Wednesday, February 28, 2018

NCAA tournament projections? See ya later, Alligator. Florida 73 Bama 52

Alabama was run out of the gym in the last home game of the regular season, and now stands at 17-13, 8-9 in the conference.  The game was not even as close as the final score indicated.  The loss eliminates Bama from contention for one of the top 4 seeds in next week's SEC tournament, and puts them at risk of ending in the bottom 4 and having to play on Wednesday.

On the bright side, we finally dominated the boards!  Of course that's mostly because we missed about a thousand shots so we had tons of opportunities, and we pretty much sucked at every other aspect of the game.

Herb got the start over JP.  Herb has not given us any offense since the Oklahoma game, but he obviously plays much better defense than Petty.  I didn't agree with the decision, but I can see the logic behind wanting to start Herb to help shut down their perimeter game.

We actually got off to a good start.  Dazon hit a 3, we were running the floor, and got some stops.  We scored the first 6 points of the game, and led 7-2 at the first media timeout.  We then missed our next 19 shots from the field.

So why did it all fall apart?  A lot of credit has to go to Florida for picking it up on defense and controlling the pace of the game, but our team simply did not respond to adversity.  We had a couple of calls go against us, and then when some open shots did not fall, the guys stopped playing defense too.  Herb Jones had to leave the game with a concussion, and Donta picked up a couple of fouls in the first half.  I was surprised to see Galin replace Donta rather than Dan, but we can't really expect a lot out of any of the bigs at this point.  We didn't use a single timeout during the first half while Florida outscored us 35-11 over the final 16 minutes.

The second half started a little better with Key and Sexton able to find the basket, but the defense continued to be atrocious.  We finally called a timeout with 15 minutes left and trailing by 22.  Three minutes later, Coach Johnson effectively threw in the towel by subbing in Lawson Schaffer and Alex Reese for Collin Sexton and Braxton Key.

The crowd loved the move, but I hated it.  What was the point?  Yes, we were down 22 and playing uninspired basketball, but with 12 minutes remaining you still have to try to make a run to get back into the game.  It's no surprise this team quits when it sees their head coach quit.  Yes, Sexton was not playing well, but he was at least one of the few giving effort out there.  He looked totally dumbfounded and confused when he was taken out for Lawson.  I thought it was bad form to pull the best player on the court, a top 10 draft pick, in his last home game with 12 minutes to play for the walk-on at the end of the bench.  Was it a desperation move to ignite the crowd and hopefully get an unexpected spark to get back in the game?  Was he punishing the regulars for their poor effort and performance by taking away playing time and trying to send a message?  Was it a wave of the white flag to get Florida to ease up?  Was he conceding the game and resting up for the aTm matchup?  We'll probably never know his motivation for that decision, but I did not like the message that it sent.

Florida did more or less call off the dogs at that point, and both teams went through the motions of playing the last ten minutes or so as a formality.  Sexton did play somewhat better when he got back in the game.

Dan actually had a respectable showing in his 11 minutes with 7 points and 4 rebounds.

Key takes a lot of criticism, but I thought he played decent.  Of course, he had his standard two passes to the invisible man, and a few lapses on defense, but he ended up with 11 points and 8 rebounds.  I wish he had more confidence in his shot.  He passed up several open 3s that I thought he should have taken.  I heard people complaining about Key, AJ, and Collin at various times for driving into traffic with nowhere to go, but in most cases the problem was their teammates were not setting good screens or not making any effort to get open or come to the ball to help.  Our communication on defense is terrible, it seemed like every time we switched on a screen the big would stay with the guard after the original defender already switched back, leaving the screener wide open in space.

Just two weeks ago I wrote that we had five games remaining and likely needed only one win to feel good about our NCAA chances.  Now we are down to one game remaining, and we still need that one win.  It's hard to be very hopeful given the lack of effort we've seen recently.  I wonder if there is something going on behind the scenes that we are unaware of, because we simply aren't playing as a team right.  Donta has completely disappeared and routinely gets out-worked, after looking like a legit NBA prospect earlier in the month.  Dazon is good for an early 3 but then goes into a shell for the rest of the game.  Sexton, AJ, and Herb, are the only ones you can count on to bring their best intensity every game, and as I said earlier Herb is only helping on one end of the floor. This is the second time in the last three years we've had a late season, two game home-stand needing just a single win, and have failed to get it done. 

The crowd was disappointing for such an important game, but that's to be expected for a 6pm Tuesday tip-off.  I would guess about 8,000 or so, with a couple hundred Florida fans scattered throughout.  The halftime show was "The Amazing Tyler," who balanced ladders and bicycles and other random objects on his face.  He was also the halftime performer at the UGA game in Athens earlier this year, so I vote we ban him from Bama basketball games going forward.

