After an easy home victory over the Missouri Tigers that moved Alabama’s conference record to a surprising 4-1, the Tide will now head to the southeastern portion of the state for the first match-up in this year’s “Iron Bowl of Basketball” (which really needs a better name, by the way). The Alabama-Auburn hoops rivalry has been a pretty ugly one historically, as most games have been meaningless regarding conference standings and NCAA Tournament bids, with the exception of a few bad losses tanking one of the two teams. Alabama has also dominated the overall series 94-59, which means it hasn’t always been competitive.
However, with the arrival of Bruce Pearl in Auburn and Avery Johnson in Tuscaloosa, things are in the process of changing. While Alabama has really started to turn it on in conference play, the Tigers (12-6, 2-4 SEC) surprised everyone by how quickly their young team gelled and competed in non-conference action, with wins over Oklahoma, UConn, and Texas Tech, all teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season. Auburn, like Mississippi State, has an outrageously young roster, with most of their impact players being freshmen, so their slow start to SEC play hasn’t been a massive surprise. It’s tough to beat teams that know the opposing coach’s tendencies when his team is made up of mostly new guys.
But this is easily the most talented Auburn team in 15 years. Pearl has been recruiting like crazy, and it won’t be long before this program makes a long-awaited return to the top of the conference, as well as the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately for Alabama fans, Avery Johnson’s got the Tide on the same trajectory, with a slight chance to make that dream come true a year early.
First, the Crimson Tide need to avoid the landmine that is Auburn, AL.
- PG 5’10 Jared Harper (12.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.5 SPG)
- OG 6’5 T.J. Dunans (8.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.4 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
- SG 6’5 Mustapha Heron (15.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- WF 6’7 Danjel Purifoy (13.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG)
- C 6’11 Austin Wiley (7.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
Four out of Auburn’s starting five players are true freshmen. Heck, Wiley graduated high school in December. It’s hard to be younger than this Auburn team, and that’s why Dunans, the senior leader, has been so critical to Auburn this year. He isn’t without his issues (23.1% 3P%, 51.9% FT%), and he isn’t spectacular in any one area (almost exactly 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, 40.1% FG%, 101.5 DRtg), but his experience and ability to lead have sparked big wins for Auburn this year (21 points vs. Oklahoma; 12 points, 6 boards, and 4 assists vs. LSU on Wednesday night).
Joining Dunans in the back-court are a pair of truly talented freshmen: Harper and Heron. Dunans may be the leader, but Harper is the one averaging nearly 26 MPG at the point with a team-best 21.9% A%. With a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and a decent shooting game (40.6% FG%, 34.4% 3P%, 70.4% FT%), Harper has shown that he will be a very good all-around point guard for the Tigers in the future. Heron is the scorer (42.5% FG%, 41.3% 3P%, 76.1% FT%). Alabama will have to make sure they don’t lose track of Heron often, as he is the kind of player who makes the ultimate difference in a low-scoring game, which Alabama almost guarantees each time out on the court. Both of these guys very well could be all-conference players before they leave Auburn.
Speaking of which, the All-SEC teams will likely be associated with Auburn’s front-court in the near future as well. Wing forward Purifoy has been excellent as a true freshman, as he can play both inside and out equally well. A 40.3% scorer, Purifoy has shot 39.3% from beyond the arc and 87.3% from the line. He’s also an above-average defender and rebounding threat. Wiley, originally a 5-star prospect for the class of 2017, has been outclassed in the post for most of his young season (growing pains and all), but he’s got as high of a ceiling as anybody on this team. He is rebounding at a 13.8% clip and has an 8.2% B%.
- G 6’3 Bryce Brown (6.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- G 6’7 T.J. Lang (4.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
- G 6’0 Ronnie Johnson (5.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.8 APG)
- F 6’7 LaRon Smith (3.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
- F 6’7 Anfernee McLemore (3.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
- F 6’9 Horace Spencer (5.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 1.5 BPG)
Not only is this the most talented Auburn roster in a long time, it’s also one of the deepest. The Tigers run 11-deep, with all 11 players averaging at least 10.0 MPG. Spencer and McLemore continue the youth movement in the front-court, and both are talented players in their own right (Spencer: 56.9% FG%, 96.7 DRtg, 11.5% RB%; McLemore: 68.3% FG%, 98.6 DRtg, 15.1% RB%).
Lang, Brown, and Johnson provide some much needed experience in the back-court, but they mostly represent what Auburn used to be. In particular, Brown and Lang have struggled offensively (Brown: 28.9% FG%, Lang: 36.5% FG%), and none of them really play great defense or hit the glass much.
Player to Watch
Braxton Key- With so much raw talent on the court for Auburn on Saturday, Key will need to shine. Alabama’s defense can hold up against anybody, and Auburn’s been inconsistent on offense, so the Tide should be fine on the defensive end. They need someone to make some plays on the offensive end though. Key can be that guy (as evidenced by his 24 point outing against Florida), but this will be his first experience playing in Auburn Arena, which is known to get pretty raucous whenever Alabama comes to town.
Three Keys to Victory
- Win the Turnover Battle. Bruce Pearl’s teams are known for being long and athletic, and this year’s Auburn team definitely fits that bill. He preaches getting offense from defense by forcing his opponents to turn the ball over and converting in transition. This is also a tried-and-true way of burying an away team. Alabama has to prevent this from happening if they want to avoid another ugly ‘L’ down on the Plains.
- Defend the Perimeter. Auburn, much like Alabama, falls in love with the three-pointer quite often. Historically, the Tigers have fed off of the home crowd in this game, and nothing gets the home crowd going like the three-ball. Alabama knew they were going to beat Mizzou, but they still gave up way too many open looks on the perimeter, which allowed the worst three-point shooting team in the country to hit 7/14 from deep. Let’s not let the roof come off of Auburn Arena by allowing that to happen again.
- Continue to Dominate the Boards. Another conference game, another beat-down on the boards, as Alabama out-rebounded Missouri 37-27. Slowly but surely Avery is dragging this team out of the hole Anthony Grant left the program in. Auburn has length across the board, much like ‘Bama, so it won’t be easy. But rebounding has been the difference between Alabama’s 7-5 non-conference record and their 4-1 start in conference play. They need to keep that up.
This is a massive game in the state of Alabama. Both of these programs will be at the top of the SEC sooner rather than later, and I expect both to be in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. However, both still have a slim, outside shot of possibly sneaking in this season as well. Auburn has the talent, Alabama has the defense.
Somebody has to lose though, and that will be a tough pill to swallow in a state where fans are starting to rediscover college basketball. Avery Johnson split his first two meetings with Auburn last season, can he get to 2-1 on Saturday?
The game will tip-off at 3:00 PM CST and will be televised by ESPN2.