Alabama basketball has often been labeled "boring" or "uninteresting" over the last few seasons, but Saturday night's date with the Auburn Tigers (10-8, 2-3 SEC) promises to break that narrative. Even though many Alabama-Auburn basketball games have been nearly unwatchable in recent seasons, this year's tilt will provide plenty of story-lines. For one thing, Bruce Pearl, the former Tennessee coach, makes his return to Coleman Coliseum, now coaching the Tide's other hated rival. Making his debut in the Iron Bowl of basketball even more interesting is that many Alabama fans pushed for the University to go out and get Pearl last off-season. The debate between Tide fans over whether or not that was something that needed to happen was spirited, to say the least. Coming off yet another heartbreaking loss against a quality opponent, it will also be interesting to see how hungover (in the mental sports-psyche aspect) Alabama will be. The quick two day turn-around won't help matters.
The Starting Five
- PG K.C. Ross-Miller (6.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 2.3 SPG)
- SG Antoine Mason (14.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- 3G K.T. Harrell (17.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- PF Jordan Granger (5.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
- C Cinmeon Bowers (13.4 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
The Tigers start five upperclassmen, a rarity in today's game, though Ross-Miller, Mason, and Bowers all transferred in prior to this season. Ross-Miller and Mason, both seniors, have been critical to Auburn's back court this season, and both have played well. Ross-Miller is a drive-and-dish type of point guard. He's a mediocre shooter (34.3% FG%, 21.4% 3P%, 77.1% FT%), but he can score in around the basket. His defense (94.7 DRtg, to go along with the 2.3 SPG) might be his best attribute. Mason is a scorer, one of the few that Auburn has. He is mostly a high-volume guy though, as his shooting numbers are just solid (41.8% FG%, 34.6% 3P%, 71.6% FT%), but he takes about ten shots a game. His 6'1 size severely limits his ability to hit the boards or play defense as well as one would want their starting two-guard to. Harrell, strangely another former transfer, was the leading returning scorer in the SEC this season, and he has continued to produce. One of the leading scorers in the conference again this year, Harrell shoots 45.8% from the field, including 44.6% from three. He averages nearly thirteen shots per game, and it would be a mistake to let him get into rhythm. Harrell is a scorer, plain and simple. He doesn't do anything else significantly well, but he can really lift Auburn at times.
Granger has been a huge key for Auburn this season, not because he is a great basketball player or anything, but because he has given the Tigers another post player that can actually hold his ground. He has to be the most improved player on this team, and Auburn, who was looking at a really thin bench before the season, needed someone to step up. Again, Granger isn't going to "wow" anyone, but with a 51.6% FG% and an ability to step back and hit the three (44.1%), he gives defenses something to think about. Finally, Bowers rounds out the starting line-up, and he rounds it out well. The guy is a monster on the glass, as he is 4th in the country in RPG. This has been huge for Auburn, as they don't rebound much besides him. He isn't a very good scorer though (43.3% FG%, 47.9% FT%). Defensively, he has been strong in the middle with a 93.1 DRtg.
- G Malcolm Canada (5.9 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- G Tahj Shamsid-Dean (5.9 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- F Alex Thompson (3.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
- C Trayvon Reed (1.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
Auburn, despite some limitations, has a pretty solid starting five. But that bench, woof. Canada, the senior, has seen his play elevated this season, and he has been a solid 6th man for the Tigers. He is hardly a scorer (39.2% FG%, 20.0% 3P%) though, but he does knock down his free throws (78.0%). He is an average passer, he can play solid defense, and he will come up with a couple of boards a game. Shamsid-Dean has back-up point guard written all over him, which isn't meant to be an insult. He's a good passer, he takes care of the basketball, and he can run the offense. He lacks explosiveness, which is almost a necessity when you are only 5'10. He doesn't score much and he just can't keep up defensively. Thompson provides depth in the post, but Reed is the interesting prospect for Auburn down low. A 7'2 freshman, Reed has the physical abilities to one day be a massive force in the post. Fortunately for Alabama, he is still a real work-in-progress, as his skills need some serious polishing.
What to Watch For
- Bruce Pearl. Did I mention anything about Pearl? It may seem a tad excessive, but Pearl's hiring at Auburn put Alabama, and Anthony Grant, on notice. Say what you want about him, but Pearl can coach, motivate, and recruit at a high level. He will get Auburn playing very good basketball in the future. For this reason, Grant can not let Pearl make noise early. This is an absolutely pivotal game for Anthony Grant.
- Can Anybody Keep it Hot? Alabama got quite a shooting performance out of Ricky Tarrant, Rodney Cooper, and especially Justin Coleman on Thursday night. Tarrant's going to get his, but can Cooper and Coleman duplicate the success they had in Fayetteville? Cooper has been an inconsistent player his whole career, so he could end up with 4 points Saturday night, but was the Arkansas game a coming-out party for the freshman Coleman? Or was that game simply one hot night for the youngster?
- How Alabama Responds. Another road game against a quality opponent, another heartbreaking loss for Alabama. We've seen this script before, and in the past, it's been ugly. Many times Alabama comes off a loss like that with an ugly performance against a team the Tide should beat. They can't afford that one Saturday night.
Three Keys to Victory
- REBOUND THE BASKETBALL
- Avoid Careless Mistakes. One thing that Auburn does do well is turn the other team over. Auburn ranks 35th in the country in SPG. Alabama has been very careless with the basketball at times this season. The Tide really don't need to force things or make erroneous passes, as Auburn will be very active with their hands. Auburn isn't particularly good on defense. If you don't help them out, you can score on them on a pretty consistent basis.
- Free Throws. Auburn is a horrible free throw shooting team, ranking 314th in the country at 63.9%. Alabama has really cooled off from the charity stripe over the course of the season, but they still hold a large edge over Auburn in this category at 73.0%, and they shot well from the line in Fayetteville. It seems obvious here, but in a game that will be fiercely contested between two bitter foes, there will be plenty of fouls (especially with SEC officials). An abnormal night from the free throw line could spell disaster for Alabama.
Auburn may not be a very good basketball team, but that is precisely why this is an absolute must-win game for Alabama. The one thing the Crimson Tide has going for them on their resume right now is no bad losses. A defeat at home at the hands of the Tigers would definitely qualify as one. Furthermore, Anthony Grant can not afford a loss to Bruce Pearl in their first Iron Bowl battle. Pearl's building his foundation for what should be a successful era at Auburn, a win in Coleman Coliseum would do wonders for his program. Alabama, and Grant, simply can't let that happen.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST Saturday night and will be televised by the SEC Network.