Five of the last seven meetings between the two teams have been decided by a total of 15 points. The two exceptions came last season when each team won on their home floor, Auburn 77-68 and Alabama 84-68.
Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, whose teams have won seven of their last 11 games vs. the Tide, says that he expects a tough game on Saturday night. "I think Mark (Gottfried) has done an excellent job with this team and when this game is played you can throw records and anything like that out. But, we have got our hands full."
Alabama will await the Tigers with its 9-4 record, 1-1 in the SEC. The Crimson Tide has wins over Louisiana Tech 69-63, Southeastern Louisiana 83-76, UNC-Charlotte 79-72, Austin Peay 65-47, Tennessee-Chattanooga 76-72, Oregon 87-86 in Las Vegas, Mercer 101-44, Wisconsin 71-56 and Arkansas 81-65. The Tide's four losses have come away from Coleman Coliseum, where it holds a 10-game winning streak. Bama has lost to Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden by a 71-62 score and has lost at Providence 76-71, at Xavier 68-47 and at LSU 70-66.
Cliff Ellis hopes his team can even its SEC record at 2-2 with a win in Tuscaloosa.
"They are certainly off to a very good start," Ellis says. "I think that they have had some very good wins, especially out of our conference, that have been good for our league--Oregon, Wisconsin, North Carolina-Charlotte."
Alabama is led by 6-3 guard Earnest Shelton, who is averaging 16.5 points, which is eighth best in the SEC. The junior guard is also adding 3.9 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game for the Tide.
Another big scoring threat for Alabama is sophomore Kennedy Winston. The six-foot-six forward is averaging 15.8 points and 5.5 rebounds and scored a game-high 25 against Arkansas.
Ellis says from watching video that he has seen a lot of improvement in the Tide forward this season. "He is a great player, and every year gives you more confidence as a player in this league," the coach explains. "When you go around the first time you really just don't know what to expect. The second time around you know so you are definitely going to get better, and I think that he is a player that can do a lot of things."
Another sophomore is also putting up good numbers for the Tide. Six-foot-seven forward Chuck Davis is dropping in 12.1 points and grabbing 6.3 rebounds per game.
Alabama's sixth man, senior Emmett Thomas, has quite an Auburn connection. Both of his parents were Auburn graduates. His father, Emmett Sr., lettered on the Auburn basketball team in the 1974-75 season. Thomas, who was not recruited by the Tigers, has been solid for the Tide scoring 9.3 points per game.
"I think their team has a mixture of some players that are veteran players--in particular (Antoine) Pettway, Shelton, Thomas--and then Winston is one of the premier players in our league," Ellis says about Alabama's lineup. "Those four guys really give them some firepower. Davis is a much improved player, and they have got some young players that I think are really falling in and giving them some hard-nosed play."
As a team, Alabama is scoring 73.7 points per game and allowing opponents 66.6. They are shooting 46.8 percent from the floor and 36.0 from three-point land, which is second in the SEC. The Tide is also grabbing 36.3 rebounds per game, giving up 12.7 turnovers and getting 6.3 steals per game.
The Tigers, who are 10-4 overall and 1-2 in SEC play, look a bit better statistically heading into the matchup. Auburn is scoring 74.3 points per game and giving up only 59.7, which is second best in the SEC. The Tigers are shooting 47.4 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from behind the arc. They are also crashing the boards better with 38.9 rebounds per game.
However, the Tigers have been sloppy with the ball giving up 16.3 turnovers per game, but the defense helps make up for that with an SEC best 10.7 steals per game.
Ellis says that despite the slight statistical advantage, his team will have to fight through a lot of adversity to pull off a win against a tough team on their home court.
"We are coming off of a tough, tough loss and our character is definitely going to be tested," Ellis says. "I think physically we are getting better. Mentally we have changed our chemistry and we are going with it, and we just need to get through this time of getting our team back together."
The Auburn coach says that he believes the key to getting the team chemistry back together is Lewis Monroe, and he thinks the point guard is steadily improving. "I think everyday he gets better. I saw more assertive play Wednesday night than I did even Saturday. I think he'll get better everyday and every game."
Monroe says he is around "80 to 85 percent" of full speed as he continues his comeback from surgery to repair a fractured bone in his foot.
Another major key for the Tigers, who have struggled offensively in their two conference losses, will be their ability to more effectively solve the zone defenses that most teams are playing to negate their inside presence. And for Ellis, more aggressive play is what the doctor ordered for his team to better combat the tough zones.
"What happens is you start depending on those inside guys, and if they are doing that you have got to take what the defense gives you," the coach says. "And, if they are giving you that you have got to take it, and we have been a little more hesitant where as I think we have got to be a little more aggressive."
With the Tigers already dropping one home game to South Carolina, Saturday night's game has become even more important to the Tigers. Auburn will have to pull off at least one road victory in the rough and tumble SEC to have a chance to finish at 8-8 in conference play.
The Tigers and the Tide will square off Saturday night at 6 p.m. The game is a sellout according to Alabama athletics officials. The game can be seen on Fox Sports South with Dave Neal doing the play-by-play and former South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler handling the color commentary.