Austin Wiley can feel the weight befallen on his broad shoulders.
His teammates feel it as well. They all know what this game means for Auburn.
They know what losing would mean, too.
And they’re bent on making sure that doesn’t happen.
No. 11 Auburn (21-2 overall, 8-2 SEC) hosts rival Alabama (13-10, 5-5) tonight at 6 p.m. in Auburn Arena with a chance at revenge — aiming to erase a bitter memory from a dark night in Tuscaloosa last month, eyeing the chance to collect another key conference win, and desperately trying to avoid what would be a gut-wrenching season sweep.
Yes, this rivalry is never short on drama. There will be plenty more of it at tipoff when this bitter series shifts back to the Plains.
But Wiley figures his team can’t prepare any differently for this game than it does for the others, no matter how it makes the players or the fans feel. It makes for a recipe for failure to get too caught up in one game, in his line of thinking. Auburn got beat 83-64 at Alabama in January, but it’s now keeping its focus forward. And it’s with that important perspective in mind that Auburn has prepared for the game this week in the calm before the storm.
What happens when that storm starts to blow remains to be seen. But for now, with the right mindset, some of that weight could surely shrug off of those pressure-packed shoulders.
“We try to be excited to play every opponent,” Wiley said Tuesday as the Tide across the state got set to roll into town. “We’re not going to look at the last game. We’re just going into this game with a new mindset to take care of business and play the best game and try to get better as a team.”
Wiley, Auburn’s senior center and second-generation star, probably knows better than anyone in the Auburn locker room what a gut-punch it would be to lose what may well be his last game ever against Alabama. “Of course,” he nodded, when asked if it was important for him to go out against them with a win.
“I just try not to think like that — just playing my hardest and helping my team win, and whatever outcome is the outcome,” he went on.
“Of course,” he said though, “we’d love a win against them.”
Wednesday night’s game will be televised on ESPN2.
Auburn enters riding a six-game winning streak that featured two big victories over fellow first-place teams Kentucky and LSU at home, plus two double-digit comebacks on the road at Ole Miss and at Arkansas.
All of that came after Auburn’s undefeated season came crashing down in Coleman Coliseum. Auburn was 15-0 going into the first rivalry game on Jan. 15, but lost — to the worst opponent in the worst place, maybe in one of the worst ways.
“They say it’s all about matchups, and the last time we matched up, we got pounded,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said.
He said he asked his team in the locker room this week for some answers on why Auburn lost that last game at Alabama. That loss sent Auburn tumbling into a second straight loss to Florida, and to this point those two on that dark week remain Auburn’s only defeats so far this season.
Pearl got a few answers from his players before offering his own: “Because they’re good,” he said. “They’re a really good team.”
Alabama is the nation’s second-leading team in scoring, averaging 82.6 points per game. Alabama leads the SEC in 3-pointers made and 3-point shooting efficiency. New head coach Nate Oats has inherited talented players recruited by former head coach Avery Johnson and has seemed to fit them to his fast-paced style of place, Pearl said commending the new coaching staff.
And Alabama is a dangerous team, Pearl noted, as things haven’t gone as well for the Tide on some nights as they did on their home-game drubbing of Auburn earlier this season, and Alabama finds itself now with an even record in the SEC now on the outside looking in trying to play its way into a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“I know that they’re going to be coming in here fighting for their lives along those lines, because there just aren’t that many games left where they could (impress),” Pearl said. “There are a few, but we’re obviously one of them. So, there’s a lot at stake for both teams.”
Auburn’s regular starter Danjel Purifoy missed practices earlier this week after missing last Saturday’s game against LSU with the flu, and Pearl said Tuesday that he wasn’t sure how much Purifoy would play Wednesday, if at all.
Meanwhile, Alabama is down a man in Herb Jones who is expected to miss the game after hand surgery a couple weeks ago. Jones was Alabama’s second-leading scorer in the last game, piling up 14 points on Auburn.
But Kira Lewis was Alabama’s leading scorer and he’s set to play. So is fellow star John Petty.
And as always, there will still be plenty at stake.
There always is with the Tigers and the Tide.