After an unbelievably uninspiring performance against the Kentucky Wildcats on Tuesday night, Alabama returns home to begin an absolutely pivotal stretch of games to end the season. The NCAA Tournament bubble has definitely shrunk in the last two weeks, but the Crimson Tide probably still can't afford a loss to any of the remaining teams on the schedule. The game in Athens next Saturday didn't seem like a must-win as of Thursday afternoon, but the Bulldogs dropped an ugly game against Alabama's next opponent, the treacherous Auburn Tigers (11-16, 5-10 SEC), which has soiled what originally looked to be a battle between bubble teams.
Speaking of ugly losses to Auburn, Alabama will also be looking for some redemption after losing to the Tigers earlier this season. Bruce Pearl's first win over Alabama since his move to the plains followed a massive win over Kentucky a few days prior, and it seemed like Pearl had possibly turned the corner at Auburn. Then the Tigers promptly lost seven games in a row, and it didn't seem so sunny in Lee County anymore. Alabama's got a pair of ugly losses on their ledger right now, and a sweep at the hands of the lowly Tigers would certainly end the Tide's at-large chances.
The Last Meeting
Three Keys to Victory
If Auburn wins this game, it's likely because they will have caught fire from the three-point line.
Now, the Tigers may not have been exactly on-fire, but their 36.7% shooting from beyond the arc led to 33 points on 30 attempts and really stretched the Tide defense out. The result was an ugly performance for the Alabama defense, likely their worst of the season. With Kareem Canty and, of course, the long-distance savant (note: sarcasm), Cinmeon Bowers, knocking down threes left and right, the Tigers then exploited Alabama's decision to step out on the perimeter by gashing them with off-ball cuts in the paint. Those easy baskets led to the Tide trying to quickly answer themselves, and before you knew it, Alabama was playing at Auburn's preferred tempo. squad has done well most of this season because they have dictated the tempo nearly every night, but that simply wasn't the case in Auburn back in January. This will be something to keep an eye on with the home-crowd in Alabama's favor on Saturday.
Not only was Alabama not making the Tiger offense work much at all, but Auburn had a major edge in the free throw category. The home team shot 28/40 to the Tide's 19/28, and there were a number of questionable calls the whole night, on both sides. It was truly a poorly officiated game, something that college basketball has had a pretty big problem with all season. This is something that really needs to be addressed, because it's gotten out of hand lately.
Auburn also out-rebounded Alabama 42-38, with Bowers collecting an unreal 18 boards himself. That is simply unacceptable. Someone needs to find Bowers and get a body on him when the shot goes up, because he's been drifting out on the perimeter way too much to be able to bring in numbers like that.
What to Watch For This Time
Bruce Pearl's second season at Auburn has been quite the roller coaster. As mentioned previously, the Tigers won huge back-to-back home games against Kentucky and Alabama earlier in January to improve to 3-2 in SEC play, but then they totally imploded. Not only did they lose seven straight after that, but they also lost their star point guard, Canty, when he "decided to forgo the rest of the season and enter the NBA Draft" after being indefinitely suspended. That little tidbit should be wonderful news to Alabama fan's everywhere, because Canty tore into the Crimson Tide in the first meeting. He dropped 25 points on 7/11 shooting, including 5/8 from downtown, and was all over the court for the Tigers.
Canty's departure was the apex of the tumultuous period that Auburn went through, but the Tigers had a number of issues. The lack of depth that has plagued the team for years now really forced some players into awkward positions. Jordon Granger was already playing out-of-position on the wing a lot this year. To make things even stranger, Pearl decided to throw the 6'7, 260-pound Bowers into the void left by Canty at point guard. Yes, point guard. It was a rough stretch for the Auburn faithful.
However, despite all of that, Auburn has had a nice little rebound towards the end of the season. There are two reasons for this improvement. For one, guard T.J. Dunans, who had been out with an injury since December 23rd, returned to the Tiger line-up against Ole Miss last Saturday. This allowed Auburn to have a true guard running the point again, and it also allowed Bowers to go back to his more natural forward position. The other reason Auburn has now won two of their last three is because guys like T.J. Lang and Bryce Brown have started to reap the benefits of their development. Auburn quickly went from having no guard play at all to a number of decent options in the back-court.
With all of that said, as long as Brown doesn't get as hot as he did against Arkansas (when he went 9/14 from the three-point line), Alabama shouldn't have to worry about someone bombing them from downtown like Canty did last time. If Auburn can't get it going from beyond the arc, they are going to have to play more towards Alabama's strengths. Alabama has defended the paint really well this season, especially as Jimmie Taylor and Donta Hall have continued to develop their presence on that end. It will also help Alabama determine the game's tempo, which has been one of the key indicators of success for the Tide this season.
Oh, and please, somebody box out Bowers.
Avery Johnson has Alabama way ahead of schedule at this point, and whether the Tide make the big dance or not, he should win SEC Coach of the Year barring a complete collapse to end the season. However, Alabama has a very real chance to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. If they are going to do that though, it has to start with a win over Auburn. Alabama has a great opportunity to get Coach Avery his first win in the state's premier rivalry, and there's an added bonus of some sweet revenge to go along with it.
The game will tip at 4:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.