By Jackson Love
Tuesday, March 2 has been circled on Auburn’s schedule for a while. Originally set to be Auburn’s season finale, the intrastate rivals have gone through very different seasons up to this point. Alabama (19-6, 14-2 SEC) locked up a share of the SEC regular-season title over the weekend, while Auburn (12-13, 6-10 SEC) has been rocked by injuries and the possible threat of NCAA penalties.
Here’s how both teams stack up:
The Crimson Tide have jumped on an unsuspecting SEC this season, winning the first ten games on the conference schedule and four of the last six. A wealth of experience has paved the way for Alabama. They play a lightning-fast style of basketball and make 10.7 three-pointers per game, the fourth-best mark in the country. Three of Alabama’s starters make more than 40% of their three-point attempts, and they’ve consistently outscored opponents. Seven of Alabama’s 14 conference wins have come by at least 18 points.
Alabama’s defense is just as vicious. Currently rated third in the nation by Ken Pomeroy, the Tide force 15.6 turnovers per game (43rd in NCAA), steal the ball 8.4 times per game (26th in NCAA), and crash the defensive glass for 28.4 defensive rebounds per game (21st in NCAA). They’ll be licking their chops against Auburn, who is one of the most turnover-prone teams in America.
Still, there are grounds for concern. February has been a rough month for the Tide; though they went 5-2, Alabama hasn’t played the kind of basketball that saw them start 10-0 in conference play. The Tide struggled against the likes of Missouri, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State, not to mention suffering a double-digit loss to Arkansas. With the NCAA Tournament approaching, there’s reason to worry that Alabama has peaked too early and that its best basketball is behind it.
Auburn has not had a full-strength team in a single game this season. Sharife Cooper was ineligible for the season’s first 11 games. Freshman guard Justin Powell did a nice job of picking up the slack, but a concussion on January 2 appears to have ended his season prematurely. Now, Cooper is still listed as doubtful a week after suffering an ankle injury in practice. Neither have played together at all this season.
The Tigers are also coming off of a massive victory over No. 25 Tennessee on Saturday. They won the turnover battle for the first time since a win over Kentucky on January 16 and looked confident from start to finish against an opponent that should’ve overmatched them. Alabama should overmatch them as well, considering that they outperform Auburn in almost every statistic.
Auburn lingers just outside the top-40 in tempo and offensive efficiency, and judging by the effort shown Saturday against Tennessee, the Tigers will bring everything they have to Tuscaloosa. They’ll need it to topple the No. 8 team in the land.
Keys to the Game for Alabama
Play your game. Alabama gets this game on its home floor where they’ll be most comfortable jacking up three-pointers from start to finish. The Tide need to avoid getting flustered and control the game to give themselves the best chance.
Pressure Auburn into mistakes. Alabama boasts the third-best defense in America according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. That suggests a bad matchup for Auburn, who already turns the ball over more than almost anyone just by itself.
Keys to the Game for Auburn
Win the rebound battle. Alabama averages about one more rebound per game than Auburn, so the battle at the glass will be vicious. If Auburn can’t secure the ball and control second-chance opportunities, the game will get away from them fast.
Win the turnover battle. Against Tennessee, Auburn won the turnover battle for the first time in six weeks, and just the third time in the entire conference slate. Considering Auburn has lost ten SEC games, protecting the basketball is probably a good way to steal a win over Alabama.
Get to the free throw line. One of Auburn’s most frustrating traits has been its insistence on shooting three-pointers. Saturday, more than half of the Tigers’ field goal attempts were from two-point range, leading to 37 free throw attempts in 40 minutes. If Auburn can do that again, they can change the outcome of the game by collecting free points.
Auburn will bring everything they have, but Alabama is leagues better than Tennessee. Couple that with the road environment, and Auburn has a difficult matchup ahead of them. There’s little question that the Tigers will bring the effort, but right now, Alabama is the more talented team. Unless Alabama gets caught sleepwalking, they will walk away with the win.