Up next, a "must win" on the road in College Station versus the Texas A&M Aggies.  The game tips off at 1pm CT and will be televised on ESPN2.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Game Preview - Florida

The Alabama men's basketball team is on high alert. Currently mired in a three-game losing streak, this young team must find a way to get back on track in their final home game of the season Tuesday night vs the Florida Gators. Alabama enters the game with an 8-8 league record, while the Gators, fresh off an impressive win at home over Auburn, enter with a 9-7 record. Game time is 6 P.M. CT. ESPN is handling television duties. Click the link for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Things can turn quickly in college basketball. Two weeks ago we all lamented over the inconsistency of this team, but felt confident they would end the program's six year tournament drought. Now in the wake of this three-game losing streak, that confidence has been eroded. This Alabama team now finds itself in a must-win situation on Tuesday night. Their resume is strong, and continues to prop them up as of today, but it's not an air-tight resume. If the bracket was selected today, I do think that Alabama would be in the field, but I also think that as of today they're probably one of the last 8-10 teams in the field. They must find a way to get back on track this week, and maybe next week in St. Louis, to avoid what would be one of the most disappointing finishes in the program's recent history.

As an Alabama basketball fan, I've tried to temper my expectations in recent years as the program has fallen on hard times. However, it was hard not to be excited entering this season. A top 10 recruiting class, a good class of returning players, and a head coach who was not shy about saying in public that the staff had been working towards year three. I didn't expect this team to win a conference title or make a deep tournament run (there's just too many variables in a college basketball season to put faith in those types of expectations), but I did expect a more consistent effort than what we've seen this season. Yes, the team is young (the fourth youngest team in D1 basketball to be exact). Yes, this team is playing in a much-improved SEC conference. Yes, they played a very difficult non-conference schedule. All the more reason to be frustrated by the lapses in effort, chemistry and leadership this season against such a difficult schedule. All the more reason to be frustrated by the appearance that Avery Johnson continues to struggle with the transition to the college game.

I think this struggle has been reflected in the head-scratching player combos he has put on the floor this season, and not leaning heavily enough on his star players to play major minutes. In the NBA you have a roster full of pros which gives you more options on your bench, but that's not the case in college. In the pro game you have an 82-game schedule, which allows you more freedom to rest players for long stretches, while developing guys on your bench. In the college game, you have a small window of time to identify your best players and assemble rotations that lean heavily on their talents to give the team the best chance to win. The best player on this team averages under 30 minutes per game. In fact, no player on this roster averages 30 minutes or more per game, but all ten available scholarship players currently average double figure minutes. That seems counter productive to me. But what do I know, really? I'm just a working stiff who writes for an obscure blog in my spare time. Avery Johnson is the coach as well as a former player. He knows more about the game than I do, I'm sure. That being the case, it's on him to figure things out and to deal with the criticism that follows when he doesn't.

Some fans are calling for a change on the bench, which I am not ready to support. It's fair to criticize Avery for some of the shortcomings we've discussed here this season, but this is also a man that has embraced the opportunity at the university, has worked tirelessly to promote the program, connect with the community, and has recruited at a high level up to this point. While I do think Avery could be a facing a hot seat situation in year four if the inconsistency continues, I'm not of the opinion that it's in the best interest of the program to fire yet another head coach and start over again for the third time in a decade.

I also don't share the opinion of some who read this blog or comment on social media that fans should abandon this team on Tuesday night. I've never been a fan of abandoning support for a team simply because the coach isn't meeting expectations. I'm definitely not a fan of doing it for the final home game of the season when the team desperately needs a win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Regardless of what some think of the coaching staff or even the players, Alabama fans should first and foremost be supportive of what is best for the program. Returning to the NCAA Tournament, regardless if they're a 1 seed or last four in, would be a positive achievement for the program after only two tournament appearances in the last twelve seasons. I don't expect fans to flock to Coleman Tuesday night (frustration with the season or the early game time will likely be the popular reasons for low attendance), but if you're not going or can't go, and you have a ticket, I implore you to offer your ticket to someone who does want to go.

Whew. I think that was more than two cents......

Players to Watch: I'm going to focus on three players instead of one for Alabama. The three are Donta Hall, Daniel Giddens and Galin Smith. Let's start with Donta, whose disappearance in the last two games has been a major part of Alabama's struggles. I think the argument could be made that Donta has developed into the second most important player on this team this season. And when he's at his best scoring, rebounding and blocking shots he has shown NBA potential. In the last three games though, he has not been a physical presence in the paint. In fact, you can say that for the Bama interior players as a unit. In the last three games the combo of Donta, Daniel and Galin have combined for 29 points (27 of those have been scored by Donta, and 16 of those were in the first game of this slide vs Kentucky), and 22 rebounds (19 of those were grabbed by Donta).

Alabama has been outrebounded in its last three games, but it's not just grabbing more rebounds that's the issue as much as it is that Alabama, on the defensive end, has been extremely soft in the paint in the last three games. This has led to Bama's last three opponents scoring in the paint (40% of the opponents points were in the paint in the last three games) and giving up double figure offensive rebounds (opponents are averaging 15.6 offensive boards per game in the three game losing streak). Simply put, opponents have been out-working Alabama in the paint. To be fair, there's no guarantee that a better physical effort in the paint in the last three games ensures that Alabama wins any of those games, but I'd be willing to bet that we're sitting here today with a better feeling about this team if they had.

