When the Auburn Tigers traveled to Tuscaloosa a few weeks ago, they left with their first conference loss and only second loss of the season. Alabama then started a bizarre run that saw them go 3-0 against ranked teams (improving to 5-1 on the season), yet go 2-4 against unranked opponents.
Still, the Tigers hold a commanding lead in the SEC while Alabama sits in third place heading into tonight’s competition. It’s great to say that Alabama and Auburn are playing not only to continue to remain at the top of the SEC, but also to continue to improve seeding for what seems to be two locks for the NCAA tournament.
If Alabama can complete the sweep and Tennessee falls to Florida, Alabama will move into second place (with head-to-head wins over UT/UF), and be two games behind Auburn who will remain in first. If Auburn grabs the revenge win and Tennessee loses, they will essentially lock up the SEC regular season title tonight with three games left. With a loss, Alabama will fall into a five or six way tie for fourth in the SEC.
The stakes are high, and it will be a crazy crowd at Auburn Arena as the Tigers football team will receive the Foy-ODK Sportsmanship Trophy at halftime for defeating Alabama in the Iron Bowl this season. It should be a great one.
With that said, Lunce’s List tonight is the five players I could see being the biggest difference maker in tonight’s game.
1 – Bryce Brown
Bryce Brown has been the leader on this team all season, averaging the most minutes and points per game, and the second highest three point percentage, despite attempting almost double the threes of the next highest player. He played decent in the first meeting, hitting 4-8 from beyond the arc, but Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper were fairly cold and no one could compete with the way John Petty played.
In the five home games since losing to Alabama, Auburn is 4-1, with Bryce Brown going 31-58 (53.4%), 20-35 (57.1%). Of course, the one loss came to Texas A&M in a close 81-80 game, but Bryce Brown was injured and missed the second half of the game. He was 3-5, and 1-2 from beyond the arc before he went out, so he was on pace to place fairly well. He’s played great at home, and if he does so again, Auburn walks away with the W.
2 – John Petty
When these two teams met last time, Alabama was able to win on the heels of John Petty draining eight 3-pointers and shooting 9-14 from the field. Collin Sexton was absent and Petty took over and led this team to victory. Small ball won for the Tide as Petty, Dazon Ingram and Herb Jones (who started in Sexton’s place) all had double digit points and shot fairly well. Donta Hall didn’t start either due to his wrist injury to give Braxton Key the start, and Key played 31 minutes.
With all of that said, if the same philosophy holds true, Petty will have to be lights out again. However, Petty at home has been much better than Petty on the road. Overall, Petty is hitting 37.6% of his 3-point attempts and shooting over 40% overall. In the four road games since beating Auburn at home, Alabama is 1-3 and Petty is 5-29 (17.2%) overall, 5-24 (20.8%) from beyond the arc. That means that 24 of his 29 shots have come from 3-point range and the only five shots he’s made have been 3’s.
He has to perform better than that if the Tide expect to win.
3 – Donta Hall
As dominant as Donta Hall has been the last few weeks for Alabama, he was still coming off his wrist surgery when Alabama played Auburn last time. He didn’t start and only played 15 minutes, which was tied for second fewest. He did have 5 rebounds and made the one shot he attempted, and also had a steal and block.
Since then, he’s been arguably the best player for Alabama, shooting 49-65 (75.4%) and averaging 2.3 blocks per game and 7.2 rebounds per game. Auburn has struggled, at times, with bigger teams, such as Texas A&M who has five players 6-10 or taller. Hall has to be a power inside, especially since the leading blocker and one of the top rebounders is gone for Auburn in McLemore. As long as Hall plays well and can put up some good points in the paint and always get rebounds – Alabama will have a chance.
Mustapha Heron Collin Sexton Heron is actually averaging the most points per minutes played of anyone on this team. He’s not far behind Bryce Brown in general, only 8 points behind. He’s shooting 45% from the field and is one of the better free throw shooters on the team. With Bryce Brown coming off an injury a couple of weeks ago and with more pressure on the perimeter play with McLemore gone, Heron will have to step up and play well. Heron is the second leading rebounder on the team with 5.4 per game and the steals leader with 1.2 per game. However, he’s also committed the second most turnovers. Since going 2-7 for only 5 points with 4 turnovers against Alabama in their first meeting, Heron has yet to score less than 11 points, putting up 16 or more six times out of nine games. He’ll need a big revenge game tonight to ensure the win for Auburn.
UPDATE: Heron was announced as out tonight vs. Alabama with the flu. Auburn is now at 7 scholarship players. With that, I have to add Collin Sexton here, because that is a big time guard that is out for Auburn and Sexton/Ingram/Jones will have a little easier of a time without Heron there.
5 – Horace Spencer
With McLemore’s injury, it’s going to be up to the couple of big men Auburn has left to step up and try and stop a force like Donta Hall. Horace Spencer isn’t the go-to forward for this team, but with the attrition so far this season, he is about to be put in a position where he has to play more and contribute more for Auburn to still be successful. Auburn has made it’s living on being a great 3-point shooting team so far this season, but McLemore led the SEC in blocks per game and was a top 15 blocker in the nation. Now that he’s gone, Spencer needs to step into that role. He is now the active leading blocker on the team with 1.1 per game, and a couple of well timed blocks against a Donta Hall could be huge.
Spencer averaged 16.6 minutes per game, the second lowest of the scholarship players, and only 4.3 points per game. For the minutes he played, he did very well rebounding and blocking shots, as well as being second on the team overall in steals per game. He also has the highest shooting percentage on the team at 54.5%. So there is something there with Horace Spencer, and with this being the first full game that McLemore has missed – Spencer, along with Chuma Okeke, will have to play some major minutes.
You’re probably asking yourself, “Why isn’t Collin Sexton at #1?”
First off, it’s my list, so get over it. Second, Sexton wasn’t around in the first game, so it’s tough to try and determine how he might play against this team specifically. Third, Sexton will have an impact, but the other Alabama players I chose will have a bigger impact in my opinion – Donta Hall for being the lone dominant big man of the game for either team, and John Petty for his performance against Auburn the first time and he must play well to win on the road.
Can Collin Sexton take this game into his hands and single-handedly win it? Of course he can, he’s a lottery pick and plays like it. I originally left him off the list because I’m still not sure how exactly he fits into this Alabama system with the way we’ve seen the season play out, but with Heron out, Sexton will have an easier time. I wish they kept +/- statistics in college, but in the Kentucky game I tried to keep track of it, and Alabama was positive when Sexton wasn’t in compared to negative when he was in. The numbers weren’t astronomically different, but we saw a good Alabama team when he was out and they beat Auburn the first time.
We’ll see what happens tonight.
For what it’s worth, I was going with Auburn to win at home before Heron was announced out. I thought the -7.5 was a bit much originally, but Auburn would win close. It’s a close call now, but tough to pick against that crowd at Auburn Arena.