The Crimson Tide basketball team will look to avoid an untimely disaster tonight as they take on the Auburn Tigers. Tip off is set for 7:00 pm CST with the game being televised regionally on the SEC Network and streamed outside the region on ESPN3.
As we mentioned earlier this week, the Tide is on the verge of qualifying for March Madness--if Bama can avoid horrible losses down the stretch. It's doubtful Alabama players or fans need any extra motivation when playing the school's biggest rival in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,000+, but the Crimson Tide could very well lock up its long-awaited return to March Madness with a win tonight.
Losing this game to Auburn would be especially costly thanks to Auburn's weak RPI ranking of 140th (as of Tuesday). Taking a loss at home to a sub-100 team is just about the worst thing that can happen to a team's tournament resume. That's the bad news. The good news is that Auburn is ranked 140th for a reason. They are just 4-10 in SEC play, and 3-13 against top 100 teams. They have some nice players and play a very feisty brand of basketball that can frustrate opponents, but at the end of the day they have struggled to knock off good teams. They are one of the weakest teams in the SEC, and Alabama will be playing at home in front of what should be a large and boisterous crowd. This is a game Alabama can and should win with solid focus, energy, and execution.
With all of that said, this is by no means an automatic win if Alabama doesn't do those things. Auburn may be one of the weaker teams in the SEC, but they are still an SEC team, and they are capable of playing with and beating good teams. They've already beaten NIT team Ole Miss and NCAA bubble teams South Florida and Mississippi State, and they've had several hard-fought losses to strong teams, even playing #1 Kentucky fairly close for most of the game. They play tough, hard-nosed defense and typically play very scrappy on both ends. Teams that don't come prepared for a physical battle can be in for a long night. For a prime example, see what happened in this same game last year when a vastly superior Alabama team needed a buzzer-beater to avoid catastrophe against an even weaker Auburn team.
Some may be overconfident about this game after the Tide handled Auburn pretty easily on the road a few weeks back. However, while Alabama managed to pull away and win with relative ease in the second half of that game, a few things happened that made it appear easier than it could have been. First, Auburn was awful from the free throw line, squandering chance after chance to keep the score close and keep their crowd in the game. Second, Auburn had three technical fouls called on them, including two for hanging on the rim, that absolutely killed their momentum in key parts of the game. Third, Alabama had an unusually strong shooting night from the perimeter, something that really keyed the Tide's ability to pull away in the 2nd half. It would be unreasonable to expect any of those things to happen again in this game, so Alabama's players and fans need to be prepared for a more drawn-out battle this time around. If those things hadn't happened the last game, things would have definitely been much closer and could have easily broken Auburn's way.
One important aspect for tonight's game is player availability for each team. Alabama's Trevor Lacey is questionable with an ankle sprain. He had caught fire offensively in recent weeks but has missed most of the last two games with his injury. He may miss this one completely, and even if he does suit up he likely won't be 100%. The bigger question though may be the availability of Auburn's Varez Ward and Chris Denson, both of whom were suspended for the Tigers' last game. Ward in particular is a vital player as the team's starting point guard. Coach Tony Barbee said yesterday that it would be a game-day decision whether or not their suspensions would be lifted. His quote certainly makes one suspect those two will be in uniform tonight in Tuscaloosa, but at least the possibility exists they won't be.
Whoever suits up for Auburn, Alabama has to come out with great energy (Coach Grant's favorite phrase), execute on both ends of the court, and maintain focus throughout. If the team does those things, Alabama can for all intents and purposes ensure itself a spot in one of America's biggest sporting events tonight...and also beat Auburn. That's always fun. Hope for the best.
Quick Look at Auburn
10-4 in non-conference play: 9 of the 10 wins came against sub-100 teams; were blown out against all three NCAA Tournament teams they faced (Seton Hall, Long Beach State, Florida State) and also lost to Barbee's former team, UTEP. Only decent win came at home against bubble team South Florida.
4-10 in SEC play: beat Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, and South Carolina at home; lost by one possession to LSU, Arkansas, and Mississippi State on the road; blown out by Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida on the road and Alabama at home; played #1 Kentucky tight for much of the game at home before falling. Also lost closely contested games to Ole Miss on the road and Arkansas at home.
Much stronger defensively than offensively: Auburn is ranked 6th in the SEC in overall defensive efficiency, but ranks dead last in the SEC and near the bottom nationally in offensive efficiency. They also rank 17th nationally in shot blocking rate, their biggest strength.
Frankie Sullivan: The 6'1" junior guard is one of the big reasons for Auburn's improvement after missing last season due to injury. He leads the team in scoring and 3-point shooting.
Kenny Gabriel: The 6'8" senior wing player has been Auburn's most dynamic player the last two years. He is 2nd on the team in scoring, leads the team in rebounding by a wide margin, and is the biggest reason why Auburn is among the top 20 teams nationally in blocked shots, as he is among the top shot-blockers in the SEC.
Varez Ward: The The 6'2" junior point guard has been a godsend for this team after transferring in from Texas. He's not a great shooter but he's fantastic at creating off the dribble and especially at drawing fouls. His status for this game is crucial.
Keys to the game
- JaMychal Green must stay out of foul trouble. Auburn knows this, and will try to attack him. If Green has to sit for any reason, Alabama will lose one of its biggest personnel advantages over Auburn. Green was extremely effective in the previous game at Auburn, and his presence on the court --or lack thereof--will likely be big in this one too.
- Trevor Releford v. Varez Ward. This will be the matchup to watch. It is imperative that Releford gets the best of Ward on both ends of the court. Releford clearly got the best in the first matchup, but Ward is a very solid player and will come ready to play--assuming his suspension is lifted. As point guards, both players are the biggest keys to their respective offenses.
- Alabama must avoid turnovers. In a game against a feisty Auburn defense, Alabama simply can't afford to give away possessions. A high turnover count on Alabama's part is Auburn's best path to pulling off the upset.
- Shooting. Auburn is almost as bad shooting the ball from the perimeter as Alabama. If either team has an unusually good shooting night it could easily make the difference in what is expected to be a very low-scoring game. Alabama had a good shooting night in the previous game, while Auburn had a poor one. If that is reversed this time, expect a very close game. If it is repeated, it's hard to see Auburn leaving with the upset.