While Donta is not free of criticism, he is the only one of the three big men that has at least produced something on the floor. Daniel and Galin have produced a whopping average of 0.6 points per game and 1 rebound per game in the last three losses. In Galin's defense, he did not play in the Arkansas game. Why he didn't is unknown to me. Avery hasn't been shy about giving him minutes, and if he wasn't getting the desired effort he wanted from Donta and Daniel, why not see what Galin gives you? Perhaps Galin did not practice well leading up to the game? The media guys did not ask Avery about Galin's absence to my knowledge so we're only left to speculate. For Daniel, he simply can't stay on the floor long enough to have any positive impact. According to the box score he only committed one personal foul, but still only played 12 minutes. In the minutes he did play, he had more turnovers (2) than field goal attempts (0), and never looked comfortable when he was on the floor. I'm okay with Donta getting the majority of the minutes among the big guys, but if he's going to play 29-30 minutes, he's got to be more of a factor on the floor from a physical standpoint.

I'm not even going to preview a player for Florida. Tuesday night is all about this Alabama team having a sense of urgency and challenging themselves to come out, regardless of the crowd or the opponent on the floor. Show us something, guys.

Prediction: Tuesday night is a litmus test for this Alabama team. Do they have anything left in the tank? Is anyone going to step up and be a leader for this team, or will they as a unit play with the effort and intensity that you must play with consistently to have any measure of success at this level of basketball? There's a lot of fans out there at the moment that are certain this team is going to finish 0-5 in the regular season. Will this team show up with a chip on their shoulder on Tuesday or will the bad fog continue to envelop them? Once upon a time ago as a young man, I was in a relationship that consistently went in a negative direction. It left me bitter and emotionally exhausted. And yet, I could not bring myself to end my affection for the other person because of my belief in the relationship and my belief in this person to evolve their behavior. My feelings are similar for this team. This has been a frustrating and emotionally draining season for me as an Alabama basketball fan, but I still have a deep affection for this basketball program and believe it can be something greater than it currently is. I believe this team will come out ready to play Tuesday night, and will get a much needed win. Alabama - 74 - Florida - 69

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Bama in a Fog against Hogs, Arkansas 76 Alabama 73

Poor rebounding, free throw shooting, and turnovers were too much to overcome as the Tide dropped its third in a row to fall to 17-12 overall, 8-8 in the conference.  We are running out of time to get that one more win we need to feel good about selection Sunday. 

On the bright side, we finally used a starting lineup that makes sense with Key replacing Dan.  Unfortunately, they got off to a slow start and much like the auburn game we were playing from behind most of the day.  Dan still played 12 minutes, and had 2 turnovers, a foul, and no points or rebounds.  He's basically Carl Engstrom in Lebron James' body right now.

Our zone offense is terrible.  I get that we were trying to somewhat control the tempo, but I felt like I was watching an Anthony Grant team at times given the number of shot clock violations, and desperate attempts at the end of the shot clock. 

Other than Collin and AJ, nobody is displaying any real sense of urgency on this team right now.  For the third straight game, we were dominated on the glass.  Arkansas' second, third, and fourth opportunity points in the second half ultimately proved to be the difference in the game. 

On a positive note, JP actually shot the ball well, but was still a defensive liability.  Braxton played decent with 16 points and 5 rebounds, but continues to make too many bone-headed turnovers.  We ended up with 18 turnovers as a team, many of them unforced.  We weren't strong with the ball in the post and we continue to make bad passes. 

We made 11 of 27 3s against the zone, which is pretty good, but we had no inside game to go along with it.  Donta finished with just 4 points and 1 rebound.  As I mentioned above, I think Bruce Pearl exposed us a little bit with his zone defense last game.  The elbow and short corner seem to be foreign concepts to this team.  There is no high post game whatsoever.  We either try to spread the floor and rotate the ball to an open shooter (and that's another issue, the ball is sticking, Collin got visibly upset at times with both Key and Ingram for holding the ball too long) or we drive in looking for a foul or dish at the rim.  Our spacing was not good, and there was no inside-out game. 

After looking like a legit NBA prospect for several games, Donta Hall has gone completely MIA.  He ended up with 8 rebounds but only 4 points.  What's really frustrating is that he was not running the floor like I know he is capable of.  We really needed him to get back on defense and protect the rim against the up-tempo hogs, but he was beat to the basket many times.    At one point, CAJ took him out of the game after a poor defensive effort, and of course Dan immediately picked up a foul, and coach looked over at Donta and screamed "GET READY TO PLAY!"

Coach Johnson seemed a little more vocal and animated than normal, and I understand he was "mic'ed up" on ESPN.  I suspect a little bit of that was his increased animation for this game was put on for the cameras. 

