Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Game Preview - Missouri

On the heels of the biggest win of the season, the Alabama men's basketball team will look to keep the good times rolling on Wednesday night when they host the Missouri Tigers. Alabama resumes conference play with a 5-3 record, while Missouri is looking to get back on track after falling to 3-5 in conference play following a loss at Mississippi State on Saturday. The Tigers have lost three straight and four of their last five. Game time is 8 P.M. CT. ESPN2 will handle the television duties. As always, click the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: As fun as Saturday was, I'm ready to see how this young Alabama team handles success. Saturday's win was not only big for this season, but a great win for the program as Avery Johnson continues to build it. This team has to feel good about themselves, but does it come at the expense of the focus that it took to reach the level of improvement that we've seen in the last few weeks? It's important to remember this is a program that is still learning how to win consistently. Missouri enters this game 3-5 in league play, and are in desperate need of a win to keep themselves in the NCAA tournament discussion. We've seen both ends of the spectrum with this Alabama team. They're talented enough to beat anyone, but we've also seen them play so poorly that they can lose to anyone as well. Missouri is still ranked in KenPom's top 50 so overlooking them would be a mistake. Alabama needs to put the Oklahoma game in the rearview mirror and come out ready to play Wednesday night.

Players to Watch: Herbert Jones picked a great time to have his best game of the season. Fifty-seven NBA scouts were on hand Saturday to watch Trae Young and Collin Sexton, but I'm sure more than a few of those scouts took note of Herb's play, particularly his defensive effort against Young. I don't think Herb is going to shoot up draft boards this season (I'm guessing scouts would like to see him get stronger and develop his jump shot first), but if he continues his steady development through this season and into the summer, he could be a breakout player next season, and a potential draft pick. He's blessed with length, athleticism, and what appears to be a strong basketball IQ. The sky is the limit for this young man. I'm glad he's on our side.

Kassius Robertson has been a pleasant surprise for the Tigers. The grad transfer from Canisius is leading Missouri in scoring at 15.7 ppg, and is a dangerous 3-point shooter (41.2%). He's also second on the team in assists (2.1), and steals (1.0). He's playing like a guy with one season left in his college career that's trying to make the most of that one season. And while the Tigers lost star freshman Michael Porter, Jr. to an injury in the first game of the season, his brother, Jontay Porter, has been a good addition to this Missouri program. He's leading the team in rebounds (6.6), is a good passer (2 assists per game), and is capable of stepping outside of the paint and knocking down perimeter shots when necessary. His best years are likely ahead of him, but he's good enough right now to give our guys some headaches on Wednesday night.

Prediction: Missouri averaged 77 points through their first two conference games, but in their following six games, they're averaging just 62.3 points per game. If Alabama continues to play at the high level on defense they've displayed in conference (still tops in conference-only defensive efficiency at KenPom), Missouri's scoring woes may continue. I think Alabama matches up fine. My concern remains the mindset of this team coming off their biggest win of the season, and how prepared they are to play a team that desperately needs a win to avoid a four-game losing streak. Young teams struggle to play at a consistently high level, resulting in playing to the level of their competition some nights. Something to keep in mind if this game is close down the stretch: As a team, Missouri shoots 75% from the free throw line.

My optimism lies in the fact that Alabama not only played well on Saturday against a top 15 team, but they also looked as healthy as we've seen them in many games. Collin had his explosiveness back, Donta did not look limited by his wrist, and Braxton is putting consistent efforts together now. We've been saying all season that if this team could get close to 100%, they had a chance to be a really good team. The final ten games on the schedule are daunting, but not impossible to navigate if this team is healthy. Assuming they're healthy and focused on Wednesday night, I feel confident that our guys will continue to play well at home (10-1 so far this season). Missouri keeps it close, but a late run is the difference. Bama - 73 - Missouri - 62 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Bama Burns Boomers, Alabama 80 Oklahoma 73.

Saturday was my girlfriend's 40th Birthday, and the Tide gave her the best gift of all, an upset W over the 12th ranked team in the country.  The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a great gameplan.  I expected us to play Young straight up, and concede that he would score 30-40 points, but try to slow the game down and force him to try to beat us by himself.  Instead, we did the exact opposite.  We threw several different looks at Young, including double-teams and fronting him to deny him the ball, and held him to his lowest total since his college debut.  Collin, Herb, Dazon, Key, and even AJ were matched up with him at various points in the game.

It was a great team effort and everyone contributed in some positive way.  Petty made three 3s in the first half.  Although he struggled with turnovers and didn't play great defensively the rest of the game, his early scoring opened up the offense and provided us with an early lead and some much needed confidence.  With dozens of NBA scouts in attendance, Collin Sexton certainly helped his cause.  He showed great leadership running point, played nice defense on Trae Young, showcased his strength around the basket and even posting up the OU guards.  He finished with 18 points, but more importantly, I thought he played smart and within the system.  He did not get out of control or try to do too much as we've seen at times this year. 

The NBA scouts may have been there to see Collin and Trae, but I imagine most also left with quite a few positive notes on Herb Jones.  Herb continues to be our best all around player.  He scored a career high 14 points, but more importantly played lock down defense on Trae Young.  When Herb was fronting him it was impossible for Young to get the basketball.  He also had 3 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and a couple of crowd inciting dunks.  He ran the point at times while mostly playing in the 3 spot. 

Braxton Key had 11 points and 5 rebounds and is continuing to improve.  He made a couple of huge 3s in the second half after Oklahoma had battled back to the take the lead.  Key has been making some big plays at key moments for us lately, and it's great to see him getting back on track.  I think some of the criticism of him has been unfair.

Donta was a force inside.  He ended up with 8 blocks, 9 points, and 7 rebounds.  His presence in protecting the rim was huge for our defense.  Dan also had 9 rebounds in 17 minutes.

Dazon contributed with 8 points, but also played nice defense and made the free throws when we needed them most toward the end of the game.  We were only 12 of 22 from the line, but we seem to make the ones that count the most. 

I thought the playing rotation was much better.  Galin Smith did not play, and AJ only played 8 minutes while Collin got 32. 

Lon Kruger is a good coach, but I don't understand his thought process in the final couple of minutes.  He seemed to throw in the towel when he was down 8 with still nearly a minute and a half remaining.  I was surprised they took Young out, and did not foul and attempt to extend the game.

This was a huge win for the program.  Obviously it's a nice resume builder, but it also helped secure a win for the SEC in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.  More importantly, it was in front of a truly packed house.  We've missed some opportunities for big home wins in recent years, but hopefully with victories now over auburn and Oklahoma, we are beginning to establish a true home court advantage. 

The crowd was fantastic.  I'm not a big fan of the "white outs."  In fact, I refused to participate and stuck with my gray Bama basketball tshirt.  Every time I have participated in the white-out, we've lost.  Anyway, the fans were loud and enthusiastic the whole game.  There were very few OU fans in attendance and they were relegated to the top corner.  It was the best atmosphere I've seen in the building in many years.  My only complaint was the constant "o-ver-ra-ted" chants at Trae Young and OU, particularly early in the game.  Those could have really came back to haunt us.  Furthermore, Young is certainly NOT overrated.  He just scored 17 on a "bad day."  Saying OU is overrated diminishes what our guys accomplished, in my opinion. 

Up next, it's back to the SEC grind as the Mizzou Tigers come in for a late 8pm tipoff Wednesday night.  The margin for error is still razor thin, so we can't afford a let out.  Hopefully another sell out crowd will help keep the guys fired up.  The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sleeping With the Enemy-Oklahoma

I reached out to Jack Shields at Crimson and Cream Machine to get his take on tomorrow's matchup with the Sooners.  He kindly provided the response below.  If you visit Crimson and Cream Machine, follow the site's rules and be a good representative of our University.  Along those same lines, I would like to encourage everyone attending  the game to be hospitable and welcoming to any visiting OU fans you may encounter.  I attended a basketball game in Norman several years back (as well as a football game), and generally found them to be one of the classiest and most respectful fan bases I've encountered.  Let's return the favor.

