Where does one even begin with this game? The 17th-ranked Auburn Tigers (16-1, 4-0 SEC) will make the trip up to Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide (11-6, 3-2 SEC) in the biggest meeting between these two hated rivals since probably the 2002-03 season. It's the first match-up between the two where either has been ranked since the 25th-ranked Tide was upset by the Tigers in Tuscaloosa in 2007 (there hasn't been a ranked vs. ranked meeting since 1987). The lone remaining undefeated team in SEC play, Auburn finds themselves looking like a top 4 protected seed in the NCAA Tournament, as most bracket experts have the Tigers slotted as either a 3-seed or a 4-seed in their latest projections. With an RPI of 6, Auburn will be the highest-rated team by that metric that the Tide have played this season.
After sweeping the Tide last year, things weren't looking so great for controversial coach Bruce Pearl to begin the season. While both Alabama and Auburn had their issues with the FBI investigation into college basketball last summer, only Auburn was really caught with their hand in the cookie jar thanks to assistant coach Chuck Person's alleged improprieties. Auburn's best two players, center Austin Wiley and wing Danjel Purifoy, were suspended indefinitely and have yet to step on the court (Wiley has since been ruled ineligible for the entire season). Pearl himself refused to cooperate with Auburn's internal investigation into the situation, which nearly cost him his job the week of their first game. Despite all of this, Auburn finds themselves in first place in the SEC, riding the nation's longest-winning streak, and looking to extend their streak over Alabama to three games in a row.
On the flip side, Alabama is trying to turn its season around. After an ugly start to conference play, the Tide took care of business against South Carolina at home (who has since beaten both Georgia and #18 Kentucky), and then went on the road without Donta Hall and notched their first true road win of the season over a hot LSU team. This is a massive game for both teams. Auburn wants to keep the top spot in the SEC intact. Alabama wants to jump back into the conversation as the SEC contender most expected them to be this season.
This game is massive.
- POINT 5'10 Jared Harper (12.6 PPG, 5.4 APG, 2.5 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
- GUARD 6'3 Bryce Brown (16.0 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.3 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
- WING 6'5 Mustapha Heron (15.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- WING 6'5 DeSean Murray (11.4 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
- POST 6'7 Anfernee McLemore (7.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 0.7 APG, 3.1 BPG)
Even without Wiley and Purifoy, the Tigers are a very experienced bunch. Most of these guys have logged plenty of minutes for Auburn, and they play like it. One could argue that the lack of Auburn's two best players have actually made them a better team, as they seem to have pefect chemistry together right now. They play extremely well as a unit.
Harper and Brown have been dynamic in the back-court. Harper is 3rd in the SEC in APG at a 30.9% AST% rate, meaning he's been an incredible distributor of the basketball. He's only turning the ball over 1.9 times per game, so he's taken care of the ball despite his high usage. It doesn't hurt the Tigers that he's also capable of scoring himself (38.0%/42.9%/82.0%), though his size limits him from doing much other than knocking down jump-shots. Brown has been the high-volume shooter for Auburn (39.6%/37.9%/80.4%), and he has the ability to get really hot and take over games.
Auburn's front-court is an interesting mix. Heron is a classic slasher, able to get to the rim, but not so great at shooting (43.4%/28.8%/80.5%). At 10.9% REB%, he can battle on the boards as well. Murray plays the 4 despite only measuring up to 6'5. The reason why is that he is almost an homage to Auburn great Charles Barkley, rebounding at a 17.2% clip despite his lack of height. What really makes him deadly though is his 40.0% 3P%. Braxton Key will have his hands full keeping Murray at bay. McLemore is another serious match-up issue. Despite being only 6'7, he plays the 5 because of his tremendous leaping ability. He leads the SEC in BPG with a ridiculous 17.4% BLK%. He also rebounds at a 15.9% rate and shoots 59.8%/37.5%/75.9%.
- GUARD 6'1 Davion Mitchell (4.8 PPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 RPG)
- WING 6'6 Malik Dunbar (5.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
- WING 6'8 Chuma Okeke (7.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.7 SPG)
- POST 6'9 Horace Spencer (4.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.2 BPG)
Auburn utilizes a typical shallow Pearl bench, but that's not to say it's not effective. Sure, Wiley and Purifoy getting suspended didn't help the team's depth, but they don't rotate many bodies for a reason. The four guys who do play bring a lot to the table.
Mitchell is the point guard of the future, and honestly, things don't drop-off much when he comes in (48.3%/30.8%/70.8%; 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio; 19.4% AST%). Okeke is a freshman phenom who hasn't been asked to play the kind of role others like Collin Sexton and Tremont Waters have had to. He can score (45.2%/42.5%/71.4%), rebound (15.2% REB%), and dish the rock (11.0% AST%) all at a high level. Spencer is a true post player that any team in the country would love to have coming off of the bench. He's gotten plenty of starts in an Auburn uniform himself, and with a 16.5% REB% and 8.2% BLK% he makes the most of his 16.7 MPG.
Three Keys to Victory
- Defend the Perimeter. Playing LSU the game prior to this one was great timing, as the Bayou Bengals are basically a poor man's version of the Auburn Tigers. Both teams are run by a dynamic, yet diminutive point guard and consist of (mostly) undersized but athletic shooters. So while defending the three-point arc was critical in the win over LSU on Saturday, it will be even more significant tonight. The Tide have had a tendency to give up open looks from three at times this season, but they should know as well as anyone how deadly Auburn can be from down-town. After all, Auburn beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa last season by shooting 15/27 from the three-point line in an 82-77 victory. If Alabama doesn't clamp down on Auburn's shooters, it could be another long night.
- Free Throw Rate. Auburn is currently 13th in the country in FT% at 77.9%. They don't miss many. Considering how quick-whistled college basketball has become, it shouldn't be a surprise that they've had success this season. Alabama has improved greatly in their efficiency in this area in recent weeks, most recently shooting 18/18 in Baton Rouge on Saturday, but they've actually been beating teams pretty consistently all season in Free Throw Rate, which combines FT% with how often a team gets to the line. If Alabama can continue to get Sexton and Dazon Ingram to the charity stripe, while limiting Auburn's trips to the line, the Tide will have taken away what has been a huge advantage for Auburn all season.
- Giddens, Galen, and Reece. Donta Hall will miss tonight's game as he continues to recover from his wrist surgery last week. It's a big loss for Alabama, because his size and athleticism would've given Auburn a lot of trouble in the post. However, Hall missed the game Saturday against LSU as well, and the rest of the Alabama front-court stepped up in a big way. The Tide will need a similar performance tonight. The post is still an area where Auburn, despite their high rebound and block rates, can be had. Daniel Giddens will be the biggest man on the court, if he can stay on it. He needs to stay out of foul trouble. Galin Smith and Alex Reese played argaubly their best games in Crimson and White this past weekend. If Reese can continue to stretch defenses and Smith can continue to excel with his positioning, Alabama could become really tough to beat, especially when Hall returns.
This is without question the biggest Alabama-Auburn game in recent memory. An Alabama victory would move the Tide from middle-of-the-road in the conference standings to legitimate contenders no longer on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A loss, however, puts Alabama in a tough spot moving forward, as the Tide's remaining schedule is a brutal one. Auburn is riding the longest winning streak in the nation right now. Who better to put an end to that than the Crimson Tide?
The game tips-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.