Herb is still playing solid defense, but we need at least some offensive production from him.  He really hasn't given us anything on that end since the Oklahoma game. 

Despite all the other issues, if we could make a decent percentage of free-throws the outcome may have been different.  We were 18 of 27 as a team, and Collin was only 9 of 13. 

Our guys tried to rally late after falling behind by 8 with just under 2 minutes to go.  Sexton made a couple of free throws to cut the lead to 3 with 44 seconds left.  There was a loose ball situation, and it went out-of-bounds off of Alabama with 34 seconds remaining.  From my vantage point, it did not appear that we ever had possession, but it was ruled a steal and subsequent turnover by Donta.  That was a huge call because it re-set the shot clock and instead of being able to play straight up defense, we had to start fouling. 

Nevertheless, they missed a free throw and we had the ball down 3 with 20 seconds or so remaining.  We had a timeout, but opted not to use it.  In fairness, there were several "free" timeouts due to officials reviews in the final moments, so I suspect Coach had already discussed what to do in that situation.  Given that we were shooting the ball fairly well, I would have tried to set something up for JP there, and crash the boards on a miss.  Instead, Collin passed up an open 3 at the top of the key just under the 15 second mark to drive in, when he inexplicably passed to Donta, who was fouled on the shot but of course missed both free throws.  Nevertheless, Collin had one more chance to tie it at the buzzer with a half-court shot that came up short. 

I know we are all frustrated with the team's play right now, but let's let the season play out before we start all the "should we replace Avery" talk.  I suspect we aren't as good as we looked when we were routing Tennessee and Florida, and we aren't as bad as we looked against auburn and at times against Arkansas. 

The crowd was disappointing.  It was listed as a sellout, but there was almost nobody sitting in the corners and lots of empty seats throughout.  I would guess probably 11,000 or so, which isn't terrible, but that's a lot of unused seats for a sell out, and other than the student section it wasn't very loud.  Also, there were several rows in the student section that were blocked off as "reserved," but maybe half of them were used and only in the second half.  I heard those were for the football team, but I'm not sure.  In any event, we shouldn't be reserving large blocks of seats for people who aren't going to use them. 

Up next, the Florida Gators game to Tuscaloosa Tuesday night after a big win over auburn.  It's our last home game of the season (hopefully), and let's not forget we've had some good moments this year.  I hope everyone will come out and help our guys get a badly needed win.  Tip off is set for 6pm on ESPN.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Game Preview - Arkansas

Let the past be the past. The Alabama men's basketball team must adopt that mantra as they seek to end a two-game losing streak on Saturday when they host the Arkansas Razorbacks. Both teams enter with 8-7 conference records. In fact there are six teams in the league currently sitting at 8-7 so this game suddenly looms large for both programs as they seek to land a top four seed in the conference tournament. The university has announced that the game is a sellout. Game time is 5 P.M. CT. SEC Network is handling the television duties. Click the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: When I post my season review in the next month or so, I probably won't point to this game as the biggest game of the season for Alabama. However, right now, this is the biggest game of the season for Alabama. Yes, I can understand the frustration for Alabama fans after a 19-point blowout loss at Auburn. It's been one of several frustrating nights we've spent with this team. I would ask though that fans pause a moment and realize that this team still has a chance to finish in the top four of the standings (they were picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll), and play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons. For a program that is under construction that would have to be considered progress. Also something to remember is that Alabama has probably not yet locked up a bid. They likely need another one to two wins to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday. It would be ideal if our guys could lock those wins up in the final two home games of the season before finishing the season on the road in College Station. What adds to the tension of this next week and a half is that all of Alabama's remaining opponents are also trying to lock up bids (or avoid a slide onto the dreaded bubble) so our guys have to expect the best effort from the opponent, while also giving their best effort. Needless to say, I'm happy that the team finishes with two of the three remaining games at home (6-1 at home in conference play so far).

The university has announced that Saturday is a sellout, and I hope that everyone with a ticket is in Coleman and ready to get and stay loud. If you can't make the game, please give your ticket to someone else, or offer it on social media (I'm already seeing fans on social media asking if any tickets are available). These next two games in Coleman are crucial games, not just for this team, but the program. The program desperately needs to break the tournament drought as it seeks to reestablish national relevancy. Forget your sour feelings after the game on Wednesday night; get out to Coleman and cheer this team to a victory. Arkansas is a really good team and our guys can use the support.

Players to Watch: I thought John Petty might be breaking the road curse after he had a respectable outing in Lexington, but the road woes returned at Auburn. He made a late three to avoid his second goose egg in scoring this season (did not score at Florida). He did have four assists, but also three turnovers. He also seemed rattled by the environment. Needless to say, it wasn't a great night for John. For all of his struggles on the road, John has been great most nights in Coleman, therefore I expect John to bounce back on Saturday.