Things begin and end with freshman Trae Young, who leads the nation in both scoring (30.3 PPG) and assists (9.6 APG). Young ends up in the highlights for his deep threes, but his game is really so much more than that. He might have the quickest first step in college basketball and is great at getting by the first defender. Once he gets by, he either kicks it to a teammate for an open attempts, put up a floater or draws contact and gets to the line (or just gets a bucket at the rim). His weapons on the perimeter have to be respected, as well. Fellow freshman Brady Manek is 6'9" and has one of the quickest releases in the nation, so pretty much every look is a good look for him. Christian James has also had a good season and has hit many a clutch shot for the Sooners this season. Rashard Odomes, who isn't much of a shooter, is probably the teams best creator not named Trae Young. He's a long and athletic wing who finishes well around the rim and often draws contact. 

The most effective strategy teams have used to slow the offense has been to pressure Young early in a possession, force him to give up the ball and blanket him with the purpose of making sure the ball doesn't go back to him. Young's teammates are talented, but they're obviously not quite as adept at creating their own opportunities.

This team has struggled at times defensively, although the defensive PPG average can largely be attributed to the team's offensive tempo (more possessions = more buckets). Nonetheless, Oklahoma sometimes struggles with perimeter defense. However, this team is talented enough to get stops when need be and has done just that in critical situations all season long.

The most intriguing part of this game is obviously the matchup between Trae Young and Collin Sexton. Lon Kruger likes to keep Young out of difficult defensive situations in the first half in order to avoid foul trouble, so don't be surprised to see someone like Odomes matched up on Sexton early in this one. As far as a prediction is concerned, I'm thinking this one will be close due to the fact that Young and his teammates haven't fared well on the road as of late. In OU's last three road games, Young has tried to put too much of the load on his own shoulders as opposed to simply running offense and getting his teammates going. Those problems have likely arisen due to the fact that OU has gotten behind early in those games, so a fast start will be crucial for OU in this one. Prediction: Oklahoma 87, Alabama 79.   

Game Preview - Oklahoma

The Alabama men's basketball team is coming off a disappointing performance in Oxford, but they have no time to linger on that game because the 12th ranked Oklahoma Sooners are coming to town on Saturday as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. This will be the biggest non-conference game in Coleman in many years; not only because Oklahoma is ranked, but because they have the frontrunner for national player of the year, Trae Young. The university has announced that the game is a sellout. Game time is 1:15 P.M. CT. ESPN will televise the game. Click the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Social media was rife with angry Alabama fans following the loss to Ole Miss. I get it to some extent: the hype for this team entering the season was the highest it's been in many years. At 13-7 (5-3), there has been a fluctuation among the fans of how good or bad this team is. The thing to remember is that all of the goals for this team are still possible. The team is only two games out of first place in conference play in a league with no elite team, and many bracketologists have the team projected in the NCAA tournament field.

Something that I think is being missed by some fans upset with the program at the moment is that this is one of the youngest teams in the country. KenPom has Bama ranked 348 out of 351 teams in terms of experience. They've also played a top 20 ranked strength of schedule. When you look at it from that angle, one of the youngest teams in the country being 13-7, two games over .500 in conference play, and currently projected in the NCAA field isn't the worst thing in the world is it? Does this team have talent? Yes. Talent is important. You can't win long or short-term without talent. But even more important than talent is experience. Kentucky has a hall of fame coach, and five star recruits dotting their roster, but they're also the youngest team in the country in those same KenPom rankings. Lo and behold, they're struggling, and Kentucky fans are freaking out without stopping to think how young this team is and how difficult it is to win road games in conference play with experienced players. Alabama fans just need to breathe, take it one game at a time, let this season play out, and let's see where things stand at the end.

If Alabama can upset the Sooners on Saturday, it would be a huge boost to their NCAA tournament resume. The funny thing about young teams is they typically play better at home, in front of supportive fans. This Alabama team should have the most support they've seen all season on Saturday. When these sellouts are announced, I always smile to myself because it means tickets sold, but it doesn't always mean butts will be in seats. The crowds have been good this season, even during some of the struggles, which is a good thing to see. Saturday should be special, though. If Coleman is going to truly reach capacity, it will be Saturday. The greatest atmosphere I ever experienced in person at Coleman was back in 2002 when Alabama beat Florida at the buzzer, courtesy of Antoine Pettway. The arena was a powder keg that blew when Pett made that shot. I was hugging complete strangers, and the energy from the crowd around us knocked my father to the floor (he was okay). I expect that kind of energy will be there on Saturday; and if Alabama can get off to a good start and play a strong 40 minutes of basketball, it should be a fun time for all in the grand old building. Let's hope it ends in a win.

Players to Watch: It goes without saying that it's going to take a total team effort from Alabama to knock off Oklahoma, but it wouldn't hurt if we saw Collin Sexton play at his A level. Collin returned to the court on Tuesday night after a two game absence due to an abdominal injury. He played twenty minutes, and had arguably the worst game of his college career. He went 2-13 from the field, finishing with only 7 points. Surprisingly, he did not turn the ball over (per the box score anyway), but it was still a rough night for him. The Ole Miss student section treated him to chants of "overrated" as a result. We all know Collin isn't overrated, but games like Saturday demand great performances from your top players. Collin has to rise to the occasion on Saturday.

Duh, it's Trae Young. He's the frontrunner for national player of the year. He's leading the nation in points per game (30.3). He's leading the nation in assists per game (9.6). He's top five in the nation in field goals attempted. He's a projected lottery pick. He was efficient in the Sooners win vs Kansas on Tuesday, scoring 26 points with just nine field goal attempts. He also dished out 9 assists. He has elevated this team around him, and the sky is the limit for how far this Oklahoma team can advance in March if Young is performing at a high level, and getting consistent help from his teammates. It will be fascinating to watch how Avery and his assistant coaches gameplan for Young. One thing Avery has done consistently well during his tenure is come up with successful gameplans with his staff to limit the opposing team's best player.

Prediction: The Sooners play one of the fastest tempos in college basketball. They're also efficient, currently ranked in the top 15 nationally by KenPom in offensive efficiency. They're not great defensively, but some of that is because their pace creates a lot of shots for them, but also a lot of shots for their opponents. Some nights those opponents shoot well, which inflates the numbers. I'm not sure our guys can stop Oklahoma from playing at the pace they want to (Alabama's roster this season isn't really built for slowing the game down anyway). This means Alabama will have to be very good in their transition defense, and they have got to defend the 3-point line, which has been an issue for them at times this season. Alabama must create turnovers, protect the ball themselves, win the rebounding stat on both ends (you've got to do whatever you can to limit Oklahoma's possession and shot count while continuing to be aggressive), and be efficient from the field and free throw line. Hoping to beat Oklahoma by scoring in the 60s or 70s probably doesn't get it done. Our guys probably have to score in the 80s, maybe even the 90s, to put themselves in a position to win. It's going to be a tremendous challenge.

Oklahoma is the better team, but the game is in Tuscaloosa, in front of what should be an awesome crowd. If the team embraces this opportunity, I think they've got a chance to win this game. They will have to play the best game they've played all season to do it. Are they ready for this? They've played a top 20 schedule. They've been in close games against mid-majors, been humbled in a few games, played at a national power in Arizona, have gone through the ups and downs of conference play, but also won four straight games despite not being completely healthy, including handing the lone conference loss to the league leader, Auburn. Our guys haven't seen a team quite like Oklahoma, but this Alabama team is battle-tested. And that is why I think Alabama is going to win this game Saturday. I've been disappointed before when having high expectations for games, but my gut feeling is that this is going to be a spectacular game with big plays on both sides, tension, highs and lows. It could be the best game of the challenge when all is said and done. For those of you in attendance, I envy you. I hope you have a great time, and I hope you witness a Bama victory. Bama - 93 - Oklahoma - 88 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Rebels Roll over Tide, Ole Miss 78 Alabama 66

Alabama had a huge run in the first half, but gave it right back and more, and the Rebels cruised for most of the second half. 

Collin Sexton returned, but did not start.  The starting lineup was Dazon, Petty, Herb, Key, and Dan.  I missed the start of this one, as I had a meeting that ran late.  Ole Miss somehow built an 18-9 lead early in the game, but as soon as I started watching, we answered with an 18-0 run to take a 9 point lead of our own.  I was feeling pretty good about things as we were forcing turnovers, playing good defense, moving the ball well offensively, and making some outside shots.  Then Dazon picked up his third foul, and with other foul trouble and Collin and Donta still having injury limitations, we had to put some unusual lineups on the floor.  Ole Miss answered with a big run of their own and had a 10 point lead going into the half.  We cut it to 1 at the start of the second half, but poor shot selection on offense and less than stellar defense allowed the Rebels to slowly build the lead back to double-digits.

