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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Auburn

Avery Johnson gets his first taste of the hard-court rivalry

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

On March 8th, 2014, Auburn University hired Bruce Pearl, the long-time and successful head basketball coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Before Pearl was even introduced to the media as the Tigers' new men's basketball coach, people everywhere were predicting the revival of the Auburn basketball program, which had been one of the worst major conference programs in the country for over a decade running. The excitement around Auburn basketball has reached new heights, especially after this past Saturday, when the Tigers picked up the biggest win of the Pearl era, a 75-70 victory over the SEC basketball kingpins, the Kentucky Wildcats.

On April 6th, 2015, the University of Alabama answered the hiring of Pearl by landing a successful, charismatic head coach of their own, as Avery Johnson was announced as the new men's basketball coach at the Capstone. Immediately, writers all across the state, and even a few nationally, took notice of the two big-time hires. Not only are these two of the most successful coaches ever hired by the two major universities in the state, they happened to come on board at the most critical of times. Auburn needed someone, anyone, to revitalize their program in the worst kind of way. Alabama needed to answer that.

Tuesday night, the state of Alabama will be graced by the first chapter in what hopes to be a long, successful rivalry. There's little question that these two programs are going to become yearly contenders in the SEC, as both are now recruiting at levels they haven't seen before. Combine that with some strong in-state talent in the next few classes, and you've got the perfect storm for what could be the best stretch of basketball this state has ever seen. While both teams are still in transition, Auburn looks to show the world that they have finally turned that corner as they try to build off of their major upset this past weekend. But it's the big brother in Tuscaloosa that has legitimate hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid in March, and they simply can't afford a loss to Pearl's Tigers in this one.

The Roster

Starting Line-Up

  • PG 6'0 Kareem Canty (19.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 5.5 APG, 0.8 SPG)
  • OG 6'7 TJ Lang (5.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.6 SPG)
  • WF 6'8 Jordon Granger (3.4 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.6 BPG)
  • PF 6'7 Cinmeon Bowers (11.0 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG)
  • PF 6'9 Tyler Harris (15.3 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG)
Because of a number of injuries in the back court and a lack of depth, Auburn has a bit of an awkward starting five. Four of the five starters are between 6'7 and 6'9, though they all play very different roles. It all starts at point with Canty, though. The highly sought after transfer from Marshall has been the spark plug for the Tigers this year. His 5.5 APG is one of the best in the nation and third in the SEC. The offense goes as he goes, as he also shoots 41.1% from the field and 39.6% from beyond the arc. He's also the team co-leader from the free throw line at 75.0%. He's not much of a defender, as his 110.5 DRtg would suggest, but Auburn hasn't been a very good defensive team all around. Lang has had to really step in for the injured T.J. Dunans, who may end up missing the rest of the season. Lang's per game numbers don't seem great, but he's been efficient, as he's shooting 46.4% from the field, 44.2% from three, and 75.0% from the line. Like Canty, his defense isn't very good (109.6 DRtg), and he's a pretty bad rebounder for someone who is 6'7 (4.6% RB%).

The front court starts with Granger on the wing, which has been an interesting transition for the big guy. Granger had spent his entire career playing in the post, but he's had to spend most of his time out on the wing this year thanks to injuries to Dunan and Tahj Shamsid-Deen. As such, he's really struggled to do much of anything on the offensive end, and his rebounding has struggled in a major way (5.5% RB%). He's one of the better spot-up defenders on the team though, and that's why Pearl has put him out there.

Bowers and Harris have been the foundation for this Auburn team. Bowers, best known to Alabama fans as that guy who wouldn't stop flexing last season, isn't a very skilled player (37.4% FG%, 30.0% 3P%, 58.6% FT%, 2.7 TOPG), but he's a tough, physical defender (99.9 DRtg) and can rebound like the great Charles Barkley (16.5% RB%). Harris, who played at Providence just last year, may be Auburn's best player. He is shooting 51.5% from the floor, and that's not just from around the basket, as Harris can stretch the floor with his 41.2% 3P%. He's also very adept at grabbing rebounds (15.8%).

The Bench
  • G 6'3 Bryce Brown (9.4 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.7 APG)
  • G 6'2 New Williams (0.9 PPG, 0.5 RPG)
  • F 6'9 Horace Spencer (4.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.9 BPG)
Like many years in seasons past, Auburn is embarrassingly thin. To be fair, the aforementioned injuries had a lot to do with this. But still, Auburn's bench is made up of three true freshmen and two walk-ons who only get playing time because they need somebody to throw out there when Bowers and company need a break. Brown is a pretty good scoring sixth man, though he falls a bit too in love with the three. He's shooting 46.2% from inside of the arc and 36.7% from three, but he attempts 6.5 treys a game, which is an absurd amount for his ability. Williams is a true frosh who has battled injuries most of the season, and thus, hasn't really been able to adjust to the college level yet. Spencer has had a rough time scoring in his debut collegiate season (41.4% FG%, 44.4% FT%), but he's an excellent rebounder (15.8%) and is actually the best defender on the team with a 98.9 DRtg.

What to Watch For

  • Avery v. Bruce Vol. I. Both coaches are going to downplay their roles in this game, but this is a massive match-up for the state of both Alabama and Auburn basketball moving forward. Pearl was unable to defeat Alabama in either try last season, and that may have prevented the Tigers from seizing any momentum in the state. Both coaches have been recruiting at an elite level; can either start to separate himself on the hardwood?
  • Road Warriors. The Tide was curbed by Memorial Magic on Saturday, but for the most part Alabama has been really good on the road this season, with wins against Clemson, Notre Dame, and Wichita State all coming away from home. They will be going into Auburn Arena against an amped-up crowd and an Auburn team fresh off their biggest home victory in years. How will the team handle the raucous environment?

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Defend the Perimeter. Auburn's been a pretty good three point shooting team this season. The Tigers are shooting a collective 37.5% from beyond the arc, good enough for 57th in the country. They are, however, abysmal in the paint. Harris is really the only guy in the post who possesses the skills to beat defenders consistently. If Auburn wins this game, it's likely because they will have caught fire from the three-point line. Alabama simply can't allow that to happen.
  2. Make the Tiger Offense Work. Pearl's team has shown a significant inability to pass the ball well this season. Canty's a very good passer, but the rest of his team is rough, to say the least. Alabama needs to contain Canty and try to make someone else handle the rock. Stopping dribble penetration will be big because it will force a bad passing team to, well, pass the ball. Auburn's also a porous free throw shooting team. At 63.3%, they are quite literally one of the worst in college basketball. No easy shots should be allowed in this game. Make them earn it.
  3. Continue the Solid Job on the Glass. Avery Johnson has clearly made it a point of emphasis that the Tide do a much better job of grabbing up rebounds. Alabama out-rebounded Vanderbilt and South Carolina, two good rebounding teams, by a significant margin. That will need to continue on Tuesday night because Auburn gets a lot of their offense from put-backs from the likes of Bowers and Harris.
This is a massive game for the state of Alabama and it's basketball programs. Bruce Pearl will be desperate to finally get one against the Tide, and Avery Johnson will be looking to make a statement in his first showdown with the Auburn Tigers. Basketball in this state hasn't been very exciting in a very long time, but Tuesday night's match-up should be the start of something special. Can Alabama continue to exert their control over the Tigers?

The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised by the SEC Network.