has been very bad at times, has almost no SEC-level talent, but as of late has shown the ability to compete and win at home against far superior teams.
Alabama enters the game as one of the SEC's hottest teams, tied for first in the league with a 3-1 record, but this potentially has all the makings of a trap game for Bama. The Tide are coming off the program's most emotional win in at least two years against Kentucky earlier this week, and a bye week awaits the team following the game Saturday. Meanwhile, as mentioned earlier, Auburn is sure to be playing in front of a packed house for the first time in their new arena (if nothing else, they'll come to see Chizik and company accept the Iron Bowl trophy at halftime...puke), and for a team that is used to playing in front of infamously small crowds at home, that is sure to provide a huge emotional lift for the Auburn team.
Read below the jump for full Auburn roster breakdown and game analysis...
The Tigers are led offensively by the versatile Earnest Ross, who leads the team in both scoring (12.3 points per game) and rebounding (6.7 per game) and is second in assists (2.2 per game). Offensively he is a streaky shooter who is not afraid to let shots fly, so a big factor could be just how many he gets to fall, but he's also an athletic player with good size for a guard so he can get to the rim as well.
The second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder is 6'8" junior Kenny Gabriel, who averages 9.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Gabriel is fairly quick for his size but not very strong. He does average one made trey per game though, so he can certainly create some matchup problems with his perimeter shot.
The third-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder is 6'10" sophomore Rob Chubb, who averages 7.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Chubb has been something of a pleasant surprise in the post as the season has worn on, but he's certainly nothing special.
Auburn's starter at point guard is an under-sized walk-on named Josh Wallace. The 5'10" sophomore leads the team with 4.2 assists per game, but his size and lack of shooting ability limit his scoring chances. He's most known as a pesky defender, and as his average of 2.0 steals per game indicates, he can cause problems for careless guards in that aspect.
All four of those major contributors were bench players averaging between 3.7 and 13.4 minutes per game on Auburn's team last year, which finished with the second-worst record in the SEC. That lack of experience took a big hit too when 6'1" junior guard Frankie Sullivan--the team's lone returning starter from last year--tore his ACL in the offseason, and 6'5" sophomore guard Andre Malone--who was second in scoring this year--suffered an injury and has missed the last seven games.
Two freshmen wing players have come in and helped Auburn with depth, but neither was a blue-chip recruit. 6'6" Allen Payne is very active and has come on stronger as the season has gone on, now averaging 5.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. He is also second in steals and is capable of hitting from deep, so he can help the team in a number of ways. 6'7" Josh Langford is a very similar player with similar stats--5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game--but he often plays closer to the basket.
The wild card coming off the bench is 6'5" junior Tony Neysmith, a transfer from Oklahoma. Apparently he's very athletic but has horrible ball skills. He has seen plenty of action lately, averaging nearly 18 minutes per game, but as his 3-of-18 mark from the free throw line indicates, his scoring touch is limited when he's not dunking.
We won't get to say this often about an SEC opponent this season, but Bama has a substantial talent edge in this one. If we come focused, prepared for a hostile lively atmosphere, and match the intensity that Auburn brings for their "Super Bowl", there's no reason we can't win against this bunch. We wouldn't even have to play our best game.
But as LSU, Florida, and especially Florida State showed, if you take Auburn for granted and walk into their place not expecting to face an opponent that will play with great intensity, you could find yourself in a struggle, and with this being their biggest, most emotional game of the year, the last thing we want to do is give them a chance to win it late.
Think about it this way: the gap between our talent right now and Auburn's talent is roughly comparable to the gap between ourselves and Kentucky. We had an amped home crowd and a team that played their hearts out for 40 minutes, while Kentucky didn't match our intensity until the last 15 minutes. If we do that at Auburn we are asking for the same fate that Kentucky suffered in Coleman earlier this week, and a loss to this Auburn team would undo all the good that the Kentucky win brought to this program.
Hope for the best.