Sexton played 20 minutes, but did not play well coming off his injury.  He was 2 of 13 from the floor, and was hell bent on driving to the basket and trying to force a shot in traffic.  The Ole Miss defense was collapsing on him, and I wish he would look to kick back out to his teammates more instead of looking to get bailed out with a foul call.  Once Ole Miss was able to control the pace of the game, there was no way we were beating them in a half-court game.  To their credit they did a much better job of handling our press as the game went on.

On the positive side, Donta scored 14 points in 17 minutes and added 7 rebounds.  His wrist seems to be improving and hopefully he can return to the starting lineup soon and get more minutes going forward.  I thought Dazon played well overall, 10 points and 8 rebounds, but his first half foul trouble really hurt us.

I've said before that Petty seems to be the key to this team's success, and he was just one of 8 from the field, and took some terrible contested shots early in the shot clock.  He seems to be a different player at home than he is on the road.  I'm normally not an advocate of using multiple starting lineups, in fact I think the 9 different lineups we've used this year is a major contributing factor to our struggles, but, I would consider using him off the bench and limiting his minutes in road games at this point.

Once again, long stretches with AJ and Collin in the game at the same time killed us.  We ran way too much Iso and pick n roll for Collin when he was clearly not 100%.  AJ is a liability on defense and did not have a good offensive night, but still logged 23 minutes.  I thought there was too much standing around watching Sexton drive into traffic on offense.  We need to use him in a more traditional role in our half-court sets. 

Key had 7 points and 5 rebounds, and made the only 3 point shot he took, but he also passed up some open shots when we ultimately settled for some very bad shots later in the possession.  He played pretty good defense, but needs to have more confidence in his shot. 

Rebounding was about even, but that's an area we should have won against this team.  Key, Galin, and Donta were all guilty of giving up second chance points at times because they failed to box out. 

Officiating certainly didn't cost us this game, but Collin was not getting the benefit of the calls on any contact, and Bruce Stevens now owes real estate taxes on the paint, as I'm pretty sure he's still camped out down there.

The loss wasn't unexpected, we were underdogs according to Vegas and we have a horrible track record in Oxford, but it was disappointing to play so fundamentally poor with the exception of the big run in the first half. 

Up next, the SEC-Big 12 challenge as highly ranked Oklahoma comes to Tuscaloosa for a 1:15 start Saturday.  The Sooners are coming off a huge win over Kansas, and this may be the biggest non-conference game in Coleman since the Gottfried era.  I am excited for this one, despite the bad game last night; I expect a competitive game and think we have a chance to get a huge win.  It will be televised on ESPN.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Game Preview - at Ole Miss

As DJC mentioned in his Mississippi State recap (scroll down!), the Alabama men's basketball team owns the SEC's longest winning streak at four games. They're also alone in second place with a 5-2 conference record. They will return to the road on Tuesday night when they travel to Oxford to play Ole Miss. The Rebels are 3-4 in conference play. Game time is 7:30 P.M. CT. SEC Network once again handling the television duties. Click those links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Ole Miss struggled in home games in the nonconference, losing three of their nine games at home. They've been better in conference play, winning all three of their home games, including a win over conference leader Florida. They're 3-4 in league play, but lost their previous two games - both road games - by a combined six points so they could conceivably be 5-2 in conference alongside Alabama if the ball bounces a different way. You look at Ole Miss' talent on paper, particularly their guards, and I think they're better than their record suggests. With this Alabama team trying to manage its' way through a slew of injuries, that trip to Oxford on Tuesday night looks challenging to me.

Players to Watch: It was great to see Braxton Key have his best game of the season on Saturday night. One, because Alabama doesn't win without his contribution; two, because it's been such a struggle shooting the ball for Braxton since his return from knee surgery. To Braxton's credit, he did not allow his lack of scoring to affect other parts of his game. It all came together on Saturday night. Let's hope it's the first of many great performances for Braxton the rest of the way.

Terence Davis (14.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.0 bpg) was one of the best players in the league last season in a breakout year. This season has been a bit more of a struggle for him, but he's still one of the top players on this Ole Miss team and one of the better players in the league. He's coming off a 30-point outburst at Arkansas on Saturday.

Prediction: Alabama has found a way to win four straight despite injuries to Donta and Collin. The team is showing grit, which bodes well for the future. And I think they're good enough to go to Oxford and give the Rebels some headaches.....but this Ole Miss team has been good at home in conference play, and they're a little older than this Alabama team, which could be important in this game. If Donta continues to be limited, and Collin misses more time, this is a game where it could finally make a difference. I think it comes down to the pace of the game. Alabama is tops in the league in defensive efficiency, while Ole Miss ranks near the bottom; but these teams are similar in terms of offensive efficiency. The second half vs Mississippi State though was a stark reminder that this Alabama team can still get bogged down on the offensive end. If that happens against a steady Ole Miss offensive team, things could get bleak in a hurry. Tough game to call. I think the efficiency numbers actually favor Alabama in this matchup, but I'm going to go with the more experienced team at home to end Bama's winning streak at four. Ole Miss - 90 - Bama - 85 (in double OT)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Bama holds on Late to Survive $tate, Alabama 68 Mississippi $tate 62

Alabama now has the SEC's longest winning streak at 4 after holding off the Bulldogs to remain just one game back in the conference standings.

It was a tale of two halves.  Collin is still out, so we stuck with the starting lineup of Dazon, Petty, Herb, Key, and Dan.  I was hard on Dan after his last game, but he stayed out of foul trouble and dominated the paint in the first half, scoring 10 points and setting the tone early.  We had great spacing and ball movement, Petty made a couple of 3s, and Key re-emerged as a scoring threat with 7 in the first half and 16 total for the game.  JP also had a couple of beautiful passes, including a no look over the shoulder, for assists.    If we could have made more than 13 of 23 from the free throw line, then perhaps this game would have been put away sooner.  Nevertheless, we had a very comfortable 19 point lead at halftime, but give a lot of credit to Ben Howland and $tate for not throwing in the towel.

We missed 3 or 4 good opportunities for easy baskets early in the second half, and that seemed to throw the guys off their game a bit.  $tate established their post game early in the half, and we countered by going big with Dan and Donta both in the game.  This opened up the 3 point line, and Peters torched us, all the while exchanging trash talk with Collin on our bench.  We moved Herb to Peters, which slowed him down, but then Weatherspoon made some big shots.  All the while our offense came to a grind.  $tate is a good defensive team, but we clearly lost some confidence on offense after missing those layups and we weren't cutting with the same purpose or moving the ball as effectively as we did in the first half.  This led to a 5 minute scoring drought that allowed the Dogs to come all the way back and tie the game.

While I'm disappointed that we took the foot off the gas a bit and blew a big lead; I'm proud of the guys for having some poise and finishing the game strong.  Braxton broke the scoring drought as soon as they tied the game with an offensive rebound and put back.  I think it was big psychologically that we never trailed in the game.  The defense came up with big stops in the late possessions and we made just enough free throws to finally put the game away.

The highlight of the evening for me was watching Red Panda at halftime.  Between seeing her once per year in Tuscaloosa and at various other events; I've probably seen her perform at least a dozen times.  It's still as amazing to me as the first time I saw her.  I've heard she earns $5,000 per show, if true, she's underpaid in my opinion.  If you ever go to a game that she's performing, you do NOT want to leave your seat at halftime.

The crowd was great, it was a sellout and there were very few empty seats.  It seemed that $tate brought a lot fewer than they normally do.  I would guess they had maybe 500 or so up in the corners, you could hear their "defense" chants at times in the second half, but they were otherwise unnoticeable, which is a good thing.

Up next, we try to keep the streak going against the other Mississippi school, as the Tide travels to Oxford to take on the Ole Miss Rebels at 7:30 pm Tuesday night.  It will be televised on the SEC Network.  

