Auburn, Ala. -- Once again the Auburn Tigers’ role has been reduced to the spoiler after injuries and suspensions have made the season a struggle. Head Coach Bruce Pearl’s 2015-16 basketball team, sitting at 11-16 and 5-10 in the SEC, will look to put the final nail in the Crimson coffin Saturday when they travel to Tuscaloosa and face rival Alabama (16-11, 7-8 SEC).
The Tigers won the first meeting at Auburn Arena 83-77 on Jan. 19 and another win over Avery Johnson’s group would more than likely burst the Tide’s NCAA tournament bubble barring a big run in the SEC Tournament. Coach Pearl understands the importance of the in-state rivalry, and he knows that the grudge match factor allows Auburn to possibly identify as the spoiler with fans. However, he doesn’t want to stress being in that role with the team.
“I want more teams from the league (SEC) to get in the tournament,” said Pearl after being asked about playing the spoiler, “but it’s Alabama. It’s different. It’s a rival. We won’t focus on the spoiler aspect of it. What we’re going to focus on is with eight guys right now, can we get to playing our best basketball? That’s the question. Now we have enough pieces to be competitive and that’s a good thing. Prior to (T.J.) Dunans we (didn’t have) one ball-handling guard, not two, just one.”
The return of Dunans was crucial in the win over Georgia Wednesday. The junior college transfer that was injured in a loss to Harvard in Hawaii started at point guard and finished with 12 points, seven assists and four rebounds in the 84-81 victory.
"Having T.J. Dunans back gives us a guard that can create,” said Pearl. “He is a guy that instinctively makes others better because he’s a willing passer. He understands spacing and he’s got some abilities with his length to break the defense down. This timing of his return puts us in a position where we’re able to kind of conjure up more competitiveness. How many victories that leads to? I don’t know, but it was good enough to beat Georgia at home.”
Pearl is hoping he will get another key player back Saturday in Tyler Harris. The 6-10 forward missed the Georgia game after suffering a blow to the head against Ole Miss that left him concussed.
“I'd say Tyler's likely, maybe probable,” Pearl noted. “He expects to practice today. Now, if he has any symptoms, and he could, then there's a chance he won't play tomorrow. He's not on for tomorrow but he's on for practice today underneath that same protocol. So if he can get through some running and some pounding, and he did a little bit yesterday so we'll see how he does today, let's just say probable probably.”
Sophomore guard T.J. Lang, who broke out vs. Georgia with a personal best of 21 points, also understands how important Harris is to the team.
“Tyler is our best inside finisher,” said Lang. “He’s a really good playmaker. Once we have him and T.J. Dunans back, we have two playmakers out there on the court. It makes us a really hard team to matchup with.”
The main focus this weekend for Lang and his teammates is to find a way to get a victory over star point guard Retin Obasohan (17.4 points, four rebounds and 2.7 assists per game) and the rest of the Crimson Tide at Coleman Coliseum this weekend. He hopes they can do it with whatever players are available.
“They (Alabama) are playing really good basketball right now and they have a chance to make it to the (NCAA) tournament,” said Lang. “We’re coming in just hoping that our momentum that we’ve been building kind of carries over and we continue to play really good team basketball.”
Saturday's game at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa is scheduled for a 4 p.m. start and can be seen on the SEC Network.