Even if you took the rivalry out of it, the Wednesday night matchup between Alabama and No. 17 Auburn would be a crucial early-season game between two basketball teams fighting at the top of the Southeastern Conference standings.
Of course, you can’t keep the rivalry out of it.
Alabama vs. No. 17 Auburn
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Coleman Coliseum
Records: Alabama 11-6 (3-2 SEC), Auburn 16-1 (4-0 SEC)
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 95.3 FM
Combine that with the significance of the game and you get a game that may have the most significance of any intrastate basketball contest since 2003, the last time that both Alabama and Auburn made it to the NCAA season. (The two teams split the home-and-home series that year.)
There is still a lot of snow to be plowed in the 2018 season before either team can declare it has clinched an NCAA berth, but a win on Wednesday night would be a resume booster for either team.
“The rivalry isn’t something we are running away from,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said on Tuesday. “We understand the magnitude of it. I talk to the coaches of all our sports about it. If it’s basketball or football or diving, it’s a rivalry.
“I’ve talked to Bruce (Pearl) about it. I know we’re not supposed to be friends, and we’re not, but we have a cordial relationship. (And) from day one, both of us have said the rivalry is better when both of our teams are good.”
Alabama has played winning basketball in the last two games, using a rotation that includes five freshmen that will be playing in their first Alabama-Auburn game.
“We had a lot of adversity in our last game (a 74-66 victory at LSU), but I liked overall how we kept our composure in a hostile environment. We still don’t have a graduate degree in that, but we’re improving.”
Auburn comes to town as the hottest team in America, riding a 14-game winning streak that includes a 4-0 record in SEC play, despite off-court issues that have sidelined potential stars Aubrey Wiley and former Bibb County standout Danjel Purifoy. Without them, Auburn has relied on a balanced attack with strong perimeter shooting and outstanding foul shooting. Last year, in its two-game sweep of Alabama, the Tigers shot nearly 60 percent (23 of 40) from 3-point range.
“Part of defending the 3-point line is recruiting,” Johnson said. “We think having guys like Herb (Jones), Braxton (Key), Dazon (Ingram), Galin (Smith), Collin Sexton with his speed, we have a better chance of defending the 3-point line than we have since we’ve been here.”
Johnson gave a brief update on UA junior forward Donta Hall, who will miss the game against Auburn due to a wrist injury.
“Donta is out of his cast, working on getting some mobility in his hand,” Johnson said. “Hopefully he will continue to improve, he’s progressing well and is in good spirits.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.