Friday, January 19, 2018

Game Preview - Mississippi State

The Alabama men's basketball team has won three straight games and are now 4-2 in conference play. They will look to keep the good times going on Saturday when they host Mississippi State in Coleman Coliseum. The Bulldogs enter with a 2-3 conference record. Game time is 7:30 P.M. CT. Once again, SEC Network will televise the game. Click the links for team and KenPom stats. Make sure to wash your hands first.

My Two Cents: What's that old cliche: sports can mimic life. I'm paraphrasing....actually, I have no idea if there is a cliche about sports and life, but you get the point. Life can be a terrible experience at times, gut-punching you for days, or even weeks or months, until you wonder if things can ever swing in the positive direction. And then it does swing in that direction for a while, and you remember that life can be spectacular. And then it all goes wrong again, but you make your way back to the other side. Rinse, repeat. It's the experience that the unconscious mind seeks, be it good or bad. But it's all necessary to have a true understanding of what makes life worthwhile.

Now let's apply that to basketball. It was just thirteen days ago that all of us were in the dumps following Alabama's rough outing in Athens. We were very critical of the coaching, and the fact that Alabama could miss the NCAA Tournament despite having the most talented roster in a decade at least. It seemed that there was no bright light at the end of that tunnel. And this season is far from turned around, but the team has shown some toughness during a crucial five game stretch by winning the first three of those games - one on the road, another vs a ranked opponent - despite having to continue dealing with injuries. Avery Johnson and his staff have done a good job of managing the roster and making good in-game adjustments in an effort to overcome the lack of a fully healthy roster. Things aren't perfect at the moment, but the clouds aren't as dark as they were just twelve days ago. And the beat goes on la de da de da.....

Alabama is coming off their best win of the season from a resume standpoint. Auburn was ranked in the AP, KenPom and RPI top 25 entering that game. And it felt good to see Alabama end Auburn's 14-game winning streak, and 2-game streak over Alabama. And they did this with no Collin Sexton, sitting out with an abdominal injury, and a limited Donta Hall, somehow suiting up to play just days after wrist surgery. The team has overcome some adversity, but I'll feel a lot better if they can get healthy before the stretch run of the season arrives.

Coming off a big win on Wednesday night, can this young Alabama team avoid a letdown at home on Saturday? Mississippi State appears to be a program that is still in the building stage in year three under Ben Howland, but it's a well-coached team with talent of its own. It was just two years ago in Howland's first season that State knocked off Alabama in Coleman, halting momentum that team had built for a possible NCAA Tournament bid. With a big crowd expected for Saturday in the wake of the football championship parade, this Alabama team needs to show up and play at a high level because that's what winning programs do.

Players to Watch: I thought Herbert Jones had his best game in an Alabama uniform vs Auburn. He finished with 11 points on 5-9 from the field, 7 rebs, 4 asts, 4 stls and a block, while also running the point for long stretches during the second half. Herb's only going to get better, and it should be really fun to watch him develop over the next several years (if we're lucky enough to watch him do it in a Bama uniform, that is).

If Ben Howland is able to build Mississippi State into a consistent top 25 program down the road, Quinndary Weatherspoon will be the primary guy that laid the foundation. Quinndary has been a great player through two full seasons in Starkville, and he's once again the top player for this squad as a junior (14.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.4 spg). Also keep an eye out for his brother, Nick Weatherspoon (10.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.0 spg). He's expected to play Saturday after a foot injury scare that required an MRI.

Prediction: Both teams are in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency (Bama - 2nd; State - 6th), and in the bottom half in offensive efficiency (Bama - 8th; State - 11th). That leads me to believe that Saturday's game could be a low scoring affair.....or I wouldn't be surprised if Alabama, energized with confidence and (hopefully) a big crowd, has a blowout victory. However it goes, I like the toughness this Alabama team is displaying, and the game is in Tuscaloosa so I'll go with our guys to pick up their fourth straight win. Bama - 72 - Mississippi State - 64

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Petty Differences, Alabama 76 auburn 71

We got news just before tip off that Collin Sexton would be out with an abdominal injury.  I have not heard any more specifics, and supposedly he is "day to day."  Aren't we all?  In any event, I'm not sure how much we can trust any official information from the team on injury reports.  Donta Hall was supposed to be out at least 10 days, but he came off the bench and played a big part in the win.  Sometimes losing a key player can bring a team together short term, as everyone ups their game to pick up the slack.  I think we've seen a bit of this in the last 2 games, but long term, we are going to need to get everyone back and healthy.  I'm afraid this seemingly never-ending plague of injuries will catch up to us at some point. 

Coach Johnson utilized a starting lineup of Dazon, JP, Herb, Key, and Dan.  This unit was able to take advantage of some early auburn mistakes and jump out to a 9 point lead.  Unfortunately, Dazon looked a bit rusty at the point guard position, especially in the first half.  There was little flow to the offense and we ended up with 12 turnovers in the first half.  The tigers were able to come back and re-take the lead, but fortunately our guys made enough plays to keep it close.  Alex made a couple of big 3's late to tie it, but auburn answered with a buzzer beater to lead 33-30 going into the half. 

Alabama extended the defense in the second half, and Herb was able to mostly shut down Bryce Brown.  After shooting 46% from the 3 point line in the first half, we held auburn to only 2 of 11 in the second half, and one of those was a miracle, contested desperation shot that hit the front of the rim and bounced about 6 feet straight up before dropping in. 

Meanwhile, JP was absolutely on fire.  He showed the world why he was heavily recruited by the likes of Coach Cal and Kentucky.  He ended up with 27 points on 8 of 13 from 3 point range.  This opened up things for Dazon to drive to the basket, and he contributed with 16 points, making 10 of 13 from the free throw line.  Herb also had one of his better games offensively.  He scored 11 points, and was able to take advantage of a mis-match by posting up auburn's smaller guards.  He even ran point for much of the second half and did a great job.  Just an awesome all-around performance from Herb.

Given the size advantage, I was hoping for a better game out of Dan, especially with Donta banged up.  I'm afraid he may be the Anna Kournikova of college basketball centers, in that he looks great but doesn't play very well.  Dude looks like a bigger Lebron, but seems a second or two slow in reacting to everything.  He only played 13 minutes due to foul trouble, and he probably could have been called for an additional moving screen or two.  It seems he's good for at least two of those per game.  Despite all of that, his one basket may have been the best of the game.  It was a thunderous dunk over a couple of aubies that got the crowd into the game and ignited the run to help us build a 13 point lead. 

We knew rebounding would be key in this one, as auburn is surprisingly good on the glass despite being undersized.  We won the battle of the boards 37-35, and although Key and Alex gave up some big offensive rebounds late, I thought we did a nice job of boxing out and getting to the ball for the most part.  Key ended up with 9 rebounds, Herb had 7, and Donta pulled down 5 with his one arm in only 15 minutes of playing time.  I was a little surprised we didn't use Donta more late in the game on defense to protect the rim.

A physical, rivalry game is always a difficult game to officiate, especially one with so many block/charge train-wrecks.  I thought they were inconsistent on the block/charge calls, and they seemed to go disproportionately against us.  Herb's 5th foul was terrible, from my vantage point it looked like he didn't even touch the guy.

The ending of the game did not go quite as smoothly as we would have liked.  With a comfortable lead, the last thing you want to do is put them on the line with a chance to gain ground with the clock stopped.  At one point, auburn shot 8 free throws in 3 possessions, but thankfully only made 2 of them.  The "ball don't lie," as they say.  Nevertheless, they made just enough free throws and we missed just enough down the stretch to let them back within 3 for their final possession.  I would have preferred to foul around half court and put them on the line with 2 seconds or so left in that situation, but it didn't matter as they stepped on the line anyway, ending their attempt at a comeback.

Overall, I thought this was one of Coach Johnson's best coaching jobs.  He coached circles around Bruce Pearl, creating and exploiting matchups with his substitutions, and making great halftime adjustments like extending the defense and moving Herb to point.  We had a great gameplan of controlling the tempo, and the guys executed by choosing wisely when to run in transition, but mostly operating in the half-court and getting back on defense to force auburn to work for their shots.  With a full roster, I think we could run with them, but without Donta and Collin, we were wise to slow it down and try to negate their quickness.  We also ran a lot more set plays with screens for Petty in the second half, and got Herb involved in a 2-man game. The only decisions I didn't agree with were not fouling at the end, and playing Alex over Donta defensively late in the game, but I understand the reasoning for both.  The rotation was much better given the roster limitations, but there was one lineup in the first half of AJ, Herb, Key, Galin, and Alex that didn't make much sense to me.

