TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For the University of Alabama, the good feelings surrounding back-to-back wins and a shot at in-state rival Auburn on Tuesday were tamped down somewhat with news of the indefinite suspension of star forward Tony Mitchell on Monday.
Alabama (15-7, 4-4) will have to travel to Auburn without its second-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder due to the suspension. The Tide must show poise in his absence and continue to build upon wins over Ole Miss and Arkansas.
“It’s a game-by-game thing,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said of the team’s confidence heading into the matchup against Auburn. “I think we have to be able to stay in the present. We lost four games in a row, and as bad as it was, it wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be. When we won our first seven, it wasn’t as good as it was made out to be. That’s what happens over the course of the season. We have to be able to stay in the present and understand what allows us a chance to have success. A lot of things we have to do involve the focus, the intensity, the passion and the understanding in terms of what it takes to get a team win, and to win in the SEC.”
The Tigers, for their part, are coming off a tough road stretch with three of their last four away from the Plains. The Tigers dropped all three road contests to dip to 13-10 overall and 3-6 in the SEC.
The loss of Mitchell is a big one. The junior forward was a spark plug for the Tide on both sides of the court. His high-flying dunks were a source of energy for a team that has, at times, lacked it during stretches of play. On defense, he was capable of matching up well with athletic guards and forwards, and could rebound and block shots well. It will be interesting to see how the team responds to his absence. Alabama had 11 players log at least 8 minutes of play against Ole Miss on Saturday, due in part to an injury Mitchell sustained in the first half. For Alabama to survive his indefinite suspension, however long that may be, one or two players will have to step up and fill the void.
Losing the experience of a seasoned player like Mitchell right before two tough road games is a hard pill to swallow for Grant. But it also opens the door for a few eager underclassmen. Freshman Nick Jacobs is the likely replacement in the starting lineup. Jacobs has the skills to become a major contributor for the Tide. His low post presence frees up JaMychal Green to move away from the basket on offense. Jacobs provides a good interior presence for the Tide but can’t duplicate Mitchell’s athleticism. Charles Hankerson may be the man to make up for that. The sophomore combo guard played well against Ole Miss, crashing the boards and coming up with a few key baskets. He’s a load at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds in the lane and offers a better, more athletic perimeter option for Grant off the bench.
Limit Auburn in transition
Auburn is led by a pair of skilled perimeter players in Kenny Gabriel and Frankie Sullivan. Gabriel is a tall, athletic forward with good shooting range. He averages 12.3 points per game and 8 rebounds. Sullivan, who averages 12.1 points per game, is dangerous beyond the arc, having taken 59 more 3-pointers than anyone on Alabama this season. And he has connected on 35 percent of them. Limiting Gabriel and Sullivan's play in the fast-break will be key in stopping the Auburn offense. Like Alabama, the Tigers thrive off of pushing the ball through turnovers on defense. Trevor Releford must take care of the basketball and Alabama must protect against the 3-point line -- one of Auburn's few advantages in this matchup.