BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – With the final number of games left in his college career dripping away, Auburn senior guard Frankie Sullivan understands the situation.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to face the facts of what’s reality,” said Sullivan, who when he next checks in will become Auburn’s all-time leader with 130 games played.
“These young guys still need a positive feeling coming into next year. You want to at least go out with them having a great taste in their mouth about next season.”
As noted by one of those young guys, freshman Brian Greene Jr., crazy things have happened in the SEC tournament – like five years ago, when Georgia (4-12 in SEC games) stunningly won the league bracket and earned a surprise automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
However, unless those types of miracles find Auburn in Nashville in a few weeks, there’s not much left to play for as the Tigers’ season winds down.
Except for spoiling the plans of a bitter rival, of course. Auburn (9-18, 3-11) beholds an opportunity Tuesday to sweep Alabama (18-9, 10-4) for the first time in five seasons.
If the Tigers pull the upset (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU), the Crimson Tide would suffer a hammering blow to their fading at-large bid chances.
“Spoiling anything for those guys is good,” said Sullivan, a Uniontown native who was also offered by Alabama. “You don’t want to mess up anybody’s career up, but when it comes to those guys, you try to spoil it.”
In the teams’ first meeting on Feb. 6, an ugly first half gave way to a Cam Newton-charged comeback, when the former Heisman winner and current student superfan cheered on Auburn’s 49-37 victory – head coach Tony Barbee’s first win over Alabama.
“In-state rival, so I think everything else gets thrown out of the window,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “When our teams get together, there’s always going to be an intense game, and we’ve had some very competitive games against them.”
Following that satisfying home victory, Auburn went right back to its losing ways. It’s lost all five games since.
“We were locked in and engaged, specifically off the ball for 40 minutes, and gave us a chance to win that game. But we haven’t done that since,” Barbee said of Auburn’s defense. “We’ve been really inconsistent on the defensive end of the floor, possession to possession and half to half.”
Barbee wouldn’t lend much stock into feeling confidence based on the first meeting, even though Alabama is the only team Auburn’s beaten since Jan. 9.
“They’re probably a little different from when we played them a couple weeks ago,” Barbee said. “And obviously, we’re a little different, and not in a good way.”
This is Auburn’s fifth consecutive opponent looking to rebound from a loss in its previous game. Four of those are playing in February with something on the line: Florida is in the hunt for a NCAA No. 1 seed, while Arkansas, Ole Miss and Alabama are scrambling to beef up their résumés for an at-large bid.
Alabama was briefly in control of its own destiny for an SEC regular season championship, sitting one game back of Florida with a future date with the Gators. However, a triple-overtime loss at LSU dropped the Crimson Tide to a tie for second place in the league standings with Kentucky, two games back of Florida.
The marathon loss was in spite of Trevor Releford’s 36-point outburst, making 14 of 18 shots from the floor.
The Crimson Tide is 44-8 against Auburn in games played in Tuscaloosa.
Freshman Shaq Johnson had a career-best 18 points in Auburn’s last game, a 33-point blowout to Ole Miss which furthered Barbee’s forced hand to see what he has players slated to return next year.
“Any time it’s an opportunity for us younger guys to get an opportunity, we just try to seize the moment,” Greene said. “No matter what the outcome is, everybody’s really just trying to get better.”