Tide Goes To Auburn

Almost no one sees a problem for Alabama's men's basketball team as it heads to Auburn Wednesday night for a Southeastern Conference contest. After all, Bama is 15-3, ranked 14th in the nation, and leading the SEC Western Division with a 4-1 record. To say Auburn is rebuilding is putting it kindly. But there is a danger.

Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried hinted at the concern when he said, "I think we've got a good challenge in front of us. Auburn poses a lot of problems. I think people will look at their conference record (0-4, and 9-8 overall) and say, ‘Well, they're not very good,' but I think they are very dangerous. I think Jeff Lebo is coaching them well and, certainly you have to play well to beat them. They are a hard team to guard because of the way they play and the way they open up the floor, and the way they shoot the three. We've got a difficult challenge to do that."

Alabama has had great success shooting three-point baskets in recent victories. And while Bama opponents have not had great success on three-pointers in every game, it is never a surprise when a team has its best three-point shooting night against the Crimson Tide.

And Auburn will shoot from long range. The Tigers have put up 440 treys (compared to Bama's 370 in one more game) and Auburn has hit 152 of them. That's 8.9 per game and 34.5 per cent. Meanwhile, Tide opponents thus far have made 131 of 358, 7.3 per game and 36.6 per cent.

There's a good reason for Auburn to spread it out and shoot bombs. Much of the inside firepower from last year is gone with Marco Killingsworth having transferred out of Auburn when a coaching change was made at the end of last season. Killingsworth is sitting out at Indiana. The Auburn starting lineup has one man 6-6 (senior forward Quinnel Brown) and four guards.

The Tigers have some scoring ability. Four starters average in double figures, led by freshman guard Toney Douglas at 19.1 points per game, best in the SEC. Senior guard Ian Young averages 15.8, Brown 13.5, and senior guard Nathan Watson 10.6.

Alabama is on a four-game winning streak in SEC play, while the Tigers have opened conference competition with four consecutive losses.

Bama's 4-1 start is its best since 2002, when Alabama won eight of its first nine and went on to a 12-4 mark and won the SEC regular season championship.

Alabama's good start includes a surprising home rout of Mississippi State and two SEC road wins, at Arkansas and at Ole Miss. Following Wednesday night's 7 p.m. CST game at Auburn, the Tide will host Georgia at 7 p.m. Saturday. Bama will then be off for a week before road games at Florida and Tennessee to close out the first half of SEC play. Six of Bama's first nine SEC games are on the road (which means six of nine in the second half will be in Coleman Coliseum).

Alabama averages just a few points per game more than Auburn, 79.9 to 76.2. But Bama's defense has been much better, holding opponents to 67.1 points per game, while the Tigers have given up 76.7 per game. Alabama has been better on the boards than Auburn. The Tide averages 38.2 rebounds per game, 6.2 more than opponents, while the Tigers pull down 31.4 per game, 4.8 fewer than their opponents.

Alabama is a good shot-blocking team, having swatted away 80. You might expect to see some Auburn players with "Spaulding" in mirror-writing on their foreheads. The Tigers have had 61 shots rejected.

Alabama is led by junior wing forward Kennedy Winston, who last week was named the SEC Player of the Week for the fifth time in the past two years. Last week Winston had 24 points against Mississippi State and 26 as Bama came from behind to beat Mississippi.

Gottfried said, "It wasn't just another day at the office from my perspective. I thought he was terrific and played really well. He has played at a high level, and I think last year, if you look about this time of the year, he really kind of got in that zone and played at a high level. Again, he missed a little time early, conditioning-wise, because of his knee and he hasn't had any issues at all since. I think he's in really good basketball shape and playing well. He's just a key player for us. He's developing every year, getting better. I think right now the thing I see more than I did a year ago is his athleticism coming out. I used to kid him as a freshman and a sophomore that he never had any dunks. I don't really care if guys dunk it or not, but just that fact that he's athletically improving to me is a part of his game that helps him. It helps his rebounding; it helps him in the open floor. He's getting bigger and stronger, so he's certainly getting better here in our program."

Kennedy averages 17.8 points per game. He had to go some to beat out teammate Earnest Shelton for player of the week. Shelton had a career-high 34 points in the massacre of the Bulldogs. The senior wing guard is averaging 17.4 points per game. Also in double figures for the Tide is junior forward Chuck Davis at 14.3 points per game.

With three straight victories, Alabama has a commanding 79-50 advantage in the series against Auburn. In games in Auburn, the series is tied, 22-22.

A pleasant surprise for Alabama has been the cool play of freshman point guard Ron Steele, who leads the SEC in assists with 5.8 per game. And he makes very few turnovers, only six in four SEC games. In the past two games he's had a total of 18 assists and two turnovers.

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