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Tide looks to bury Auburn

The Crimson Tide basketball team will look to beat the Auburn Tigers for the second time this season tonight in Coleman Coliseum. Tip-off is set for 7:00 CST, with game being televised regionally on the SEC Network and streamed world-wide on ESPN3.

With an SEC Championship within reach for Alabama, this game has plenty of ramifications. Bama is tied with Florida with identical 10-2 records with only four games remaining in SEC play. A win over Auburn tonight would give Bama a half-game lead over the Gators and also ensure that no team besides Florida could possibly catch the Tide in the SEC Championship race.

A loss meanwhile would significantly set back the Tide's SEC Championship hopes and would likely be a death knell for Bama's NCAA Tournament aspirations. As was discussed in yesterday's article on the Tide's postseason resume, Auburn's historically awful and embarrassing RPI rating of #270 makes a loss to them appear as such a prominent stain on a resume that it would be too much to overcome for our already borderline prospects. Essentially, this is the mother of all must-win games as far as Bama's tourney hopes go.

Granted, no one hates the RPI as a way to judge teams more than I do, and in all honesty Auburn is nowhere near that bad, especially the way they're playing right now. However, they find themselves with such a historically low RPI rating for a reason, and that reason is that they started the season with a string of embarrassing losses that make the Tide's trip to the Virgin Islands resemble a trip to the Final Four. They also are tied for the SEC's worst record at 2-10, and their available talent level would leave some JuCo coaches wanting.

On the other hand, Auburn, playing with a roster without a single player who ever averaged more than 2.8 points per game prior to this season, has quietly become more formidable as their young players have gained experience under first-year coach Tony Barbee. They have managed two SEC wins already, something few thought possible given the talent on hand and the humiliating start to the season they had. In addition, they also stayed competitive and were within a possession late against potential NCAA Tournament teams Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Vanderbilt, and managed to pull off a shocking upset of Florida State. In other words, they are vastly improved from the team that couldn't even beat the dregs of Division I basketball early in the year, and they are now a team that even NCAA-caliber teams like Florida and Alabama can't take for granted.

In the two teams' previous meeting this year, a 68-58 Alabama win on January 22nd in Auburn, the Tide battled a hostile crowd and a very cold shooting night to win in ugly fashion, but the game proved that Auburn is capable of frustrating the Tide and at the very least keeping things tight against this Alabama team. Of course, this game will be taking place in Coleman Coliseum in front of our own crowd, one sure to be much larger than even a packed-out Auburn Arena could hold. Bama has better talent, a better team, and will have home court advantage to boot, but while Auburn is still a bad SEC team, they have improved enough that beating them will not be automatic.

Full Auburn roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...

The Tigers are led offensively versatile 6'5" guard Earnest Ross, who leads the team in both scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.5 per game) and is second in assists (2.7 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. He's shown flashes lately of being capable of huge scoring nights when he's hitting, and he's really the only go-to offensive player Auburn has right now, so his shooting rate will be a big key if the Tigers want to pull the upset.

The second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder is 6'8" junior Kenny Gabriel, who averages 10.9 points and 5.7 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 and his athleticism. Like Ross, he can be a bit streaky, so Bama will have to keep an eye on him.

The third-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder is 6'10" sophomore Rob Chubb, who averages 6.9 points and 3.4 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. He has also missed time recently due to an arrest, but he's back now. Again, Chubb is nothing special, but he's just good enough you have to respect him when he catches the ball around the rim, so it's important to not let him draw fouls and get someone like Green in foul trouble.

Auburn's starter at point guard is an under-sized walk-on named Josh Wallace. The 5'10" sophomore leads the team with 3.6 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.

6'6" freshman wing player Allen Payne is very active and has come on stronger as the season has gone on, now averaging 5.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game as a starter in SEC play. He is also second in steals and is capable of hitting from deep, so he can help the team in a number of ways.

The sixth man lately has been 6'2" freshman guard Chris Denson, who is averaging 6.3 points per game. Another freshman contributor off the bench, 6'7" Josh Langford, is a wing player but plays closer to the basket, averaging 4.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. Yet another newcomer, 6'8" JuCo transfer Adrian Forbes, provides depth in the post. The wild card coming off the bench is 6'5" junior Tony Neysmith, a transfer from Oklahoma who has nice athleticism but poor ball skills.

Auburn, much like the LSU team Bama faced last week, is poor on the offensive end. They rank 273rd nationally in offensive efficiency, barely ahead of LSU and well behind everyone else in the league. The biggest weakness of the Tiger offense is their ability to get good shots. They have a few players who can shoot, but their overall lack of talent leaves them with almost no one who can really create good shots. As a result they rank 323rd nationally (out of 345) in effective field goal percentage. They also rank in the 300's, i.e. the very bottom of Division I basketball, in allowing blocks and allowing steals--a bad sign for Tony Barbee's squad since the Bama defense ranks 1st in steals and 11th in blocks nationally. There's no getting around this: unless Bama loses focus defensively, turns the ball over a lot and allows easy baskets, and/or Auburn's shooters just plain get hot, the Tide defense--one of the elite defenses in college basketball--should have no trouble stopping them.

Defensively Auburn has steadily improved as the year has gone on. They have learned how to frustrate teams, and they were able to do that against Alabama in the first meeting. Essentially, they will play very soft on the perimeter, giving the Bama guards a ton of space to shoot. Unfortunately, this strategy matches up precisely with Bama's own offensive weakness, outside shooting, and could provide Auburn a chance to keep things much closer than Bama fans would prefer. Bama must be very smart about attacking this defense, but if we are, there is no reason we can't find ways to score.

This is a must-win game, but it's also a should-win game. Auburn can be a threat if Bama lets them hang around by taking bad shots on offense or breaking down defensively. The hope for Tide fans is that Bama simply comes out and buries Auburn from the get go, leaving no doubt and leaving nothing to chance as the game enters its final minutes. Forget all the SEC Championship and NCAA talk for now. Just beat Auburn.