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TUSCALOOSA — Nate Oats isn’t shying away from one simple reality: the Iron Bowl of basketball is kind of a big deal at Alabama.

In his official introduction to the state’s premier basketball rivalry, the first-year Crimson Tide head coach already has a feel for what it means to play No. 4 Auburn at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Coleman Coliseum.

“Better not lose the game. That’s what I know about it,” Oats said with a chuckle Tuesday. “Shoot, even when one team’s up and one’s down, it’s going to be a tight game. Fans are going to be into it. The fans care about this one, I think.”

And not just the fans. For the players involved, many of whom come from the state and have direct ties to both programs, it’s a make-or-break game that’s annually circled on the calendar.

“It means a lot, especially for me personally — I have family ties to Auburn since my uncle played football there,” Tide junior forward Alex Reese said Tuesday, referring to Quinton Reese, a late 1990s Auburn football standout.

“So it’s always good to play against them, it’s always really energetic in the building. The atmosphere is always good. We’re excited to play.”

Four of Alabama’s five expected starters are in-state products — Reese (Pelham), junior wings Herbert Jones (Greensboro) and John Petty Jr. (Huntsville), sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. (Meridianville). Auburn’s roster includes three Alabama natives — senior forwards Danjel Purifoy (Centreville) and Austin Wiley (Hoover) and sophomore guard Jamal Johnson (Birmingham).

“They know what’s at stake. Most of them have been involved in this rivalry a lot longer than I have,” Oats said. “So they’re pretty focused, they’re involved. Every game in the SEC is big now, but obviously the Auburn games holds a little more weight, especially for all the Alabama kids.”

Oats is seeking to snap a trend that has the last three Crimson Tide coaches — Avery Johnson, Anthony Grant and Mark Gottfried — dropping their debut game against rival Auburn, including Gottfried’s 73-58 defeat against the then-No. 6 Tigers on Jan. 23, 1999, in Coleman Coliseum.

For reference, dating back to Hayden Riley's first season in 1960, only David Hobbs (in 1993) and Wimp Sanderson (in 1981) recorded wins over Auburn in their first meeting as Crimson Tide head coaches. Even the legendary C.M. Newton dropped a 78-62 decision to the in-state Tigers on Jan. 15, 1969.

As he readied for the most recent matchup, Oats sees plenty of similarities between the state’s top two programs.

“They’ve got the right pieces,” Oats said. “Wiley’s in there for about 20 minutes, and when he’s out they’re kind of small-ball, hard-to-guard, spread-the-floor. They’ve got shooters. The biggest thing, other than they’re really skilled, is they play hard all the time. There’s no dips in their effort in my opinion.

“I think it’s an every game, every play deal where they’re bringing an intensity that we’re starting to figure out. But they’ve been doing it for a couple of years and that’s why they played in the Final Four last year.”

The fact that Auburn (15-0, 3-0 SEC) enters having won 27 of its last 28 games — with the lone loss a 63-62 decision to eventual champion Virginia in last season’s Final Four national semifinal — and is one of just two remaining unbeatens in all of college basketball only further elevates the importance of Wednesday’s game.

“Even if it wasn’t Alabama-Auburn, if you have an undefeated team coming in that played in the Final Four last year, it should be a huge game for your program,” Oats said. “The fact that it is Auburn makes it that much bigger. So year, all of it combined, this is the biggest game on our schedule so far this year.”

As an interesting aside, Auburn senior forward Anfernee McLemore gave an ear-catching quote at SEC Media Days in mid-October, when he described Coleman Coliseum as his favorite place to play because “I like the look of disappointment on their faces when we win.”

Auburn has won six of the last nine games in the rivalry series, including sweeping both SEC matchups in 2019 and 2017, with a 2-1 record inside Coleman Coliseum during McLemore’s first three seasons. Before that, though, Alabama had won its previous seven straight at home between 2010-16.

“We’ll see if it’s still his favorite place to play tomorrow,” Oats quipped when asked about McLemore’s preseason comments. “I had to figure out what he meant by all that, but I think I’ve got what he meant by it now. So we’ll see tomorrow.”

This article originally ran on annistonstar.com.

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