Tide Hosts Auburn In SEC Title Chase

Alabama fans probably expect to see Justin and Hunter coming out of their warm-ups, to be able to chant "Feed the Swede," to taunt opposing shooters of air balls. Certainly the Crimson Tide, tied for best record in the Southeastern Conference, should be expected to defeat Auburn, tied for worst in the SEC, but it's not always easy in basketball.

Alabama defeated Auburn by 10 points, 68-58, in Auburn earlier this year. But the rest of the story is that the Crimson Tide was in a nip-and-tuck game until the final minutes.

Alabama is 18-8 overall and 10-2 in SEC play. Auburn is 9-17, including a 2-10 league record. The Crimson Tide hosts the Tigers at 7 p.m. CST Wednesday in Coleman Coliseum. Alabama is 14-0 at home, including 6-0 in SEC games. Auburn is 1-5 in conference road games. Wednesday's game will be regionally telecast on the SEC network.

It has been a while since 7-1 Carl Engstrom, the freshman from Sweden, or practice walk-ons like Justin Luquire and Hunter Jeffrey have seen playing time. With Alabama in a tight race for the SEC Championship, it would take unexpected developments for Alabama Coach Anthony Grant to relax enough to clear the bench.

Bama has more or less claimed the SEC Western Division championship, but that is hardly the point. The Crimson Tide has its sights set on the regular season SEC title and beyond that an invitation to play in the NCAA Tournament. (Though Mississippi State could theoretically tie Alabama -- the Tide is four games ahead with four to play --, Bama would own the tie-breaker with two wins over the Bulldogs.)

Grant said he doesn't have to dangle the NCAA carrot in front of his players. "You guys do that," he said in a media briefing.

The coach added, "If you play college basketball, your goal is to be a part of that special time."

Although Alabama's conference record would suggest the Tide has no worries about getting into the national tournament, Bama's poor record against a weak non-conference schedule may have Alabama "on the bubble."

For now, Grant said his team is focused on the next game.

"I was really impressed the first time we played them by how hard they played," Grant said. "I think they've played better recently. I've been impressed by what I've seen.

"Every game is different. We have to be at our best. We expect Auburn to bring everything they've got. Our focus has to be on what we can do to win the game. The bottom line is it's going to be a 40-minute game and we have to be prepared."

Most of the attention is on what Arkansas Coach John Pelphrey called Alabama's "Big Three." They are Tony Mitchell, the SEC Player of the Week for his performance last week; Trevor Releford, who has been outstanding at point guard in his freshman season; and JaMychal Green, the unanimous pre-season All-SEC low post player.

Mitchell, a 6-6, 210-pound sophomore forward, has scored 20 or more points in five of Bama's last six games and is averaging 16.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Green, a 6-8, 228-pound junior, averages 16 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Releford, 6-1, averages 10.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. Bama other starters are expected to be 6-8, 227-pound forward Chris Hines (5.2 points, 6.3 rebounds) and 6-3 wing Charvez Davis (8.2 points, 2.3 rebounds).

Beyond individuals, Alabama this year has been known for its team play, and particularly its team defense.

Alabama's defense allows just 58.2 points per game, best in the SEC and fifth best in the nation. Alabama has held all 26 opponents and all 12 SEC opponents to an average of just 0.83 point per possession, best in the nation. Bama opponents are converting on just 37.1 per cent of field goals, tops in the conference and third in the nation.

Auburn is averaging 63.3 points per game, 11th in the conference. Auburn gives up 67.3 points per game, and its scoring margin of –4.2 points per game is last in the league. Bama scores 68.5 points per game and the Tide's plus 10.3 scoring margin is second best in the conference.

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