By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - When Bruce Pearl looks at Auburn’s basketball team, he sees progress. Exhibit A: Away, as in away from home, where the Tigers have a 4-3 record.
One of only six SEC teams with a winning road record, Auburn’s ability to handle hostile environments will be tested Saturday when the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa.
“There are some teams that we’ve beaten, both on neutral sites and the road, that are pretty good teams, so I’m still pleased with the progress the program has made,” Pearl said.
Auburn (14-8, 3-6), whose road victories have come against UAB, UConn, Missouri and TCU, plays at Alabama (13-8, 6-3) Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.
“We’re excited about the challenge because how often do you get to play Alabama with a chance to sweep?” Pearl said. “In my two years here, we were presented with that opportunity once. Last year, we won here and then went there and were not able to accomplish it.”
Auburn beat Alabama 84-64 at Auburn Arena on Jan. 21 behind 19 points and nine rebounds from freshman center Austin Wiley.
Pearl said forward Horace Spencer, who injured his shoulder in Tuesday’s 87-77 home loss to Tennessee, would be evaluated Friday to determine his availability.
“If he can’t go, guys are ready to step up,” Pearl said. “Against Alabama, you can go small and run the risk that you get physically dominated or you can try to go bigger and only get dominated a little bit, so pick your poison.”
Pearl said Auburn enjoys “great chemistry,” with players who get along well. But, he added the Tigers are working at getting better at playing as a unit.
“I would say that our playmakers would be the ones that would be the most responsible for allowing us to improve offensively by playing together,” Pearl said.
Pearl used a football analogy to explain Auburn’s biggest room for growth on defense, pressuring the ball.
“When you’ve got great cover corners, it’s amazing how much better your defense is because those guys don’t need any help,” he said. “You can put those guys out there on an island, they can take their two best receivers, the other nine guys can do everything else.
“And in basketball, if you have guys that can cover one-on-one and not require a lot of help, it really, really improves the quality of your defense. And I would think that would probably be the biggest thing that we have struggled with this year is our lack of confidence in our individual, one-on-one defense.”
For the Tigers to earn a season sweep against their instate rival, rebounding will be a key.
“Alabama is huge,” Pearl said. “They lead the league in rebound margin. In the SEC, I think we’re maybe 12th. We’ve improved a little bit. And they are one of, if not, the biggest team in the country. When you go 6-5, 6-6, 6-8 and a couple of 6-10s on the front line, it’s a big, big team.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer