Ahead of Auburn basketball’s matchup with Alabama, head coach Bruce Pearl says his team may be going up against the SEC's best team.
“They're all locked in and are playing really well together,” Pearl said. “They're guarding like crazy. And I think they've got a belief. I think Alabama is going to look around and go, 'Who's better than we are? Who's better than Alabama in our league?’”
Auburn is coming off three-straight conferences losses going into its matchup with Alabama, who is 3-0 in the SEC so far. The Crimson Tide have beaten Tennessee and Florida in back-to-back weeks and are currently first in the conference, while Auburn is currently in last.
In the school’s past few meetings, Auburn was the team to boast the veteran-laden roster, but this year it will be Alabama. Led by senior guards Herb Jones and John Petty Jr., the Tide have been able to dominate teams offensively.
Both Petty and Jones average over 12 points a game, each shooting better than 43% from the field. Jones and Petty also perform on the defensive end, with the tandem snagging 26 steals combined through their team's first 11 games.
Auburn goes into the matchup as the young, untested team led by mainly underclassmen and will potentially be missing its biggest freshman contributor.
Pearl said Friday that freshman guard Justin Powell, who has been playing point guard in the absence of freshman Sharife Cooper, is “day-to-day” after suffering a head injury last Saturday against Texas A&M.
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Junior Jamal Johnson will likely step into the starting role for the injured Powell, earning his second start of the year.
Johnson shoots 38 percent from the field and is the Tiger’s fourth-highest scorer. Johnson also has two 20-point games off the bench this year, scoring a career-high 21 against Arkansas.
“I think Allen Flanigan, Jamal Johnson and Jaylin Williams have all stepped up the most, as far as our returning players are concerned. In addition to that, they've got to continue to,” Pearl said.
The offense for the Tigers is the point of emphasis in Pearl’s eyes. While Auburn is taking the most three-point shots since Pearl took over in 2014, the team’s point totals don’t reflect it.
Turnovers have been a gigantic portion of Auburn’s early struggles, and teams generate free points off of them. Against Ole Miss, Auburn turned the ball over 16 times. Against Texas A&M the week before, they had 18 turnovers.
“With a younger team, we've turned it over a little bit more, so we've got to play through the contact and allow the turnovers to be forced turnovers,” Pearl said. “We've got to do a good job of taking care of the ball for sure.”
Students will finally be in the stands for Auburn’s home game against Alabama. In the Tigers, last eight games at home against Alabama, the Tide have been outscored by an average of over 10 points. However, even with fans returning, Pearl knows his team is in for potentially their biggest challenge yet.
“Alabama’s really good,” Pearl said.
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