Before the game is played and the season series between the Alabama and Auburn men’s basketball teams is either swept by the Crimson Tide or split on a home-and-home basis with a Tiger win at the Auburn Arena, both coaches should be commended for one very important thing.

Avery Johnson and Bruce Pearl have treated the rivalry this season in the way it should be treated: seriously.

Fans are going to be fans, and the sniping between Alabama and Auburn fans, when maintained in the proper verbal-jousting boundaries, is all good clean fun. But that’s not the territory where coaches should go, into the realm of refusing to speak the opponents’ name or similar antics. That’s especially true this season, when improved play by the teams should land both in the NCAA Tournament. It’s high-quality basketball and should be treated that way.

“We embrace the rivalry,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said on Tuesday. “It’s one that I think is the best in all of sports. We tried to downplay it when I first got here but not now.

“They’re an outstanding team and are highly ranked.”

Now, no one is suggesting Johnson and Bruce Pearl should be best buddies. They are fierce competitors and that’s how it should be. But there’s an adage about a rising tide that raises all boats and that’s what is happening here.

When the impression is that the teams are good, and their games are important and not a sideshow for a football trophy presentation, people notice. Young people notice. Basketball prospects notice.

In the rivalry’s glory years, the teams were built on talent from within the state, or the nearby areas. In some ways, the Alabama-Auburn game was a natural extension of the state’s great, often-overlooked tradition of high school basketball. Times have changed, demographics have changed and I’m not sure the state of Alabama annually produces enough prospects to sustain two top programs. But the more who stay close to home, the better the rivalry will get.

As an aside, this also promises to be a great battle of styles. Auburn is the SEC’s best, fastest offensive team. By many statistical measures, Alabama is the most efficient defensive team, yet it also has individuals capable of making highlight-reel offensive plays at any time.

In the first meeting between the two, it was John Petty who outdid Auburn’s 3-point shooters with eight baskets from beyond the arc. Collin Sexton didn’t play but one can only imagine that the faster an opponent plays, the better Sexton, with his five-speed overdrive transmission, likes it. A Donta Hall vs. Mustapha Heron dunk-off wouldn’t be bad, either.

On the other side, Auburn is a different team in its own arena, with students sitting what seems like inches from the court (and with no hedge to hold them back.) There has been a great atmosphere in every previous meeting, fueled primarily by the rivalry itself.

This year, there are higher stakes. A win would go a long way to lifting AU to a regular-season championship. A sweep of the Tigers would add tremendously to Alabama’s post-season rivalry.

This is serious business, and should be serious fun. It’s good to see both coaches treat it that way.

Reach Cecil Hurt at or 205-722-0225.