The near sellout crowd was great.  I would guess there were close to 14,000 for the early start on a very cold Wednesday night.  Despite Pearl's rhetoric about fans travelling and all the marketing auburn did for this game, their fans made up about 5% of the crowd as far as I could tell.  There was one annoying barner sitting on the last row of the floor seats in front of us who refused to sit down for most of the game.  There was a sense of impending doom with Sexton's absence in the first half, but the crowd was loud and standing for most of the second during and after the big run.  I think the noise affected auburn's offense a bit.  My only complaint was that the band did not play Rammer Jammer after the game, but at least we did get to chant "O-ver-ra-ted" and "FBI!" at them.  The team walked over to the student section and exchanged high-fives after the victory.

Up next, rivalry week continues as the mississippi $tate bulldogs come to Tuscaloosa for a 7:30 pm start Saturday night.  A lot of people will be in town for the football national championship celebration, so hopefully they will stick around and pack the house.  The game will be televised on the SEC Network. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Game Preview - Auburn

The Alabama men's basketball team picked up its first road win of the season this past Saturday at LSU to move to 3-2 in conference play. But they may find themselves facing a greater challenge when they return to Coleman Coliseum on Wednesday night to play the Auburn Tigers in the first of two matchups this season. Auburn is ranked 17th in the current AP poll, 4-0 in league play, and as hard as it is to write this, look like the best team in the league at the moment. Game time is 6 P.M. CT. Once again our fine friends at the SEC Network will be televising the game. Click the links for team and KenPom stats if you're into that sort of thing.

My Two Cents: Anyone who has read my posts at this blog since Bruce Pearl was hired at Auburn know that I don't think very highly of his persona or the negative stories that have followed him like a bad smell at every stop he's been at in college basketball. But I also believe in giving credit where it is due. And the fact of the matter is that Bruce Pearl has done a hell of a job coaching this team, despite all of the outside noise regarding the FBI investigation, the arrest and subsequent dismissal of Chuck Person as a result of that investigation, and the eligibility status of arguably the two best players on the roster, Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.

Auburn's non-conference schedule wasn't particularly impressive (not one KenPom top 50 team in the bunch) so it was easy to think that Auburn's hot start was due to a mediocre schedule. But this team has ripped their way to a 4-0 start in league play with the best offensive efficiency rating in the league, and a much-improved effort on the defensive end (currently ranked 6th in d-efficiency in the league at KenPom). There's also more toughness and leadership on this Auburn team than we've seen in many years. Consider for instance that this Auburn team is 4-1 in games in which they've trailed by double digits. You don't do that without mental toughness and an improved defensive effort. This team is not a pretender.

Despite the ranking and the good vibes that radiate from a team and fanbase that have won fourteen straight games, we all know that Auburn lives for beating Alabama in any sport. Bruce Pearl knows how much this game means to his fanbase. He's known it from day one, while I think Avery figured it out the hard way last season after being swept by the Tigers. And while I think Pearl struggled to motivate his first three teams on the Plains, this group appears to have better chemistry and leadership that has made it easier for Pearl to get the most out of this team. They'll be ready to play.

Donta Hall will miss this game as he recovers from wrist surgery. The initial word was that he would miss up to ten days. That means he could return for Alabama's trip to Ole Miss on the 23rd of this month, but I've also heard he may not be back until the Oklahoma game on the 27th. Alabama overcame his absence last Saturday, but I think his absence is coming at a crucial point on the schedule, and it will be vital that this Alabama team survive this stretch of games until he returns. I thought Donta would be important in this game, and his absence makes me very wary about Alabama's chances. Alas, the game must go on.

Players to Watch: How about the whole Alabama team? Galin Smith and Alex Reese were huge for Alabama in Baton Rouge. With Daniel Giddens only playing 8 minutes due to foul trouble, Galin and Alex stepped up and scored a combined 17 points and 7 rebounds, while only committing two turnovers, and only had three fouls total. They, and Daniel, will need to be a presence once again on Wednesday. Actually, the team as a whole will have to be present on the glass, because I think the team that wins the rebounding stat on Wednesday night likely wins the game.

Despite no player over 6'8, Auburn was the top team in the league in offensive rebounding efficiency entering their game at Mississippi State. But State's size caused some problems for Auburn in the 1st half, playing good first-shot defense, and limiting the Tigers on the offensive glass. Auburn flipped the script in the second half, torching the Bulldogs from the floor and getting to the free throw line for 24 attempts. But State's size nevertheless was a factor in that game. Donta Hall's presence on the floor as a rim protector would have presented challenges for Auburn. Without him, Daniel and Galin will have to hold their own in the post, while guys like Dazon, Braxton, Alex and Herbert will have to assist on the glass. This Auburn team is deadly enough on offense without the luxury of second and third chance points. If Alabama can't control the Auburn possession count, I don't think Alabama has a chance to win this game.

Desean Murray, a transfer from Presbyterian College, gets my vote as Auburn's MVP up to this point in the season. Having watched several Auburn games, I'm always struck by how hard this guy plays, how vocal he is, and how his teammates appear to listen to him when he speaks. In some ways, he reminds me of the role Chris Hines played in his two years at Alabama: a tough, physical guy on the floor that can elevate his teammates with his leadership. The difference in Chris and Murray (11.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.0 spg) though is that Murray is also capable of dropping 20 on you any night. Take him off this Auburn roster, and this is a very different Auburn team we're talking about.

Prediction: This Alabama team showed us some toughness on Saturday when they won short-handed on the road, but there were still plenty of things to be critical about. For starters, 19 turnovers to just 8 assists (Collin had nine turnovers himself). There were also stretches where Alabama struggled to run efficient offense, resulting in another poor shooting night. What got Alabama through it was an old gameplan: slow the tempo down and gut one out on defense. That likely won't be enough against the league's best offensive team. Against LSU, limiting Tremont Waters was key to slowing down the LSU attack. But Auburn is a more balanced team, with four guys averaging double figures. Alabama will have to shoot well, protect the ball, rebound well, and do it all for 40 minutes because this Auburn team has shown they're never out of a game. I'll be honest: if I was betting on this game, I'd bet on the Tigers. But the thought of losing two in a row on the home floor to that team is too much for me to bear. Screw it: Bama gets a big boost from the student section, the young guys play well in the comfort of home, and get the upset victory. Bama - 78 - Auburn - 70

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Bama Blasts Bayou Bengals, Alabama 74 LSU 66

Next man up!  Donta is out for at least 10 days following wrist surgery, but the team came together and responded by getting their first true road win of the season. 

Full disclosure, I watched this game in a bar with no sound, thanks to the NFL game that was on at the same time, so it wasn't ideal viewing conditions.  Also, while it's rare that I'm privy to inside info, I did get the news of Donta's injury about 2 hours before it broke in the media, and promptly put $50 on LSU -4.  You're welcome, I'm taking credit for buying this W with the emotional hedge bet.

With Donta out, we went with a starting lineup of Collin, Herb, Dazon, Braxton, and Dan.  Conventional wisdom would suggest Dan would be the key guy needed to step up, but he only played 8 minutes thanks to foul trouble.  Instead, Galin and Alex came off the bench and both had awesome games.  Galin gave us 29 minutes and scored 8 points and had 4 rebounds. 

Overall, I thought this was our best defensive effort of the season.  In fairness, LSU seemed a bit flat coming off their big win at Arkansas.  It was an ugly, sloppy game for the first half, but I felt pretty good only being down 2 at halftime with Collin only scoring 3 points. 

I'm sure a lot of NBA scouts and most casual observers were excited about the Collin Sexton vs Tremont Waters matchup.  We wisely put Herb on Waters for most of the game, and he did a good job of containing him.  As mentioned above, Sexton only scored 3 in the first half.  Collin must value the basketball more.  Nine turnovers is totally unacceptable, and will get us beat most nights.  That being said, it says a lot about how good these guys are when they score 15 and 19 respectively on a "bad night."  Waters played 37 minutes for LSU, please take notes CAJ, this is how you use your one and done.  Despite Waters having the better stat line, I thought Sexton's play at the beginning of the second half was a big part of the reason we were able to build a 15 point lead. 

