With only four games left in the regular season, the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-10, 8-6 SEC) will make the cross-state trip to Lee County, as they attempt to sweep the 12th-ranked Auburn Tigers (23-4, 11-3 SEC). A win in Auburn would give Alabama a shot of possibly still winning the regular season conference crown, but a loss will eliminate the Tide from the chase. Either way, this will be a massive game for both teams. Just like the first meeting in Tuscaloosa, this is easily one of the most significant installments of this rivalry on the hardwood in recent memory. Hell, of all-time, even. When was the last time these two hated foes met for a basketball game with NCAA Tournament seeding, conference tournament byes, and even the regular season SEC Championship all on the line?
Bruce Pearl and Avery Johnson have both done great jobs of establishing this rivalry as one of the SEC's most significant hoops battles in 2018. At this point, it's hard to imagine Alabama missing out on the NCAA Tournament, and Auburn is a sure-fire lock to participate in the Big Dance next month. Considering Alabama has only been once in the last decade, and Auburn hasn't qualified since 2003, the fact that both will be participating in March Madness is a major achievement and milestone in this series.
The Auburn faithful have to be licking their chops to get a piece of the Tide. While the Tide football team fell to the Tigers in November, 2018 has been a much different story so far in this state. The Crimson Tide football team, of course, ended up winning the College Football Playoff anyway, and the basketball team added insult to injury with a 76-71 upset win in Coleman Coliseum, even with Collin Sexton watching from the sidelines and Donta Hall playing limited minutes.
Auburn will be ready to avenge that loss. Can Alabama pull off the sweep anyway?
The Last Meeting
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.
As mentioned, the previous meeting got a little crazy right before tip-off. Avery Johnson has always played injuries pretty close to the hip, and he sure threw everyone off the last time these two teams got together. Sexton didn't play, but Hall did. As far as we know, both should be good to go for Wednesday night. Either way, Alabama will be just fine if they can get another 27 points on 8/13 shooting from the outside from John Petty. He absolutely torched the Tigers in the first game, though his struggles away from home make it unlikely that he will come close to replicating that performance.
The main reason Alabama beat Auburn in Tuscaloosa is because they held the Tigers to 9/26 from beyond the arc. It was that game, in fact, that Alabama really turned around their three-point defense, which had been pretty ugly the first half of the season. Since then, Alabama has catapulted up to 8th overall in Kenpom's Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. The Tide will need to defend the perimeter well again tonight if they want to prevent Auburn Arena from exploding and giving the Tigers critical home-court momentum.
What to Watch For This Time
Obviously, Sexton and Hall being able to play their usual minutes makes a major difference; they are, after all, the two most important players on Alabama's team. However, this will also be Auburn's first game since they lost their starting 5, Anfernee, McElmore, for the season over the weekend when he dislocated and fractured his ankle (which was, thankfully, the extent of the injury; his foot was on backwards). That's a massive loss for an Auburn team that was already very short across the board, and very thin on true post players.
Horace Spencer, the 6'8 junior, will step in to take over McLemore's role as the one true post player in Auburn's starting line-up. He's got a ton of experience, but he's no McLemore, who had range (39.1% 3P%) and blocked shots at a ridiculous 15.7% rate. After getting dominated on the glass by Kentucky, Alabama should be looking to bounce-back with a big performance against a much, much smaller Auburn team. The Tide needs to attack the basket all night and look to get Hall as many touches around the rim as possible.
So, defend the perimeter, dominate the boards, and get the ball in the paint on offense. Oh, and try to limit the turnovers; Auburn thrives off of turning people over and getting the ball up quickly in transition for easy baskets. It's hard to imagine Alabama going on the road and finishing off the season sweep of the current SEC leaders in their home gym, but Auburn could end up looking like a completely different team post-McLemore injury. Alabama's got as good of a chance as anyone at exposing them.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.