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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #12 Auburn

The SEC-leading Tide looks to sweep the rival Tigers for the third time in four years

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

As we pass the midway point of the 2024 SEC season, your 16th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (16-6, 8-1 SEC; NET: 5; Kenpom: 7) remains in sole possession of first place, as Nate Oats looks to claim his third regular season SEC title in just four years - a truly remarkable achievement if he is able to pull it off. The team seems to be peaking at the right time, after probably its best performance of the season this past Saturday where the Tide thrashed a good Mississippi State team by 32 points - despite the Bulldogs going to the free throw line 22 more times. Alabama will need to keep that level of performance going the rest of the way, as the back half of the conference schedule ramps up in difficulty - beginning with arguably the Tide’s toughest test remaining, a trip to Neville Arena to play the hated and 12th-ranked Auburn Tigers (18-4, 7-2 SEC; NET: 7; Kenpom: 5).

This series has undergone a total facelift in the past few years. Gone are the days of casual fans in this state wondering solely who the football team signed on National Signing Day when the calendar flipped to February. Ever since Bruce Pearl built Auburn’s historically pathetic program into a legitimate contender and Alabama broke out of its decade-plus slump of mediocrity by hiring Nate Oats, the IBOB - as many are now affectionately calling it (sidenote: I remember when calling it the Iron Bowl of Basketball wasn’t cool) - has become arguably the best hoops rivalry in the SEC. Think about the moments we’ve had since 2020:

2020: Alabama Blows Out Undefeated Auburn in Oats’ IBOB Debut

2020: Auburn Avoids Sweep in OT Thriller

2022: Auburn Dances and Crane Kicks in Tuscaloosa

2023: Alabama Wins at Auburn with College Gameday in Town

2023: Alabama Comes Back Down 17 to win in OT and Clinch the SEC Title

2024: The Lights Go Out on Auburn in Tuscaloosa

This series has never been better than it is right now, as Auburn fans have had to abandon all hope in football and more casual Alabama basketball fans have gotten back into watching Tide Hoops. Despite Auburn’s ascendence under Pearl, Oats has posted an impressive 6-3 record against the Tigers since he arrived in Tuscaloosa, but that won’t make the trip to the Plains any easier tonight.

From Last Time

Three Keys to Victory

Protect the Basketball. Turnovers are really hurting Alabama, as the Tide is now dead-last in the SEC in TO% since conference play began. Meanwhile, Auburn is first in TO% forced. Nothing hard-hitting here - if Alabama doesn’t take care of the basketball better than it has the past month, Auburn is going to win the game tonight.

Offensive Movement. If turnovers are the reason why Tennessee beat Alabama the other day, the lack of movement on offense was the reason why it was a blowout. There was entirely too much standing around while one guy dribbles the air out of the ball from the Tide on Saturday. Tennessee clamped down on the perimeter and dared Alabama to beat them off of the dribble, and the Tide couldn’t do it with any consistency. I can guarantee you that Pearl has watched that game film dozens of times already - Auburn’s strategy is going to be exactly the same. Alabama has got to do a better job of cutting off-ball, setting screens, and heck, just getting up the court in transition. Alabama’s at its best when its bevy of shooters are getting clean looks from the perimeter - that has to be a point of emphasis moving forward.

Match Auburn’s Physicality. Auburn, much like Tennessee, is a very physical team. Defensively, Alabama simply has to be a lot tougher, particularly in the paint. Auburn initiates almost all of its scoring from the interior, whether that be by driving hard off ball screens, cleaning up around the basket, kicking out to open shooters, or getting fouled and going to the free throw line. The Tide really needs to get better at keeping offenses in front of them, forcing jump-shots, and then finishing the possession with a rebound. On the other end, Auburn’s one big weak spot is one they’ve always had under Pearl - they foul a ton. They are 280th in Free Throw Rate allowed, as they are a very aggressive team. As much as Alabama wants to get guys open looks from the perimeter - which is absolutely what the team needs to be doing - the best way to go about that is by getting paint touches. Don’t be afraid to take a defender to the hole and get some help from the officials.

You can find the full Breakdown from last game here

These two teams met just two weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, where the Tide outlasted the Tigers 79-75 in a crazy night that started with Jalen Milroe talking about football with the commentators for some reason, followed by the lights going out, and then a chaotic basketball game where it felt like neither team could get in much of a rhythm until Rylan Griffen went on a tear late in the first half and led the Tide to a 14-point halftime lead. Griffen was the MVP of the game, finishing with 17 points on 5/10 from deep and 7 rebounds. Mark Sears and Latrell Wrightsell got going after that, and Grant Nelson made some massive plays late in the game to close it out.

Auburn shot a dreadful 5/25 from deep as the Tide did a good job in spots of forcing the Tigers into taking jumpers instead of getting the ball into the paint. Alabama also outrebounded Auburn 46-41 and attempted one more free throw than them - that edge in physical play ended up being the difference. The Tide did commit three more turnovers than Auburn with 14, but that could’ve been a lot worse considering the average TO% of both teams. Ultimately, Alabama did a good enough job in the areas where Auburn normally has an advantage, which allowed the superior shooters of the Tide to win the day.

Break Out the Brooms?

Maybe have an idea of where yours is located in your house, at least. Other than yet another slow start for the Tide, the last game went about as well as it could have for Alabama. It’s going to be a much more difficult challenge trying to recreate that level of play in Auburn High School Gymnasium Neville Arena. Much to my chagrin, Auburn has unfortunately become one of the toughest places to play in college basketball, ever since Auburn fans learned what basketball was in March of 2019. What a coincidence that they became a basketball school right as their football program went into the dump; funny how that works in the SEC.

Anyway, this will be the toughest remaining game left on the schedule for Alabama until postseason play. And honestly, even then it might take a truly elite team to measure up to the task of winning at Auburn this year. The Tigers have lost two home games since the start of the 2021-22 season - both last year against the top two teams in the conference a season ago - Alabama and Texas A&M. It’s incredibly rare to win at Auburn nowadays.

In addition to the keys I highlighted last time, I have a feeling Alabama is going to have to have one of those patented “holy —— they can’t miss” kind of games from its guards. Auburn is not going to shoot 5/25 again from the perimeter in this one, I can promise you that. This is the best collection of shooters that Alabama has probably ever had - not just in the Nate Oats era. It’s going to take an elite level performance from those guys tonight, I think. Also, for the love of God, Johni Broome goes baseline 90% of the time, don’t give that to him.

Hope for the best. Jordan-Hare’s voodoo magic has spilled over next door in that godforsaken gym, so it will take the Tide’s best to win there tonight. But here’s the great part - they can do it. Alabama is absolutely capable of winning this game. And if they do, well, I know where my broom is located.

The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2. Auburn is favored by 5.5.