Anyone who watches SEC basketball knows how good Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon are for Arkansas, but it's been the emergence of freshman Daniel Gafford that has helped this Razorback team become a more balanced team on both ends, helping to offset the loss of Moses Kingsley. Gafford is similar to Donta Hall in that he is a long, athletic forward that can be a disruptive force on the defensive end, and an exciting finisher on the offensive end. It's quite possible that Donta and Gafford are the two best dunkers in the league this season, and I wouldn't be surprised if both guys put someone on a poster Saturday night.

Prediction: Alabama has been one of the top, if not the top, team in the league when it comes to defensive play. Which is what made the poor defensive efforts the last two games so disappointing. The hope is that the team figures things out on that end because, frankly, they're not beating Arkansas on Saturday if they don't play better defense. Say what you want about this Alabama team, but they've been able to bounce back strong each time they've gone through a rough stretch this season. I expect a better effort from our guys on Saturday, spurred on by a loud Saturday night Coleman crowd. Alabama - 82 - Arkansas - 69

Thursday, February 22, 2018

War Eagles make Tide look Feeble. Auburn 90 Alabama 71

Auburn looked like a real tiger and Bama was their prey last night.  The Tigers pounced hard on the Tide early, inflicting near fatal wounds, and then began to toss us around and play with us.  Every time we thought we might be getting away, they would inflict another serious injury and drag us back. Finally they pounced hard one last time, and devoured us late in the game.  With the win, auburn improves to 24-4, 12-3 atop the SEC standings, while Bama falls to 8-7, good for a 6-way tie for 3rd.

There are a number of factors that contributed to this humiliating loss, and most of them start with the Coach.  I know you all are probably tired of reading about the substitution patterns, but I was enraged when I walked into the arena and saw we were sticking with the same starting lineup.  We're playing a team with only 7 players, that lives and dies by the 3, yet we're starting our two bigs again?  Dan shouldn't be starting anyway, but particularly against a team like auburn.  The results were predictable, we spotted them 8 points and called a timeout.

Collin Sexton had a great game, as did Jared Harper for auburn.  The difference was Harper had some help from his teammates.  I thought AJ played hard, though not great, but he and Alex Reese gave us a spark in the first half.  We managed to weather the first storm and come back to tie the game at 30.  Collin made a buzzer beater to end the first half and cut the lead to 5.  We stayed within 2-5 points for the first 6 minutes of the second half, but when auburn stretched it to double digits around the ten minute mark, I felt like the team just ran out of gas and threw in the towel. 

We had a piss-poor gameplan and failed to make adjustments.  Playing on the road against the best 3-point shooting team in the conference, we decided to get into a 3 point shooting contest.  Both teams took half of their shots from beyond the arc.  auburn ran a tight zone, and I understand the thinking was to shoot them out of it or at least force them to extend, but when that doesn't work early on, you have to try something else.  We had a height advantage at every position, but there was almost no posting up.  I would have ran some high post sets. 

Defensively, the biggest problem was not getting in position to rebound, and frankly getting outworked even when we were in position.  Nobody wanted to secure the basketball.  A UAB friend of mine watching at home even sent me a text asking, "do your guys even know they are allowed to grab the basketball when auburn misses?"  Contrary to popular belief, auburn did not really torch us from the 3 point line.  They shot 35%, which is solid, but only slightly better than our 34%.  The problem is they were getting 3 or 4 shots at it per trip, particularly in their last run that put the game away.

I was especially disappointed in Donta Hall.  He's improved throughout the year and I thought this would be a very favorable matchup for him, but he totally disappeared.  He finished with 7 points and 5 rebounds, and was dominated on both ends of the court by Chuma Okeke.  We tried putting Reese in, but they exploited the defensive matchup on 3 straight possessions, so we had to go back to an ineffective and seemingly unmotivated Donta.  With the exceptions of AJ and Sexton, I thought the defensive effort was poor.  auburn was driving to the basket at will, and our rotations were slow, leading to wide open shots on the kick outs. 

In addition to getting worked on the boards again, we continued to turn the ball over.  Key's turnovers were particularly egregious.  It's not just that he telegraphs his passes and allows defenders to jump them, on at least two occasions he inexplicably just threw the ball directly to the defender.  I've seen about enough of him trying to run the point forward. 

In addition to the bad passes, we also missed a lot of opportunities for easy buckets.  On our very fist possession, JP was wide open in the corner, jumping up and down, but Dazon didn't see him and that ended up with a Dan turnover.  In retrospect, maybe that wasn't such a great opportunity given the way JP shot.  I'm normally a proponent of "keep shooting with confidence and they'll eventually start to go down," but at some point you have to realize it's not your night and try something else.  Also, I can think of at least 3 or 4 instances where Braxton or Donta were WIDE OPEN under the basket because the au defense blew an assignment, but either Herb, Dazon, or AJ didn't see them because they were too busy dribbling around the perimeter with their heads down. 