Dazon Ingram was clearly the MVP of the game.  He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and was big factor on both ends of the floor.  Braxton Key played fairly well despite having a rather pedestrian stat line of 6 points and 4 rebounds.  His jump shot is not falling, but he played his best defense since his return from injury in my opinion. 

LSU was cutting into the lead, but Wade's technical (arguing a correct call I might add) seemed to stymie their momentum and we were able to hold on.  For a moment, I was having flashbacks of a game I attended a few years ago when we blew a 9 point lead in the final minute of a game at Baton Rouge. 

We're now 3-2 in an SEC that appears to be a total crap-shoot.  auburn is the only remaining unbeaten team in the conference and we are just 5 games into league play.  South Carolina bounced back after looking like garbage in Tuscaloosa to beat UGA in Athens.  Texas A&M was nationally ranked in the top 5 at one point, and are now 0-5 in SEC play. 

Up next, we stick with the Tiger meat diet as red hot auburn comes in with a top 25 ranking and a 14 game winning streak.  auburn's marketing people are sending out links to our ticket office and urging their fans to "take over Tuscaloosa."  Let's support our team and make sure that doesn't happen.  It's an early 6 pm start on Wednesday night, and will be televised by the SEC Network. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Game Preview - at LSU

The Alabama men's basketball team will take their fourth crack at a true road win on Saturday when they travel to Baton Rouge to face the LSU Tigers. Alabama enters with a 2-2 record in conference, while the Tigers have a surprising 2-1 start to league play, thanks to back-to-back road wins at Texas A&M and Arkansas. Game time is 7:30 P.M. CT. SEC Network will handle the television duties. Click the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Will Wade has the natives excited in Baton Rouge. The Tigers are 11-4 with three true road wins already, and a nice neutral court win over Michigan in the Maui Invitational. They also have one of the best freshman players in the country in Tremont Waters. Unless the harsh winter weather expected this weekend keeps fans at home, Alabama will likely walk into a hostile environment on Saturday night. Our guys will also be searching for their first back-to-back wins since November. Both teams appear to match up well on paper: LSU ranks 7th in the conference in offensive efficiency, Alabama ranks 9th; both teams are ranked in the top three in conference in defensive efficiency. LSU plays at a quick tempo (top five in the conference at KenPom), which is in Alabama's favor as long as our guys can protect the ball and be efficient on the offensive end, something they have struggled to do consistently. If both teams are prepared to play, all signs point to this being a competitive game.

Players to Watch: The competitiveness of Collin Sexton is one of the things that brought people out to watch him during his high school career. He famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) told Penny Hardaway that his son was "trash" during a game. To borrow a phrase, Collin is a different cat. My guess is he's aware of how good Tremont Waters has been, and I expect Collin will come out ready to accept the challenge. The same for Tremont Waters. His emergence as a freshman is a big, if not the sole, reason why LSU has been one of the surprises in the league up to this point. While Sexton is fast, physical, and can score at all three levels, Waters is a wizard with the ball in his hands. His handle, his court vision, his ability to shoot the ball is a joy to watch, unless he's playing your favorite team, that is. In my opinion, these two guys have been the top two freshmen in the league this season. They will meet at least twice, and both games are the better for that. While that matchup will get a lot of attention, I think the team that gets the most from its post players will win the game. For Alabama, that means they need a repeat performance from Tuesday night of Donta, Daniel and Galin.

Prediction: I was feeling confident in our guys' ability to maybe steal one on the road in Baton Rouge on Saturday. And then I watched LSU run through Arkansas in Fayetteville, and I'm much less confident now. But, again, I do think that Alabama matches up well in this game, assuming they don't turn into "zombies" (gotta give Avery credit for that description) pregame, as they did in Athens last weekend. After consecutive road wins, including their best performance of the season at Arkansas, is it possible LSU comes out a little flat in this one? All things equal, I think LSU is playing the better basketball at the moment, but I'm going to have some faith and pick Alabama to win this one. Bama - 77 - LSU - 75

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Tide Blocks Cocks, Bama 76 South Carolina 62

Alabama protected its home court in convincing fashion against South Carolina to improve to 2-2 in SEC play. 

Coach Johnson went with a big starting lineup of 1. Collin 2. Herb 3. Key 4. Hall 5. Dan.  Many of us have been hard on CAJ lately, but let's give him credit for coming up with a great game plan.  South Carolina is a big, physical team.  MSmilie's preview was spot on, they want to pound it into the paint and they need Silva to stay on the floor.  The staff apparently did a good job of scouting because they seemed to realize that while Silva is a beast, their other bigs are stiffs.  Going with our bigger lineups, we were able to create and take advantage of some mismatches and actually win the rebounding battle.  Dan, Donta, and Galin combined to go 14 of 15 for 30 points and 12 rebounds.  We attacked Silva and were able to foul him out of the game. 

The successful post play opened things up for the wings, and JP came in off the bench and scored 15, going 3 for 6 from 3 point range.  We were 7 of 17 as a team from downtown. 

It was a physical game and the officials let them play, particularly in the first half.  One would think that would be an advantage for South Carolina, but I think it actually helped us keep Dan on the floor while he was having a productive game.  Carolina's physical defense and frequent double teaming of Sexton on the drive limited his offensive game, but I thought he did a lot to create opportunities for others. 

We built a 17 point lead in the first half, but a scoring drought, a flurry of turnovers, and some more bad perimeter defense allowed Carolina to cut it to 7 by halftime.  We were able to speed up the tempo for a stretch in the second half and stretch the lead back out to 20, and the game was never really in doubt. 

I've been critical of AJ's playing time, but he was a difference maker in this game with Sexton in early foul trouble and otherwise struggling to score.  AJ ended up with 10 points and 2 assists in 16 minutes.  Key played better, with 7 points, 5 assists, and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes.  He was much better off the ball, but still had some terrible turnovers.    Dazon returned and played 17 minutes off the bench, and while he only had 4 points and 3 rebounds, I thought he contributed a lot on defense. 

The whole team struggled with turnovers, 18 will get you beat against most teams in this league, and we still had a few more defensive lapses than I would like, but overall it was a solid performance and I thought the guys gave a good effort. 

The crowd was extremely sparse, I would guess no more than 4,500 were actually there, and it was pretty quiet most of the night, even with the big lead.  The student section was about half full.  How much of that was due to the 6pm Tuesday tipoff time and the hangover from Monday night's football National Championship versus the fan base's reaction to recent performances against Texas and Georgia remains to be seen. 

Up next, we travel to Baton Rouge to play a much improved LSU Tigers team this Saturday night at 730 pm central.  It will be televised on the SEC network.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Game Preview - South Carolina

Where to start. Losers of six of their last ten games, the Alabama men's basketball team will look to put their season back on track when they host the South Carolina Gamecocks on Tuesday. The Tide is coming off a humbling 65-46 beatdown to the Georgia Bulldogs this past Saturday, a game that wasn't as close as that final score. Game time for Tuesday is 6 P.M. CT. The game will be televised on the SEC Network. Click the links (if you dare) for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Things are bad for the program at the moment. Six losses in their last ten games. A 1-2 start in conference play. The possibility of no postseason play becoming more of a reality. A team beset by injuries. A team trying to play through its youth and the mistakes that accompany young basketball players at this level. Inconsistent (at best) coaching. A team with no obvious floor leadership. A program that has struggled to create a culture of winning and the confidence needed to sustain that culture once it's established. And a fanbase that has witnessed so much mediocrity in this program over the last decade that many of us throw our hands up in frustration at the first sign of adversity. There are so many positive things that have happened off the floor in the last two seasons, specifically recruiting and raising the profile and interest in the program. But the continued struggles on the floor have tempered most, if not all, of the enthusiasm that surrounded the program entering this season.

