With yet another home victory over a top-25 team in pocket, Alabama (13-7, 4-3 SEC) now heads across the state for the first of two match-ups with hated in-state rival Auburn (14-6, 3-4 SEC). The Tigers have been a bit of a disappointment thus far this season, as they were ranked as high as 8th in the country at one point. However, this is still a loaded team with a ton of experience. One could make the argument that this is the most talented team Bruce Pearl has ever coached. At the very least, they are the most exaggerated version of his preferred style.
Auburn plays like a rough version of the Houston Rockets. They like to pick up the pace, play tight, aggressive defense looking to turn the opponent over and get out in transition, and they bomb three-pointers. I’m pretty sure Pearl might have a heart attack if he sees one of his players take a jumper inside of the three-point line.
This style of play makes for an interesting match-up with the Tide. Avery Johnson’s team is much bigger and much more physical than the Tigers, but Alabama has really struggled to take care of the basketball. That usually doesn’t work out so well for opponents entering Auburn Arena. The small, yet state-of-the-art facility is a mad house when Auburn’s fair-weather fan base bothers to show up, and boy will they be out in full force Saturday night.
This is certainly not a must-win for the Tide’s NCAA Tournament hopes, but it is a must-win in the state of Alabama. Beating Auburn at their place is never easy, not even when they were going 10-20 every season. A win down there tonight would go a long way for Avery Johnson.
POINT 5’11 Jared Harper (15.4 PPG, 6.5 APG, 2.8 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Bryce Brown (16.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Samir Doughty (8.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.4 SPG)
WING 6’8 Chuma Okeke (10.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.2 BPG)
POST 6’11 Austin Wiley (10.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG)
It all starts with the diminutive point guard, Jared Harper. He’s one of the quickest guards in the country, and makes up for his lack of size on defense with his incredible ability to make things happen on offense. He’s dynamite off of the dribble, able to shoot (38.5% 3P%), drive the lane (40.1% FG%), or kick out to the open man (32.7% AST%) with ferocity. Kira Lewis will have his hands full Saturday night against the junior point.
Brown is Auburn’s version of John Petty. If he is on, watch out (43.4%/40.1%/84.1%). The main difference between the two is that Brown doesn’t stop shooting, no matter how many he has missed. However, he is able to shoot himself out of a slump. If he goes 1/7 in the first half, be ready for him to go 5/8 in the second. Doughty is a transfer from VCU. He’s not as deadly as Brown, but he is a bit more efficient (47.5%/42.1%/96.2%), and is automatic from the free throw line.
On the wing, Okeke may just be Auburn’s most important player. He’s definitely the most balanced when it comes to scoring (49.4%/33.3%/68.6%), rebounding (12.2% REB%), and defending (94.0 DRtg). If he’s knocking down shots, it becomes incredibly difficult to defend Auburn in the half-court. Wiley, the most-likely future NBA player on the team, has missed the past few games with a foot injury, a stretch where the Tigers lost three out of four games. He’s the dominant big man that Auburn has dearly lacked, after he was forced to sit out all of last season due to the FBI investigation into agents in college basketball. He’s doubtful for tonight, but knowing Auburn, they will do everything they can to get him on the court against the Tide.
GUARD 6’6 Malik Dunbar (7.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 J’Von McCormick (3.5 PPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 RPG)
WING 6’7 Danjel Purifoy (2.6 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
POST 6’7 Anfernee McLemore (7.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 1.6 BPG)
POST 6’8 Horace Spencer (4.6 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
This is a much deeper Auburn team than the one that split the regular season SEC Championship a year ago. Dunbar is the prototypical sixth man. Another strong shooter (48.3%/38.8%/66.7%), Dunbar isn’t afraid to let it fly when he checks into the game. He’s also one of the better defenders on the team (91.2 DRtg), so he gets plenty of time off of the bench.
Purifoy hasn’t done much for the Tigers this year (he was also tied-up in the FBI Investigation and had to sit out a bunch of games this season on top of all of last season), but the junior forward was one of Auburn’s best players two years ago. The guy has plenty of talent, and Pearl is simply waiting on him to knock the rust off and get going again.
In the post, McLemore and Spencer have had to play a ton of critical minutes with Wiley constantly out of the line-up. McLemore was a major key to Auburn’s success last season, and when he went down against South Carolina late in the year, the Tigers were simply never the same. Expect him to get the start if Wiley can’t go tonight. Both guys are undersized bigs, but their athleticism helps them make up for it (McLemore: 13.5% REB%, 11.0% BLK%, 90.3 DRtg; Spencer: 18.1% REB%, 6.3% BLK%, 93.1 DRtg).
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Basketball. If Alabama is sloppy with the ball tonight, Auburn will run the Tide out of the gym. Considering how poorly the Tide have inbounded the ball this season, and how terrible they have been at breaking the press, I fully expect Pearl to throw everything he can at the Tide, especially since he has the depth to do so now.
- Defend the Three Point Line. Again, if Alabama doesn’t contest every perimeter shot the Tigers take, they will get run out of the gym. The environment in Auburn Arena is going to be nuts, and Auburn is going to attempt an onslaught of threes. Better Alabama teams have lost to lesser Auburn teams by failing to do the two things I just listed. It is absolutely critical that the Tide be on their ‘A’ game in these two departments to have any shot at winning Saturday night.
- Rebound the Basketball. After dominating the glass all season, Alabama has really disappointed in this area the last two outings. Fortunately, it only cost the Tide in one of the two games, but Alabama has got to get its swagger back on the glass. If Wiley can’t go tonight, there is no reason Auburn should out-rebound Alabama. The Tide need to dominate here. Alabama will have to survive that onslaught of threes, and giving the Tigers any second chances could spell disastrous. Offensive rebounds are one of the best ways to get open looks from the perimeter.
Auburn has definitely disappointed this season, particularly since the calendar flipped to 2019. However, this is still one of the best teams in the SEC. Don’t let the record fool you. On top of that, Alabama really has issues in Lee County historically. The Crimson Tide will really have to play their best basketball of the season if they want to leave Auburn Arena with a victory tonight.
The game will tip-off at 7:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.