Auburn's sure got that "Q" factor these days, don't they? In a completely unrelated statement, this is Quantez Robertson.
First things first. Don't forget: tonight at 9 EST/8 Central, the JCCW will be hosting a CoverItLive-style liveblog, a la Signing Day's for those of you who were around for that. If you are not at the game, you should be here.
Biggest game EVAR? Well, no, but Wire Road and Shug ask if it's the biggest of the Lebo era, and answer in the affirmative. Is it? My gut is to say "It can't be," because the stakes here aren't that high. Remember: Auburn is not getting an at-large NCAA bid. (For comparison's sake, Kentucky is a game better than Auburn in the conference's way tougher division, has nonconference wins over West Virginia and Kansas St. to Auburn's Virginia and no one, has a 4-6 RPI top 50 record to Auburn's 1-5 ... and Kentucky by nearly all accounts is barely in the field.) So here's what's on the line for Auburn tonight:
1. Clinching the SEC Tournament bye
2. NIT seeding if necessary
That's it. Oh, I suppose there's the tidbits of respect that come with the old, fading attachment to a 20-win season. And a win would get Auburn within a game of a winning SEC record. That'd be cool. But neither of those things has any practical value.
And still, when I think about it, I find myself agreeing with WRAS--this is the biggest game of the Jeff Lebo era. Because here's a comprehensive list of what's been at stake for every other game Lebo's ever coached at Auburn after, say, Jan. 20:
That's it. I guess you could make the argument that the SEC tournament games he's coached have meant more ... but really, no, they haven't, not when you consider that we all knew Auburn had as much chance of winning those tournaments as I have with Neko Case.
Her entire new album is streaming here, her tastefully NSFW pictorial for defunct Seattle magazine "Kutie" is here. Don't say I never did nothin' for ya.
So yes, there is more on the line tonight than in any other game of Jeff Lebo's tenure. This is his biggest game.
Heat check. Lost a little bit in Auburn's hot streak is exactly how hot the Tigers have gotten over the last couple of weeks. Sure, six wins in seven games sounds good, but when you consider that a) the Tennessee win that started the streak was the only one that hasn't come by at least 12 points b) that the one loss was a seven-point drop at the best team in the conference c) two of them have come on the road, it becomes pretty apparent how far Auburn's really come over that stretch. If you declared where Auburn stood in the SEC on those seven games alone, they'd be one of the top two or three teams in the league.
Here comes the bad news: Alabama's rather suddenly almost as hot. After surviving Miss. St. in double-overtime Feb. 21, the Tide buried Arkansas at home 88-67, and if that wasn't as impressive as it might be given Arkansas's collapse, that 90-69 bludgeoning of what had been a scrappy Ole Miss team in Oxford sure as hell was. Auburn's moved all the way up to 65th in the Pomeroy ratings, but Alabama's surge has seen them fly into the top 100, too--to the point where the Kenpom computer calls the game a one-point coinflip. "Auburn is the hotter team" isn't reason enough to believe they'll pull this one out.
Rebound, Auburn, Rebound. Keeping the Alabama offense in check isn't all that tough: keep them off the offensive glass. They're not particularly good--in fact, they're downright below average--at every single thing else. They almost never shoot 3's, they don't shoot well from 2, they turn the ball over, they don't draw that many free throws. But JaMychal Green and Alonzo Gee are both demons on the offensive glass, and even a bunch of bricklayers like the Tide will put the ball in the basket eventually given enough shots at it.
On one hand, this is bad news for Auburn: if Vot Barber's boxing out Gee, it's not easy to see who's going to handle Green. On the other, on paper Auburn's defensive rebounding hasn't been that bad--91st in the country. The best way to attack the Auburn D is to get to the foul line, and while the Tide does some of that, they don't do a ton of it. The second-best way is to shoot the three, and 'Bama's not going to do that (only 16 teams in D-I shoot it less, actually).
So: all Auburn has to do is keep Green and Gee from totally cleaning up on the offensive boards and they should win that end of the floor. They're going to turn the Tide over, they'll keep them from shooting all that well (probably). And if winning the battle on the glass (or at least forcing a draw) is easier said than done, but it's certainly a makeable goal.
Go inside, young man. Unlike the Tide, Auburn looooooves its threes--despite the fact they don't shoot them particularly well (33.4 percent, 203rd in the country) a full 40 percent of the Tigers' shots are from deep. That's OK against most teams, because it opens up opportunities for Barber and for drives to the hoop--it's part of the reason 2-point shot percentage (51 percent, 66th) is the thing Auburn's offense does best. And against teams that let Auburn shoot a high percentage (like Miss. St.), it's even better than OK.
But against Alabama, Auburn might have to tone it down a bit. Not too much--Auburn's been shooting it so well of late there's no point in ignoring a weapon like Waller's shot entirely. But The Tide D's biggest strength is shutting down opposing 3's, as they hold opponents to 31.8 percent out there (42nd). The Tide are decent at stopping 2's as well--all together, their eFG defense is 60th in the country. But in this one, I'd rather take our chances with Barber posting up and Reed's/Barrett's/Robertson's/Waller's occasional drives to the basket than launching away in the teeth of a perimeter-oriented D. (One weird thing worth noting here: According to BBState, the Tide have the conference's best 3-point defense when all games are considered but only the eighth-best in conference play alone. The hell? So I'm not saying Waller or Hargrove shouldn't put it up if they get the chance, I guess.)
The weak points in the 'Bama D? They don't force turnovers (192nd), and they really don't hit the defensive glass (271st!). Unfortunately, Auburn isn't particularly fond of hitting the offensive glass themselves, but Auburn's taken good care of the ball, especially lately--they're up to 3rd in the conference in turnover percentage in conference play. If the Tigers don't carelessly turn the ball over on their own, they should be able to hoist (and hit) enough shots that the offense won't come to a screeching halt.
Bottom line: The guess here is that, especially with the game in Coleman, both defenses are going to have the upper hand. It'll likely be a moderately-paced but sloppy-looking games in the 60s ... and it should be close. I'd say that Alabama's last two games look a little on the flukish side and that they're due to come back to Earth, but you'd say the same about Auburn--and the Tide are at home.
But in the end, Auburn's the better team here: out of a whole bunch of things that neither team does especially well, the Tigers force turnovers at a tremendous rate and hold onto the ball pretty closely themselves these days. With the shooting coming around, the TO advantage should be just enough to edge the home team by a score of something like 67-61.
War Eagle, guys. Let's do this.