When we did get the ball into the paint, we failed to capitalize.  Herb missed a layup that would have cut the lead to 5 just before au's big run.  Our bigs either got stripped, or put the ball on the floor to be stolen by the smaller, quicker defenders.  Auburn had 14 steals, and we ended up with 17 turnovers.  As usual we were brick masons at the line, 14 of 22. 

In conclusion, we were out-coached, out-hustled, and out-played.  We had a terrible game plan, sloppy ball-handling leading to too many turnovers, dominated on the glass by a smaller team, and couldn't make a free throw.

Bruce Pearl may be a fat sleazebag, but he's a very good basketball coach.  He's about to win the SEC regular season championship with maybe the 5th most talented squad in the league, and some glaring weaknesses. 

I was not able to find our postgame show on the radio, but I understand CAJ said something to the effect of "well, I guess this just evens up the series, right?"  It's probably a good thing I wasn't able to hear those comments, I may have drove my car into the nearest ditch.  "Buckle up," Indeed.

The small but nice arena was packed out with mostly loud, rabid auburn fans.  It was a good atmosphere and I think their team definitely fed off of it.  There was a fewer percentage of Bama fans there than we had in Lexington, I don't think we had more than a couple hundred, though there may have been more in the upper level that wasn't visible from my seat.  Remember all the nice things I said about the experience in Kentucky?  Yeah, everything is pretty much the exact opposite in auburn.  Their fans were rude and their basketball knowledge woefully lacking.  In fairness, I probably brought some of it on myself by wearing my "2017 CFB National Champions" t-shirt along with a crimson "FBI" hat.  Many of them don't have much of a sense of humor.  We ate at an establishment near Toomer's corner before the game and got horrible service at the bar.  The less-than-average food came quickly enough, but we had to wait 10 minutes to get silverware.  After waiting over 15 minutes for the check, and fearing I would miss tip-off, I left just enough cash to cover food and drinks and walked out.  I'm sure he's telling all his auburn buddies about the "jack-ass Alabama fans that don't tip," but I'm always a 20% minimum tipper, and gladly would have despite the poor service if we weren't willfully ignored. 

At the game, when Dazon drew a blocking foul because the official ruled the aubie defender was inside the circle, the guy sitting next to me says, "you have to admit that's a terrible call."  I said, "it was on the other end of the court, I couldn't see, let's watch the replay."  We both watch the replay, and neither angle shows the defenders feet OR the circle.  "He's way outside the circle!  That's a BS call!"  I just rolled my eyes, it's not even worth conversing with some people.  Another guy sitting near me was actually very nice and expressed disappointment in their fans booing while our SGA president tried to give a classy speech starting with "the schools go back to being teammates as soon as the game is over."    He asked me about several of our players, but when I would ask him about their guys he didn't even know what class they were in or where they were from.  As I was walking out of the arena with 4 minutes still left to play, a mid 50s overweight gentleman grabbed his crotch and yelled "Suck this tiger dick" in my direction.  I politely declined and congratulated him on the win.  I didn't even mind the profanity, but at least have more originality than to rip off an LSU student section chant.  It's actually kind of amusing when the drunk college kids do it in Baton Rouge, but not so much from an old, fat redneck who probably doesn't even have a properly functioning that-part-of-his-anatomy anyway.  To their credit, another auburn fan immediately called him out on it and apologized to me. 

As bad as this was, it's only one game, and we've bounced back before this year.  Up next, a very good Arkansas comes to Tuscaloosa for a 5pm tipoff on the SEC network Saturday.  We still need at least one, preferably two wins to feel great about selection Sunday.  This is when the team needs fan support the most.  Let's pack the house for the last two games and give our guys a push like the auburn crowd did last night. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Game Preview - at Auburn

This just in: Kentucky has grabbed another offensive rebound. Sorry, couldn't resist. The Alabama men's basketball team will look to rebound (heh heh) Wednesday night when they travel to Auburn to play the league-leading Tigers. Alabama enters this game with an 8-6 conference record, while the War Eagles enter with an 11-3 record. Game time is 7:30 P.M. CT. SEC Network will televise the game. Click the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: I'll give credit where it's due, and the Auburn fans have packed out games this season, turning that arena into a tough place to play. DJC remarked in his Kentucky recap that he was envious of the Kentucky crowds. I'm envious of the environment Auburn has had on a consistent basis. I'm envious that their students are given prime seating that allows them to have a direct impact on the game. Whether Bruce Pearl remains the coach at Auburn in the wake of the FBI investigation and subsequent NCAA investigation, or whether Auburn remains relevant in college basketball, the decision makers at UA have to take a long look at the facility improvements at long-time basketball doormats like Auburn and Ole Miss and realize that the current state of affairs at Coleman isn't going to cut it. There's a lot of rumors blowing in the wind about facility upgrades for basketball that will be announced in the offseason. I hope it turns out to be more than just another band-aid for Coleman because if Ole Miss and Auburn can build awesome new venues for their basketball programs, surely the University of Alabama can produce a better basketball environment for students, faculty and fans.