With sixteen games left on the schedule, plus the SEC Tournament, it's too early to toss this season into the trash heap. But if this team is going to salvage this season, it has to start in practice and the games right now. Alabama will play five of its next seven games at Coleman Coliseum. How this team performs in those games will determine this season. Not overall, because, short of an earth-shattering run through the remainder of the schedule, I don't think this team will be able to match the expectations many Alabama fans had coming into this season. But with a schedule full of resume opportunities left, if this team can grow and improve, they may be able to play their way back into postseason contention. There will be some fans that will not be satisfied with merely making the NCAA tournament in a season in which many predicted this team to be top 25 good, perhaps good enough to win an SEC title. But there should be little argument among fans that it's important for the program to find a way to end its six year NCAA Tournament drought, no matter what circuitous route is taken to achieve that goal. Things are not good right now, but they won't get better if we abandon this team. I encourage all of you that can make it to the game on Tuesday night to set aside your frustrations as a fan and go cheer this team on to victory. It's not about preseason expectations at this point; it's about getting a win, and generating some kind of confidence to help this group of players off the mat. We can be vocal as fans about frustrations with the coaching staff or this player doesn't need to play this many minutes, but we can also remain steadfast in cheering on this team to repair its problems and start playing winning basketball. I feel confident in saying that every one of these players wants to win. By all accounts, this is a group of good guys. And I always want to pull for the good guys to win.

Players to Watch: You don't miss your water until your well runs dry. Or something like that. Dazon Ingram missed Saturday's game with the flu. His status for Tuesday is unclear. At the moment he's likely a game-time decision. His presence on Saturday probably doesn't change the final score, but Dazon has quietly had a good sophomore season in terms of production. He's averaging 11.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg (2nd on the team), and 3.0 apg (2nd on the team). An unfortunate stat that he leads the team in is turnovers (2.4), but guys that have the ball a lot (Collin is right behind him with 2.3 per game) are going to have elevated numbers in that category. Nevertheless, Dazon does a little bit of everything for this team. I'd like him to take on more of a leadership role if he's capable of that kind of personality. But more importantly, I'd like to have him back on the floor Tuesday night.

Chris Silva is the best player for this Gamecock team, and the kind of physical low post scorer/rim protector that has given Alabama fits in recent weeks. Silva is also a foul machine at times. In Carolina's five losses this season, Silva is averaging four personal fouls per game. In their ten wins, he's averaging 2.9 fouls per game. I'd be willing to bet that Silva's minutes on Tuesday night will have a direct impact on the final score of the game.

Prediction: I hate using this term, but Tuesday is a must-win for this Alabama team. Forget conference standings, postseason, all of it; this Alabama team just needs a win. South Carolina appears to be in a rebuilding mode after a historic season a year ago. But Frank Martin is also one of the best coaches in the league so I expect he'll have his team ready to play. Once again, pace will be a huge factor in this game. South Carolina would love nothing more than to play this game in the mud and keep Alabama in the half court. While I don't believe Carolina has the imposing size that Georgia did that resulted in the Bulldogs devouring Alabama on the boards, the Gamecocks still have size and skill in the paint, particularly when Silva is on the floor, that can give this Bama team trouble if the game gets slowed down. The gameplan should be to go right at Silva early and make him defend without fouling. And our guys have to improve their 3-point defense. Too many poor shooting teams are having season best numbers against them. The Gamecocks don't make it easy, but our guys find a way to bounce back. Bama - 69 - South Carolina - 66

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Tide Lays Huge, Steaming Log against Bulldogs, Georgia 65 Alabama 46.

You probably don't want to read any more about this game than I want to write about it, so I'll keep this relatively short, at least by my standards.  It was a pathetic, embarrassing, pitiful performance.

Dazon Ingram missed the game with the flu, but was on the bench and looked horrible.  I'm not a doctor, and I commend him for wanting to support his teammates, but given the highly contagious nature of the flu, I question the wisdom of allowing him on the trip, much less his presence on the bench. 

The rest of the team played as if they had the flu.  Herb Jones got the start in place of Ingram, and despite being the only player on the floor even attempting to play defense in the first half, he was horrendous on the offensive end.  We've spent a lot of time discussing the playing rotation here, and Ingram's illness further complicated things there for this game.  Let's look at some numbers.  Sexton played 33 minutes, that's closer to the 35 I've been calling for from him.  He was the only guy who showed up today.  Unfortunately, he still shared the backcourt with AJ for extended periods, including the run in the first half that allowed UGA to gain their first 20 point lead. 

Speaking of AJ, he got 22 minutes in this crap-show (edited to save bobbyjack some work).  Donta has played fairly well at times, and actually led the team in rebounds with 6 (lol) despite playing only 16 minutes.  He did appear visibly frustrated at times, which I actually appreciated, as his body language at least indicated that he gave a damn, unlike everyone else on the team not named Collin Sexton.  Meanwhile we dusted off Galin Smith for 18 minutes, and Alex Reese got 8, mostly in the first half. 

The first half was one of the worst defensive efforts I have ever seen.  We didn't block anybody out, we had the same issues we've had with switching on screens in the man, and our rotation in the zone was criminally lacking.  We did press a little more, with some limited success, but never controlled the tempo.  To compound matters, we tried to speed things up on offense after giving up big scores by taking quick, ill-advised shots.  I felt like I was watching a game during the Gottfried era, wide open 3's galore and getting blown out on the road by a team we should probably beat.

Sexton played well.  Key seemed to regress after making some improvement at Vandy.  JP actually played some defense in the second half, but was a liability otherwise.  We are a below average team when he isn't shooting well, and right now, that's more often than not. 

The defensive intensity improved a lot in the second half, even if the technique did not.  We committed a ton of fouls, but at least put forth some effort.  I can't comment on the last 5 minutes as I decided to get a head start on the drive back to Birmingham.  I very rarely leave games early, and I'll support the team as long as I feel they are giving maximum effort.  I don't think that was the case in the first half, and if they aren't going to give me 40 minutes, I don't feel obligated to give 40 minutes of support either. 

Yes, we are young.  Yes, we've had injuries.  Those are all parts of the game, especially the college game.  This is our most talented roster in 20 years, and we're losing to inferior teams.  At the end of the day, responsibility for that lies at the feet of the head coach.  I don't get a sense of urgency from CAJ.  The assistants seem more passionate on the sidelines.  One of the big questions when we hired him was, could he adapt to the college game?  He's proven he can recruit.  He's proven he can market the program.  I don't think anybody can question his basketball knowledge from an Xs and Os standpoint.  Can he manage and motivate a roster of talented college kids?  It's only year 3, but we need improvement in this area, and fast.  He needs to realize every game is much more important in a 30 game schedule versus an 82 game schedule.  Also, waiting until the 4th quarter (or late second half) to start bringing it on defense isn't going to cut it here.  We are basically seeing what happens when a good college team thinks they are an NBA team and plays accordingly at this level.

Stegeman Coliseum is an underrated venue.  They've made a lot of improvements over the years, and it's a fine place to watch a game.  It holds about 10,500, and it was  sold out, with over 10,000 in attendance.  We only had a couple-hundred fans there, including athletic director Greg Byrne.  He walked up the stairs past us to the concourse in the first half when things were going badly, and did not look very happy, but I did see him down on the floor later in the game.  The UGA fans were respectful.  Football culture still rules there, as I over head a lot of conversations focusing on Monday's game.  To their credit, they were supportive of their team while mostly just leaving us alone. 

Up next, we play the South Carolina Gamecocks in Tuscaloosa Tuesday night at 6 pm on the SEC Network.  I'll be there, and I'm curious to see how many will join me.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Game Preview - at Georgia

In the wake of another frustrating trip to Memorial Gym, the Alabama men's basketball team will hope to win a true road game for the first time this season when they travel to beautiful Athens, Ga to face the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. You couldn't have asked for better timing for this game as the two schools will meet for the national championship in football on Monday night.  Game time is 11 A.M. CT. SEC Network will handle the television duties. Alabama is 3-2 in their last five trips to Athens. Click the links (don't be shy) for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Basketball may only be served as the appetizer for the big football game on Monday night, but this game will nonetheless be very important for both programs. Both teams have solid, not great, non-conference resumes entering the game, along with 1-1 starts in conference play. A win here adds to the resume for two teams currently viewed as being on the bubble if the tournament was selected today. Furthermore, the winner avoids dropping below .500 in conference play. A conference by the way that looks bonkers if the early results are any indication. We're only one week into the conference season, but there is no clearcut favorite at the top of the league, and no team from 1-14 in the standings right now looks like an easy out. The winner(s) of this league race could have as many as six losses once it wraps up. This young Alabama team has to grow up and gel quickly or this conference will reduce a once-promising season to a bitterly disappointing one.

