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Shorthanded Tide looks to rise to the challenge on the Plains

Kenny Gabriel and the Tigers are looking for their program's biggest win in years.
Kenny Gabriel and the Tigers are looking for their program's biggest win in years.

The Crimson Tide basketball team will hit the road again tonight to take on the Auburn Tigers. Tip off is set for 8:00 pm CST with the game being televised nationally on ESPNU.

Bama will be without one of its star players for this one. Junior wing player Tony Mitchell, a 2nd-team All-SEC player as a sophomore a year ago, will not be playing tonight. It was announced yesterday he is indefinitely suspended from the team due to "an accumulation of things". Mitchell is Alabama's 2nd-leading scorer, 2nd-leading rebounder, and the team's most dynamic, athletic player. While he had clearly hit a rough stretch on the court recently and had visible attitude issues, his absence will have a real impact on this game.

Mitchell and Green are really the two players that separate Alabama from the teams in the bottom half of the SEC from a talent standpoint. Both players have their shortcomings in the mental/emotional department, but on the other hand, when they're on the court and their head is in the game, they are really the two players that separate Alabama from all but the top 3-4 teams in the league. Whatever positives may or may not come from Mitchell's suspension, even if they outweigh the negatives, the fact remains there will be real negatives. Mitchell's absence will make Bama a smaller team, a slower team, and a much weaker rebounding team.

Auburn is not as good as Alabama. That has been the case for 10 of the last 12 years. However, Auburn has won 9 of the 12 games against Alabama during that period when the game is played in Auburn. Part of that is just the usual college basketball home court advantage, but it goes beyond that. As I pointed out in my preview for this same game last year, the Alabama home game is Auburn's "Super Bowl" each and every year. It is the one game each year where Auburn, arguably the major-conference school with the absolute worst fan support for basketball in the entire country, actually has the place packed out and loud like most teams have for every big game.

To make matters worse for Alabama, this Auburn team is no joke. Granted, they're still not even in the top 100 of the RPI (or the much more accurate Pomeroy ratings), they have zero chance at an at-large NCAA Tournament bid, or probably even an NIT bid, and they are just 3-6 in the SEC and only 1-8 against teams in the top 100 of the RPI. That said, unlike last season, this Auburn team at least has the bodies to compete with NCAA Tournament-level teams, even if they still aren't quite as talented. Further, similar to last season, Auburn has improved remarkably since the beginning of the season, a real testament to 2nd-year coach Tony Barbee's ability to bring a team together and get the most out of them.

All of that is to say that Auburn isn't all that good, but they're fiesty, and they're dangerous. For example, in their last game, Auburn took projected NCAA Tournament team Mississippi State down to the last possession--on the road--before falling. Auburn also lost another road game by just one possession to projected NCAA bubble team Arkansas, and a third road game to potential NIT team LSU also by just one possession. They also beat projected NCAA bubble team Ole Miss at home, and even played #1 Kentucky fairly tough at home. Overall, they are 12-1 at home this year, although the vast majority of those wins came against sub-100 teams. With Auburn playing what is considered their biggest game each and every year, with Alabama struggling as of late on the court, and with Alabama missing one of its most important players, as an Alabama fan, you have to be very nervous about this game.

The good news is that Auburn's RPI is literally more than twice as high as it was last year, so while a loss would likely be considered a "bad loss" by the tournament committee, it wouldn't mean instant death the way that a loss to Auburn last season would have. Still, in my analysis, I believe Alabama will make the NCAA Tournament with merely a winning record the rest of the way. Aside from home games later against Tennessee and Auburn, this game is perhaps the most winnable of the remaining games for Alabama. Losing this game would not only put a sub-100 loss on Bama's resume, but it would also make it that much more difficult to get the requisite number of wins to book the Tide's spot in March Madness.

Oh yeah, and we just want to beat Auburn.

Hope for the best.

Quick Look at Auburn

13-10 overall

10-4 in non-conference play: all 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.

3-6 in SEC play: beat 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 and Tennessee on the road; played #1 Kentucky tight for much of the game at home before falling.

Much stronger defensively than offensively: Auburn is ranked 8th 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 19th 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 ties Sullivan for the scoring lead, 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.

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 be left with no one over 6'5" except for Nick Jacobs and Moussa Gueye, both of whom have serious defensive and rebounding liabilities. Further, with Mitchell out, Green is really the one weapon Alabama has that separates the Tide from Auburn.
  • 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. It is hard to imagine a scenario where Alabama wins if Ward outperforms Releford.
  • Alabama must avoid turnovers. In a game where the talent level won't be all that much in Alabama's favor, and with a large hostile crowd, Alabama simply can't afford to give away possessions. This cost Alabama a loss to a vastly inferior South Carolina team on the road, and it can easily happen again if the Tide repeats that performance.
  • Shooting. Auburn is almost as bad shooting the ball from the perimeter as Alabama. If either team has an unusually good shooting night it will probably make the difference in what is expected to be a very low-scoring game.