That said, Alabama will likely enter a very loud environment on Wednesday night. Not only is it Alabama vs Auburn, but the Iron Bowl trophy will change hands (even though the Iron Bowl really meant nothing this season heh heh haha haha heh hahah....ahem...where was I?). Alabama has already beaten this Auburn team once, but much worse Auburn teams than this one have made life difficult for Alabama teams down there in the past. It will take a tremendous effort for our guys to get out of there with the win and season sweep. You'll notice I didn't write "impossible". That's because Auburn lost more than the game this past Saturday at South Carolina. Anfernee McLemore, arguably the team's best interior player, who led the team in blocks and was top 3 nationally in block percentage, was lost for the season after a leg injury. McLemore was an emerging player for this team on both ends, and I believe his loss will impact this team. For starters, his loss leaves Auburn with only eight available scholarship players on the roster, and one less interior player for a team that wasn't big to begin with. Then again, no one expected Auburn to be as good as they have been so perhaps this team finds a way to overcome another road block. Regardless, Alabama will have a size advantage on Wednesday night that they need to exploit on the glass as well as driving the ball to the basket with Auburn's best rim protector unavailable.

Players to Watch: We've discussed Collin Sexton's competitiveness before. It shows up in how hard he plays on both ends, his cheering for his teammates when he's on the bench, but it also manifests itself in trash talk. Collin likes to talk trash to opposing players and fans. He's the type of guy with an edge that every program needs if it's going to win games it shouldn't like Wednesday night. While the environment at Auburn would be intimidating to most, it could be the type of environment that a competitor like Collin thrives in. If he's playing his A game on Wednesday night, he and the Auburn student section are going to just love each other.

I feel that in my first Auburn preview I didn't give enough respect to the guards for Auburn. They're the motor of this team, and their improvement across the board has played a big role in this resurgence for the program in Pearl's fourth season at the helm. These days in basketball, if you have great guards you can go a long way. Auburn has three great ones in Jared Harper (13.5 ppg, 39.7% from 3, 5.8 apg, 1.1 spg), Bryce Brown (16.4 ppg, 40.5% from 3), and Mustapha Heron (16.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.2 spg). Heron is a physical force that can score anywhere on the floor, Brown is one of the best shooters in the league, and Harper is the mastermind of it all, running the team at an extremely efficient level (157 assists vs 58 turnovers). The scary thing if you're not an Auburn fan is that all three of these guys could be back next season. In the first game, our guys did a great job defending all three, holding them to a combined 27 points, 4 assists and 9 turnovers. It will take a similar defensive effort on Wednesday night.

Prediction: Alabama will have a size advantage in this game, but I suspect a smaller line-up for Auburn will force Avery to ditch the Daniel/Donta line-up early, if he even plays it at all. Auburn is going to try to space the floor and bomb Bama from the three, or try to use their quickness at the guard position to take advantage of mismatches when our guys switch on defense (and there have been mismatches after a switch on a consistent basis this season so expect it). Auburn is a great offensive team so when they do miss our guys must grab rebounds and prevent Auburn second chance opportunities, a stat that doomed Bama in Lexington. On offense, with Auburn's best rim protector out, our guys must attack the rim. Auburn is not a deep team; Alabama must make them guard for 40 minutes without fouling. I believe Alabama has a great chance to match up and win this game on Wednesday night, but with a likely strong home environment in their favor I'll pick the Tigers to win. Auburn - 81 - Bama - 72 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Cat Scratched. UK 81 Alabama 71

Kentucky dominated the boards to snap a four game losing streak with an 81-71 victory over our Tide.  Alabama played hard, and really did not play that bad of a game, but they were up against a very talented, wounded animal.  Kentucky simply was not going to be denied, and credit to them for finally showing a sense of urgency when they needed it most.  The loss drops Alabama to 17-10, 8-6 in the SEC.  Jerry Palm's bracket today has us as an 8 seed playing against Houston in Charlotte.  I think we need at least one more win to feel good about getting in.  We are now in a 4 way tie for 3rd in the SEC, and teams 3-11 are only separated by 2 games.  It's going to be a crazy finish to see who gets the coveted double-byes in the SEC tournament.  

This game was lost on the backboards.  We played a 2-3 zone for much of the game, and simply could not get a rebound out of it.  Kentucky out rebounded us 44-27.  They had an absurd 20...,TWENTY! offensive rebounds, compared to our 9.  I definitely understand the reasoning behind playing so much zone.  UK is not a very good shooting team, though they did end up going 4 of 11 from 3 point range and made 75% of their free throws.  Still, after the second time they scored on their fourth opportunity in a single possession,  it was time to switch to a soft man, or try something different.  

The substitution patterns continue to drive me nuts.  Dan started and played 15 minutes, and somehow managed to only pick up 2 fouls in that time, but he only pulled down one rebound and scored 2 points.  He was a liability against the quicker Kentucky forwards.  