Players to Watch: I may have been in the minority on Tuesday night, but I wasn't as upset with the loss at Vandy as much as maybe I should have been. For one, I think Vandy is much better than their record; and, two, I thought Alabama played well despite John Petty scoring only two points. John is a great talent, and I think his ceiling is very high in all areas of the game. But right now, what this Alabama team needs from him is scoring. When John's shot is falling, this Alabama team is noticeably better because it forces opposing defenses to extend out to the 3-point line, opening up the floor for guys like Collin and Dazon to get into the paint and make plays. Keep an eye out for Herbert Jones in this one as well. With Riley now out for the season, I think Herbert's role on this team will begin to expand.  

The Georgia frontline (Yante Maten, Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds) is stacked. In fact, a key stat in this game will be how Bama competes on the boards against Georgia's size. But, in my opinion, Georgia's ultimate success comes down to the play of their guards. They didn't exactly come into the season as a heralded group, but their play, particularly that of William Jackson II, is a big reason that the Bulldogs have overachieved to some extent up to this point. The Alabama gameplan must involve making those guys uneasy, not allowing them to find a rhythm with the big guys inside. If that happens, it's going to be a very long day in Athens.

Prediction: This is a similar matchup to the one with Texas a few weeks ago. No one on this Georgia team is a dominant presence like Mo Bamba is (very few are, to be honest), but with their size they could significantly control this game if  the pace is slowed and this becomes a half-court game. And another key aspect of that game with Texas was that their guards controlled the pace and shot the ball well. I think Alabama must come out early, set the tempo, and attack the Georgia guards in the open court in an effort to get them off balance, creating turnovers and transition opportunities. Make it a little chaotic, take Georgia (and their home crowd, which could be sizable as a result of the expectation of Monday night) out of their comfort zone. This Alabama team simply isn't capable right now of consistently producing points or defensive stops in the half-court against a team with Georgia's size. If this game is in the 50s or low 60s, be afraid. Be very afraid. Alabama - 73 - Georgia - 66

EDIT: No, you're not crazy. I've changed this prediction three times now.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Tide too poor for Commodores, Vandy 76 Bama 75

As I said in my last recap, when you play in Memorial Gym you can expect Vandy to make a bunch of 3s, and the officials to blow some calls in their favor at key moments.  Last night was no different. 

I'm not as upset about this loss as many people seem to be.  I mostly just chalk it up to the fact that we can't win in that place.  We've had better teams lose to worse Vandy teams in Nashville over the last 30 years.  There were a few positives to take away from this game. 

The team never quit despite falling down by 15 at one point.  The press was very effective at the end of the game, and we almost pulled off a great comeback.  Braxton Key is improving, I thought he actually helped us on both ends of the floor at times last night and he ended up with 9 points and 6 rebounds.  The rotation, while still not ideal, was much better.  We only played 8 guys for meaningful minutes.  I still don't like having AJ and Sexton in at the same time, and I think AJ is playing way too many minutes. 

I still think we are switching on screens way too much in the man to man defense, and not doing so effectively.  We gave up a ton of open perimeter shots in the first half, and Vandy shot over 50% from downtown to take a 10 point lead into the half.  My biggest beef with CAJ this game was starting the second half in a 2-3 zone.  I get the thinking, Vandy was uncharacteristically one of the worst teams in the league at perimeter shooting coming into the game, but the first half and common sense from past experience should have told us that playing a zone against them is never a good idea.  They promptly stretched the lead to 15 before we switched back to a man.  I thought the defense played reasonably well for the rest of the game, but give Vandy some credit for getting to the rim on the dribble drive. 

One key turn of events happened around the 8 minute mark.  We had cut the lead to 4 despite Sexton being on the bench for the previous 2-3 minutes taking a breather.  I think we waited too long to put him back in.  Dazon turned it over, and of course Vandy made a 3.  So instead of possibly cutting the lead to one possession, the Dores had a comfortable 8 point cushion going into the final 5 minutes. 

We started pressing and trapping in the final 2 minutes and forced a number of turnovers to make a run to get back into the game.  We had the ball down 3 with about 14 seconds remaining, and Collin drove to the basket for a quick layup with 6 seconds left on the clock.  The defense forced yet another turnover, as the Vandy player stepped on the line trying to avoid the trap on the in-bounds pass.  Of course, the officials did not call it, nor did they review the play.  Instead, we had to foul with 3 seconds remaining.  Vandy missed the front end of the one and one, but with no timeouts left all we could do was let Collin heave it from the half court line. 

I understand that we can't trap and press the entire game, but we should have done more of that earlier in the game.  We have too much depth and athleticism to allow a team like Vandy to control the tempo and make it a half court game. 

After playing well against Texas A&M, JP was frankly terrible on both ends of the floor.  In 28 minutes of playing time he only scored 2 points, was 0 for 3 from the perimeter, and was a liability on defense.  This team desperately needs more consistency from him.  We are a much better team when he is playing well. 

Sexton had another great night with 24 points and 5 assists.  If he's on the court for 35 minutes instead of 30, the outcome may have been different.  Donta had another nice night with 14 points and 6 rebounds.  I thought we should have ran the offense through the post more.  It's virutally impossible to win a shooting contest up there. 

Up next, we travel to Athens, GA to take on the UGA Bulldogs Saturday at noon eastern.  The game will be televised on SEC Network. 

Monday, January 01, 2018

Game Preview - at Vanderbilt

The Alabama men's basketball program will seek a 2-0 start in league play for a second straight season when they travel to Nashville on Tuesday night to face the Vanderbilt Commodores. Game time is 6 P.M. CT. The game will be televised on the SEC Network. Click the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Both teams challenged themselves in non-conference play with mixed results. Vandy enters this game at 5-8 overall; but, like Alabama, they've played a top 25 schedule, making it difficult to judge this team by their record alone. It's also important to remember that Vandy's record was 6-6 a season ago entering conference play, but they were able to play their way comfortably into the tournament nonetheless. And as all Alabama fans know, Memorial Gym has been a nightmare for Alabama for decades. The win vs A&M this past Saturday was exciting, and it showed that this Bama team has some fight in it. Now it's time to see how this young team (made even younger by the fact that Riley Norris will miss the remainder of the season with a hip injury) handles back to back road games. As always, defending the 3-point line will be crucial vs Vanderbilt. If you go back and watch the A&M game closely, the Aggies got plenty of open jump shots, they just didn't make them. Vanderbilt will make those shots in Memorial.

Players to Watch: After struggling against Texas in his worst game of the year, Donta Hall found himself facing off against the elite duo of Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. Donta held his own, finishing with 17 points on an efficient 7-8 from the field. Plus, he made all three free throw attempts. He also added 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. He's been a very important part of the team this season, going from being a raw but talented role player to a guy who may have a legit shot at being drafted in June if he continues his progression. Post play has not been a strength for this Vanderbilt team so far. Donta and the other Bama post players could have a big impact on this game as a result.

Jeff Roberson is the leader for this Vanderbilt team, and one of my favorite players to watch in the league. He's had a great senior season so far: 14.7 ppg (45.2% FG, 41.8% 3-pt, 91.4 FT), 8.2 rpg, and 1.0 apg. Matching up with him will be a challenge because of his versatility. He can beat you from the perimeter, driving to the basket, and he's the most consistent option in the paint for Vandy at the moment. His numbers will likely say a lot about how this game goes.

Prediction: Alabama's performance this past Saturday was encouraging on the heels of that terrible performance vs Texas. If our guys can stay healthy, continue to improve, this team is still capable of ending the program's NCAA Tournament drought. But winning road games in the SEC this season is going to be tough. It's going to be even tougher when you consider how young this Alabama team is. KenPom has an experience ranking. Out of 351 teams, he has Alabama ranked at 347 (only Kentucky is younger in the league). I don't care how talented you are, when your team is that young, they're going to have some ups and downs all season, but certainly in road environments. And Vanderbilt still play their home games in Memorial Gym. Alas, Vanderbilt - 73 - Alabama - 71