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Iron Bowl of basketball tonight as Alabama hosts No. 8 Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Johni Broome had a preseason prediction for anyone sleeping on Auburn’s team.

“They’re going to be woken up real soon,” the Tigers’ star post player said back in October.

In truth, it took longer than he might have expected. But here is Auburn (16-2, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) ranked eighth and riding an 11-game winning streak that is the longest active binge among Power Five programs entering Wednesday night’s game at rival Alabama (12-6, 4-1).

It has been a rapid ascent for a team that seemed to stall right outside the Top 25 before finally entering on Jan. 1. An opening loss to No. 18 Baylor was easily overlooked but voters might have been more skeptical after the Tigers fell to Appalachian State, which is currently topping the Sun Belt Conference.

The Tigers haven’t lost since.

Coach Bruce Pearl is tempering his players’ confidence somewhat. The reality is tougher games await and Auburn has only played two ranked teams, handling then-No. 22 Mississippi 82-59 in the second last weekend.

“I continue to say that we’re a little better than what people thought we were,” Pearl said Tuesday. “But we’re not as good as people think we are now.

“And I still feel that way.”

But the Tigers have won those 11 games by an average of 21.8 points, including routs of Ole Miss and at Arkansas (83-51), t he Razorbacks’ worst loss at Bud Walton Arena.

“Coach Pearl’s done a great job there. He’s got them playing at an elite level,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “You look at the last 11 games, they’re running through people.

“They’re shooting the ball well. They’re playing hard on defense. They’re super deep. They’re third in the nation in bench scoring. They don’t have too many flaws.”

The Tigers still face games with No. 6 Kentucky and at fifth-ranked Tennessee, plus two against Alabama, which Pearl calls “probably the best team we’ve played so far.” So there’s some reason for Pearl’s cautious optimism.

But they have a formidable post duo of Broome (15.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game) and Jaylin Williams, a 6-foot-8, 245-pounder who is averaging 12.5 points and shooting 45% from 3-point range.

Plus a point guard tandem of highly touted freshman Aden Holloway and sophomore Tre Donaldson has flourished despite them being the team’s only underclassmen.

And 10 players are averaging at least 15 minutes a game, including first-year transfers from lower-division teams Chad Baker-Mazara, Denver Jones and Chaney Johnson.

Despite the mishmash of returnees and newcomers, center Dylan Cardwell says this Auburn team has developed a chemistry and closeness.

“This is the closest team I’ve ever been on,” Cardwell said. “And everyone has each other’s back. It all started back in the summer when Bruce Pearl was adamant about us, you know, eating together, hanging out together, making sure that we’re always together. It’s a very tight-knit group. Everybody talks to everybody, and that’s kind of rare. And we all hang out. There’s no cliques on this team.

“It’s just fun to be on a team that everyone’s your genuine friend and your genuine brother, so that’s kind of where I see the difference in the past couple years.”

But Pearl again cautioned the Tigers still have to prove they can handle both adversity and stronger competition.

“Can we play at the level as the competition increases?” he said. “As greater competition, athletes and size and physicality increase, will we continue to play at this level? We really don’t have to play a whole lot better, we’re playing well enough. Can we keep playing this well as competition increases?”

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