TUSCALOOSA — Alabama forward Riley Norris tried to explain the Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry to teammate Ar’Mond Davis recently. The attempt ended with Davis laughing it off and continuing with his carefree nature.
Norris, from Albertville, said it’s hard to get across the true magnitude of the rivalry, especially to someone like Davis who grew up in Tacoma, Wash. Norris isn’t worried, though. He knows the second Davis walks into Auburn Arena on Saturday it will hit him pretty quick.
“He’ll figure it out in warmups,” Norris said. “When we go out there and he sees how hostile it really is.”
Alabama (11-6, 4-1 in the SEC) will travel to Auburn (12-6, 2-4) for a 3 p.m. tipoff on Saturday in the two schools’ first meeting on the court this year.
Davis isn’t the only person that didn’t grasp the rivalry right away. Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said he has a better understanding of the magnitude of the game after coaching through it last year in his first season with the Crimson Tide.
Johnson lost in his first meeting against the Tigers, falling 83-77 in Auburn Arena last year. The Tide avenged the loss later in the season with a 65-57 win in Tuscaloosa, but Johnson still remembers what it feels like to be on the wrong side of a rivalry defeat.
“I’m even more excited about this game than I was last year, because I didn’t quite understand it,” Johnson said. “That empty feeling that I had in my stomach after the game, I know what that feels like now.”
While the Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry is intense in every sport, things seem to be heating up on the hardwood. With Johnson in his second season at Alabama and Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl in his third season with the Tigers, both appear to have their programs pointed in the right direction.
As far as Johnson said, that’s a good thing for him. In fact, when the Tigers aren’t playing the Tide, he is usually pulling for them to do well.
“It’s important to have our basketball programs get to an elite level,” Johnson said. “I’ve shared this with Bruce (Pearl), we can have all the success in the world, but we have to get to the tournament at some point. I think that’s going to improve our rivalry.”
The NCAA Tournament is still an attainable goal for both teams. However, Johnson said his team is focused on what’s in front of them right now. The head coach said he likes to break up conference play into three-game seasons and stated his team’s approach will be finishing out its second season of the year on Saturday.
For Alabama, stopping Auburn centers around slowing down freshman guard Mustapha Heron, who leads the Tigers with 15.7 points per game and 6.2 rebounds per game. Auburn has also added an inside punch with the addition of freshman center Austin Wiley. The former five-star recruit from Spain Park was cleared to play by the NCAA and SEC in December and has provided an instant spark for the Tigers.
“He’s physical, he’s always attacking the basket,” Alabama forward Jimmie Taylor said. “He plays great defense, I think he’s a great defensive player. I think he’s added more competitiveness to their team from what I’ve seen.”
The Tigers could also see the return of forward Danjel Purifoy, who missed the last three games after suffering a severe left ankle sprain against Ole Miss on Jan. 7.
“He practiced yesterday for the first time,” Pearl said via the Montgomery Advertiser. “We’re going to see how he responded to that (Friday) with the swelling. I don’t think the trainers have made a decision on that yet but I think there’s a chance he could play (Saturday).”
Alabama enters Saturday’s game winning six of its last seven games. A win would give the Tide its first three-game road winning streak to begin SEC play since winning three consecutive league road games to begin the 1987 season.
“They are playing well as of late, so we know that with that their crowd is going to be really into it,” Norris said of Auburn. “They’re really excited about basketball down there. We’re going to have to really come prepared and bring our best game.”