TUSCALOOSA — It doesn’t take much to motivate players on either side of the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, no matter the sport.
But when it comes to men’s basketball, one play in particular from last season — a clip of Tigers walk-on Patrick Keim’s last-second 3-pointer in Auburn’s 84-64 blowout home win over Alabama — has provided several Crimson Tide players a little extra motivation leading up to tonight’s game at Coleman Coliseum.
“It’s a big motivator,” sophomore Braxton Key said of Auburn’s season sweep of Alabama last season. “Another big motivator is the kid (Keim) — I don’t know his name — that hit the 3 at the end. We’ve seen a lot of that film and that clip.”
Alabama (11-6, 3-2 SEC) will host a hot Auburn (16-1, 4-0 SEC) team that enters ranked No. 17 in the country and riding a nation-leading 14-game winning streak despite not having the services of its top two players, sophomore center Austin Wiley and sophomore forward Danjel Purfoy.
“I think they can put up those ‘4-14’ T-shirts that they’ve been wearing because now we know they’re better than the 4-14 team” they were projected to be in the preseason, Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “Maybe they can stop playing the underdog role now that they’re ranked and they’re the hottest team in our conference.”
The Tigers come into Coleman with a two-game winning streak in the series.
“It means a lot. It’s the Iron Bowl of basketball. So we just have to come in and be ready to play against a top-20 team,” sophomore Dazon Ingram said.
A key to Auburn’s success last season was its 3-point shooting: 23 of 40 attempts from beyond the arc (57.5 percent) in the two games, including a 15-of-27 showing from deep in last year’s 82-77 victory at Coleman Coliseum.
This season, the Tigers enter the game as one of the SEC’s top 3-point shooting teams with the second-most made 3-pointers this season at 162 in 433 attempts (37.4 percent).
At the same time, Alabama has picked up its 3-point defense, ranking fifth in the conference by holding opponents to 28.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc (33 of 114 from 3) in league play.
Auburn has been even better in defending the 3, ranking second in the SEC by limiting opposing offenses to 25 percent (23 of 92) from beyond the arc.
The key to showing improvement for Alabama, according to Johnson, is its potential size mismatch at the wing positions with combo-forwards like the 6-8 Key and 6-7 freshman Herb Jones, as well as the combination of 6-9 freshman forward Galin Smith and athletic guards like freshman Collin Sexton and the 6-5 Ingram.
“We think having guys like Herb, Braxton, Dazon, Galin Smith — who’s pretty versatile for a big guy — (and) Collin with his speed, we think we have at least a better chance of defending the 3-point line than we’ve ever had since we’ve been here,” Johnson said. “I think it’s starting to show up in our defensive numbers here recently, especially to start SEC play.”
One reason for the improved defensive play has been the steady progress made by Key, who sat out the first month of the season recovering from a preseason knee surgery but is now a full month back in action.
“I think he’s adjusted and is getting in better shape. We see the progress in practice and the ways that he can continue to be Braxton,” Johnson said. “We think we’ve done a good job of moving him around, and he’s had the ball a little bit more, and he’s making plays. … He’s a valuable part of our team.”
But while Key’s provided a strong defensive presence on the perimeter, his offensive game has been slow to return.
“I think at first it was just trying to figure out what I needed to do, whether to score, be on the ball, or whatever,” Key said. “So I think we’re finding that (on-court chemistry) a lot better the last few games. I think we’ve been playing our best basketball all season, so hopefully we can keep that going.”