Auburn is currently the hottest team in college basketball, sitting at No.1 in the country and looking to add to its winning streak tonight. But if the Tigers are going to remain atop the polls, they’ll have to go through an Alabama team that is coming off another huge win.
Folks are having a hard time figuring out Alabama, the only SEC team to lose to Georgia this season. But the Tide have victories over Gonzaga and Baylor, a pair of teams that have been ranked No. 1 at one point this season. So, we don’t know which Alabama team will show up at Auburn Arena tonight.
Alabama is 14-7 overall and 4-4 in the league, while 1-4 in road games. Bruce Pearl thinks the Tide is one of the best teams they’ve played so far this season. Pearl’s team narrowly beat them 81-77 in January.
“I would say Alabama and Kentucky are the two best teams we have played so far,” Pearl said. “LSU being right there as well.”
Alabama is currently averaging just over 81 points per game, after defeating No. 4 Baylor 87-78 this past weekend. They are getting the most out of Jaden Shackelford, who’s averaging 17 points and six rebounds per game, while also leading the team in three pointers.
“Alabama is just tremendous offensively,” Pearl said. “Coach (Nate) Oates does a great job putting those guys in spaces, and they are hard to stay in front. Their spacing is really good. They shoot inside threes, outside threes and free throws. It is going to be a great challenge for us. We played really, really well there last time.”
In the previous matchup between the two teams in Tuscaloosa, Auburn freshman Jabari Smith scored a season-high 25 points, and Wendell Green put up 19. The Tigers were all over Alabama with the full-court pressure, and also made life difficult in the paint. Bruce Pearl mentioned that he was thankful that two of Alabama’s best guards didn’t hurt them at the end in the first game.
“We were very fortunate in our game that Quinerly and Shackelford didn’t necessarily go off,” Pearl said. “Those guys are two of the best guards in the country.”
The biggest takeaway from the Alabama win over No. 4 Baylor on Saturday is how the Tide took advantage in the paint, scoring 42 points. Given that Baylor entered the game with a top ten defense, the performance from the Tide was an eye-opener for Bruce Pearl.
“Baylor has really good defensive guards,” Pearl pointed out. “Baylor was No. 10 in the nation in defense…but Alabama’s offense was better than Baylor’s defense to put 87 on them. That is really hard to do. Forty-two points in the paint for Alabama. Shot 59 percent against the 10th best defense in the country.”
But tonight, this matchup will most likely be contested from the perimeter, especially if Alabama tries to put pressure on Walker Kessler in the paint. But there’s only so much the Tide can do against an Auburn team that also has Jabari Smith.
“Jarabi Smith, I haven’t seen Duke play, so I haven’t seen all the guys talked about for No. 1 pick in the draft. From all the guys I’ve seen, Jabari is probably going to be the top pick in the draft, or at least top two or three,” Oats said.
But with so many different options on the Auburn roster, Nate Oats cannot afford to focus all of his attention on Smith, especially since players like Wendell Green and K.D. Johnson can beat them at the basket.
“If we think we’re going to focus all our attention on Jabari and let someone else beat us,” Oats said, “then we’re not going to win the game. We got to do a better job on Jabari with his matchup without having to force a ton of help.”
The atmosphere around this game will surely bring Auburn Arena to a fever pitch tonight, especially with their hated rival Alabama on the court. But I imagine everyone at home is hoping we get another close battle like we witnessed in Tuscaloosa.
Bring on another round of the hardwood Iron Bowl.