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February 22, 2011TUSCALOOSA _ Except in his office, probably the last thing that Anthony Grant wants to see around the men's basketball facilities this week are the SEC standings.
Despite having already clinched the SEC West, the Crimson Tide has four regular-season games remaining, with this week's opponents a combined 7-17 in league play. It's led to questions about the "L" word and with so much still to play for is probably the one thing the coach wants to avoid most.
Not losses, a letdown.
"It's part of our identity this year, stay hungry," senior forward Chris Hines said. "You've never arrived. We're always playing hard.
"That's what we've been doing all year and what we're going to continue to do."
After playing back-to-back Thursday-Saturday games with a very quick turnover, for once the schedule might actually be working in Alabama's favor because up next is the one opponent that always creates emotion, Auburn.
Granted, the Tigers are just 2-10 in league play and 9-17 overall, with the 79-64 victory at South Carolina on Jan. 29 the only road victory of the season. Yet a chance to knock off the division champions and do serious damage to Alabama's NCAA Tournament hopes will likely only bring out their best Wednesday (7 p.m., SEC Network).
"I think they're very motivated," senior guard Charvez Davis said. "They're trying to turn it back around. They've been bad in the SEC but they're trying to make a mark, still trying to make a statement. I know they'll have the mindset that this would be a big win for them and have bragging rights.
"We have to stay motivated."
Besides, it's Auburn, and tensions have arguably never been higher since school officials revealed that the trees at Toomer's Corner had been poisoned and an Alabama fan was subsequently arrested. Women's basketball won on The Plains last week, 59-51, but this will be the first high-profile athletic contest between the schools since the incident.
"I was shocked," said sophomore forward Tony Mitchell, the SEC Player of the Week. "I didn't know there was a rivalry that big.
"That's a first for me."
Thus, Grant's approach is to keep the focus on what's ahead and continue build momentum. Alabama (18-8, 10-2 SEC) has won 13 of its last 15 games, is still perfect at Coleman Colisuem (14-0), and continues to post some of the top defensive statistics in the nation - first in points allowed per possession (.083), third in steals (9.5) and opposing field-goal percentage (.371), and fifth in scoring (58.2).
"They're playing as well as any team in our league," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said.
Mitchell has scored at least 20 points in five of the last six games and now leads the team in scoring (17.8), just ahead of junior forward JaMychal Green (17.2), who also averages 7.9 rebounds. True freshman point guard Trevor Releford continues to improve, averaging 16.0 points last week.
Outside of the Tide's big three, Grant's also been pleased with the way some others have stepped up. Although he didn't score, sophomore forward/guard Andrew Steele played 24 minutes against Arkansas and the coach felt that Davis' overall game more than made up for his shooting that night.
"The maturity that comes from being a senior and understanding, we've talked a great deal about guys who affect winning, what that means and how to go about doing it," Grant said. "Maybe a year ago Charvez felt, in his mind, thought the only way he could affect winning is if his shot went in or not. To me the biggest thing with him he's affecting the game in lot of other ways.
"That's what you want to see out of your seniors. The other night is probably a perfect example, he was one-for-eight from the field but we probably don't win without the way he defended."
Consequently, for Alabama to have a showdown with No. 13 Florida next week for the SEC regular-season conference title, it has to keep the blinders on for another week just like the Gators (21-5, 10-2 SEC). With senior forward Chandler Parsons nursing a deep thigh bruise, they host Georgia on Thursday and visit No. 22 Kentucky on Saturday.
After the Tigers, Alabama visits Ole Miss on Saturday (3 p.m., SEC Network).
"We've got to win the game in front of us," Grant said. "Our preparation is the same."