Basketball in Alabama has come alive.
With most of the state's focus previously engraved in the hearts of Jordan-Hare and Bryant-Denny stadiums, the Southern hardwood floor has now found its way to national attention.
Auburn is projected to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003, and the Crimson Tide are riding the No. 8 recruiting class to a 17-10 record.
Over the past five seasons, Alabama has won six of the pair’s 11 meetings. The Crimson Tide also lead the all-time series 95-61, including the most recent matchup over then-No. 17 Auburn.
And the rivals share history on the court, too.
Wednesday’s matchup marks the 17-year anniversary of “The Legend of Reggie Sharp,” where Sharp drove through defenders and banked in a 36-foot shot in Auburn’s overtime upset of No. 15 Alabama.
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John Mengelt’s 60-point performance, Auburn’s single-game record, came in a win over the Crimson Tide. Twenty-five years later, Auburn became the first team in SEC history to win four tournament games in four days with an SEC Championship win over Alabama.
That 1985 victory holds as Auburn’s last SEC Tournament Championship.
Now, 33 years later, Alabama will return to Auburn Arena beneath the shadow of Charles Barkley.
Avery Johnson’s Crimson Tide began the 2017-18 season with the conference’s third-best recruiting class, led by top-ranked point guard Collin Sexton. Sexton currently third in the SEC in scoring with 18.1 points per game on a team-high 29.1 minutes.
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl had high praise for Sexton.
“Sexton is a guy they say is going to go in the top 10 [in the NBA Draft] if he goes,” he said. “He’s an incredible offensive weapon.”
Now in his third season in Tuscaloosa, Johnson said that he is well-acquainted with the rivalry’s atmosphere.
“When I first arrived I didn’t quite understand it,” Johnson said. “But, I understand it now.”
The Crimson Tide held Auburn to 24-of-61 (39.3 percent) shooting in its 76-71 upset victory in January. Mustapha Heron was held to just his second game this season below double-digit scoring.
Pearl’s Auburn currently leads the conference with a 23-4 record with a projected No. 2 seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Bryce Brown, who has dealt with both a shoulder injury and bruising on his feet this season, leads the team in scoring with 16.4 points per game with a 41.6 field-goal percentage.
Following a loss to South Carolina and a season-ending injury to Anfernee McLemore, who led the conference in blocks per game (2.7), Auburn’s meeting with Alabama provides an opportunity to improve in shooting.
Auburn shot a combined 35 percent (44-of-124) in losing efforts against Alabama and the Gamecocks.
Pearl said that Alabama is prepared to keep Auburn’s efficient shooting off the box score.
“Alabama is the best defensive team in the league,” he said. “A lot of the things they do have been some of the things that have bothered us.”
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The head coach added that, in addition to Alabama leading the conference in blocked shots and field-goal percentage defense, it will be difficult to keep the Crimson Tide out of the paint.
In addition to Wednesday’s meeting, Alabama will be presenting Auburn with the James E. Foy, V-ODK Sportsmanship Trophy. The trophy is awarded each year to the winner of the schools’ football Iron Bowl by the loser at the winner’s home basketball court.
Pearl said that he is anticipating the added support of the football team.
“I'm so proud of the fact that our football team is going to get that trophy here and our fans get the chance to love on those guys a little bit. They've been so supportive of us all year. We're going to need all that support. We're going to need all that."
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