Isaac Okoro knows that he and his teammates are walking into Coleman Coliseum like wanted men.
Undefeated, highly ranked, and with a target on the back, the Auburn men’s basketball team travels to face rival Alabama in hostile Tuscaloosa tonight. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. and the game is set to be televised on ESPN2, broadcasted live from Auburn enemy territory.
But, Okoro says, the team is going to go about its business like it always has — despised or not; targeted or not.
It’s worked out well enough so far. Auburn is ranked No. 4 and unbeaten at 15-0 and 3-0 in the SEC.
The Crimson Tide would like nothing more than to knock Auburn off its climb. But the Tigers are walking into a boiler tonight determined to set the temperature themselves.
“There could be a target on us, but, you know, we’re just always focused on the next team that we’re playing — just getting better as the season goes on,” Okoro said Tuesday as his team geared up for the game back in Auburn.
“We’re going to get every team’s best shot that we play,” he went on. “So we just have to go out there and play them like we play every other game. Just go out there and play hard.”
The challenge will still be tremendous, though, and Auburn knows it. Auburn is 10-49 all-time in Tuscaloosa against Alabama. This year’s Alabama team is 8-7 overall and 1-2 in the SEC, but the Tide closed nonconference under new head coach Nate Oats with three straight wins, and its two SEC losses came at Florida and at Kentucky.
Under Oats, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said the Tide is improving. Alabama runs fast and shoots sharp. Alabama leads the SEC in 3-pointers made.
Sound familiar? The scouting report is not unlike the one for last year’s Auburn team.
And not unlike last year’s Auburn team, it means this Alabama group can be dangerous.
“It’s a dangerous opponent. Obviously, it’s a rivalry game for us,” Pearl said. “We’re going to have to be able to handle the environment. I’m looking forward to the opportunity of trying to get a win most people won’t get at Alabama.”
Okoro said the key will come in Auburn’s defense, with the plan being for the press to wear down some of Alabama’s main cogs and slow down the Tide. Alabama is led by stars John Petty Jr. and Kira Lewis Jr., scoring 16.7 points per game and 16.2 points per game, respectively.
Those facts coupled with an environment intensified by one of the greatest rivalries in college sports are enough to make Pearl call this test the toughest for Auburn so far this season.
“This will probably be the most hostile environment that we’ll play in, and yet there are tickets available,” Pearl said. “So I think it’d be great if we can get some Auburn fans in there and hear from our fanbase a little bit and give us a fighting chance.
“I think it’ll be our most challenging game thus far.”
As always, with the challenge comes an opportunity.
Auburn hasn’t won back-to-back games in Tuscaloosa since 1970-71. This year’s team has the chance to rewrite history once again.
“I just hear a lot of people talking about it,” said Okoro, the freshman entering his first rivalry game with Alabama. “It’s a big game. Hostile environment. A lot of people are going to be there.
“I just want to go out there for the Auburn fans and just get a W.”