To best preview this game, perhaps it is most instructive to recap the first meeting between the cross-state combatants. Fundamentally, since nothing has changed on the Auburn end, the same challenges that the ‘Barn presented in mid-January hold true for the Tide’s return trip to Auburn.
The last time the pair met, just two weeks ago, the highest-ranked recruit in Auburn history had himself quite the night, as Jabari Smith’s stat line read: 25 points, 7 reb, 3 steals, 1 block, 1 assist. That was somewhat to be expected. The consensus Top-5 lottery pick is the best player in the SEC, and one of the short-list candidates for Wooden POTY honors. Every night he steps on the floor, he’s apt to be the best man on the parquet.
What do you do about a 6’10” post player who also leads the SEC in three-point shooting? Hold on to your butt and guard the other four guys.
The challenge, of course, is in actually limiting the damage that everyone else can do. In particular, we nailed down second-leading scorer K.D. Johnson as the man to watch on the outside. Was that mission accomplished? Not really, by his standards, Johnson had an average night — 13 and 8, with a pair of assists. But those 13 points would have made him just just one shy of being ‘Bama’s leading scorer. And, while the Tide did a good job of limiting Walker Kessler’s offensive production, there was little match for his ability to swat away a half-dozen attempts at the rim. The paint was a no-go zone for most of the night.
Still, the Tide had its chance: If you can hold Kessler, Johnson, and Jabari to 40, you put yourself into contention.
But, alas, there are more players on the team than that inside-outside troika, and did the Auburn bench ever make Alabama pay, particularly from the guards. Veteran backcourters Alex Flanagan and Wendell Green came off the pine to add 29 combined points, 7 boards, 1 block, and 5 assists — in essence, the Tide had to account for the contributions of another Jabari Smith stat-line, even after Smith had already scored about 10 points over his season average.
And a poor ‘Bama defensive effort for most of the night was simply not up to task.
Throw those bench contributions in with another poor night shooting (34.6% overall, 22.6% from the perimeter), an inability to get to the rim, and far too many Tide Pride FOGS selling their tickets to ‘Barners creating a hostile environment in Coleman, and it’s a miracle Alabama made a push to lose just 81-77.
So, what has changed since then? For Auburn? Nothing. Per Bar Tovik, they are still every bit the defensive monster with a deep bench that Alabama faced before. The Tigers are 14th in adj. offensive efficiency, 16th in adj. defensive efficiency, and 8th overall. Ken Pom pegs the Tigers at 12th (offense), 14th (defense), and 6th overall. And despite playing a breakneck pace during Pearl’s tenure, the Tigers are a fairly pedestrian 86th in tempo this year. (And why wouldn’t they be either, with that front court?)
‘Bama, meanwhile, sits at 9th in adj. offense, 25th overall...and then the damning statistic — 112th in efficiency-adjusted defense on Bar Tovik. KenPom likes the Tide a bit better: 18th overall, 8th in offense, and a gross 72nd on defense.
Your eyes can tell you that this defense isn’t nearly as good as it was last season, nor as it should be this season. And, yes, the Tide have missed a lot of open looks, even when they get them. And, yes, the tempo is slower — the Tide was 13th last year in pace, and 25th this season. But there is a confound here too, and here’s the not-so-big secret: The Tide are playing teams that are simply a lot better. Alabama’s opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency? 1st. What about that bad shooting? Does it help that they have faced an average opponent defense ranked 9th? In other words, it’s hard to play the break or get open looks against elite teams in and out every night, just as it is hard to stop elite offenses: and Alabama’s SOS is 1st.
That same daunting challenge remains again for the Tide’s trip to the Plains, a house of horrors if ever there were one. In games where only Auburn has been ranked, as will be the case tomorrow, Auburn has a 12-4 record. And it’s never lost at home. In short, a Tide win tomorrow night would very much constitute an upset.
Not that this team can’t do so. Alabama has beaten six teams ranked in the Top 25, and has the nation’s second-most Q1 NET wins (6). The problem is, none of those were true road games. The other problem is that Auburn also has 6 Q1 wins, and hasn’t lost to a Q1 squad at home all season. Tall, tall task, in other words.
So, what does Alabama need to do?
The same things that have been successful of late: carry over the defensive intensity it has shown at times against Gonzaga, Houston, and Baylor. The team needs to take a cue from the energy of guys like Keon Ellis and James Rojas, and then fight like hell for all of those 50-50 balls. It needs to run when it can, protect the ball, and make open looks when the space is there — from the perimeter to the strip to the post. It needs a full 40 minutes.
And, most of all, Alabama needs to bring a broken bottle to this back alley street brawl and plant a shank right between the Tigers beady little eyes. If there were ever a game for blue collar basketball, it is this one.
Necesse est omnibus viris mori
Hope for the best, and Roll Tide.
POINT 6’1 Zep Jasper (5.6 Pts, 1.0 Reb, 3.1 Ast)
GUARD 6’1 K.D. Johnson (12.8 Pts, 2.3 Reb, 1.3 Ast)
GUARD 6’6 Devan Cambridge (7.3 Pts, 3.3 Reb, 0.8 Ast)
POST 6’10 Jabari Smith (15.5 Pts, 6.4 Reb, 2.1 Ast)
POST 7’1 Walker Kessler (9.9 Pts, 7.7 Reb, 4.1 Blk)