Collin fouled out in 29 minutes and also missed some time with an injury, as it appeared he may have been bleeding.  I thought he tried to do a little too much at times, and ended with 12 points, going 0 for 4 from 3 point range.  

On the positive side we had 4 guys in double digits.  In addition to Collin, Alex Reese had a nice game with 10 points in 15 minutes including a couple of 3s.  Petty finally showed some signs of life on the road with 13 points including 3 of 10 from downtown and a perfect 4 of 4 at the line.  It was good to see him getting to the line, but  he still struggled with turnovers and shot selection at times.  Donta continued to do his thing, with 16 points, 6 rebounds, and a couple of blocks in 30 minutes.  He did miss a few free throws, and he had to leave the game at one point as it appeared his injured wrist was bothering him.  

The team hung around and had a 1 point lead with 8 minutes left, but we appeared to play tight down the stretch and couldn't make the plays to stay in the game.  This UK team may not be as good as some recent versions, but they are still plenty talented, and you're not going to walk into Rupp and win by being doubled-up on the boards while shooting 25% from the arc and 62% from the line.  

As always, the crowd and atmosphere was awesome at Rupp.  It was a sellout, but there were a few empty seats in the upper level to be found, thankfully including the one next to me, so it was nice to actually have a little bit of space.  They've made some improvements since my last trip there, including a nicer scoreboard/video replay screen and sound system, but the upper level seating is still very cramped.  I'm told more renovations are coming to the adjoining Lexington Center, but they've been talking about that for at least 6 years now, so I'll believe it when I see it.  

I have to admit, I'm a little jealous of Kentucky.  I would kill for Alabama basketball to have the fan support and passion of Big Blue Nation.  Even though they are generally down on their team this year, we had many people come up to us before the game and say some variation of "you guys are going to kill us," they still pack the place and get loud at key moments.  They are also the most welcoming, classiest group of fans you will find.  Not a single person said anything negative to us, and dozens went out of their way to say "welcome, we're glad you're here, etc."  We had brunch before the game, and the couple sitting next to us at the bar ended up giving us their home address and invited us over to hang out after the game.  The owner of the establishment introduced himself and gave us shots on the house.    If you're ever in Lexington, I highly recommend Carson's, great bloody marys and the food was great!  Every usher at the game, before and after, had kind words for us.  There were more Alabama fans there than I've seen in the past.  There was at least a little crimson in every section, so we probably had close to 500 or so total scattered throughout.

Up next, it doesn't get any easier, as we travel to the ugliest village on the plains to take on conference leading auburn.  The Tigers are coming off a bad loss to South Carolina, and I suspect they were looking ahead to this game.  The contest is set for a 7:30 pm CT tipoff on SEC Network Wednesday night.  I'm still debating whether or not to make that trip.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Sleeping with the enemy, Kentucky Wildcats

I reached out to Jamie Boggs at Sea of Blue to get Big Blue Nation's perspective on tomorrow's game.  He kindly provided us with the response below.  If you visit A Sea of Blue, please remember to follow their site's rules and be a good representative of our University.

The Wildcats are reeling right now, coming off of the first four game losing streak of the Calipari era. In fact, they had never lost 3 in a row under Cal before last week. The strengths of this team have been sporadic throughout the season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the most consistent weapon with his ability to penetrate and finish with his left hand. Kevin Knox is the most explosive scorer, but he has also been known to disappear when things have gotten physical. The primary asset for this team that has proven to benefit the Cats in every game has been the size of this group. The length and wingspan of this group is honestly unreal, especially in the rare moments when they play zone.

The primary weaknesses have been scoring and consistency. There have been many long stretches without baskets this season, something Kentucky fans are not used to. One half they will look like they've turned a corner and may be figuring out how to play together, and then the next half they look like they just met and have no team Chemistry.

Collin Sexton will be a matchup nightmare for Kentucky, as guard penetration has been an issue all season. In order to compete on Saturday, Kentucky's bigs have to exert themselves and use their size on the offensive end. The Wildcats also have to make their free throws, only converting on 68.6% of their attempts from the charity stripe this season.

This is the closest we have seen to a must-win game since John Calipari came to town, so I expect the Wildcats to come out ready to play.

Game Preview - at Kentucky

The Alabama men's basketball team had a very good week in league play this past week, going 2-0, including its fifth win this season over a ranked team. Our guys will hope to make it three straight wins when it travels to Lexington to play the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday. Alabama is seeking its first win at Rupp Arena since January 14, 2006 when it knocked off the Cats by a score of 68-64. Game time is 1 P.M. CT. CBS will televise the game. Alabama enters the game with an 8-5 conference record, while the Wildcats enter with an unusually modest 6-7 conference record. The Cats also enter this game with a four-game losing streak. Hit the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: It's a big stage for our guys on CBS. And, frankly speaking, I believe our guys are the better team entering this game. This Kentucky team - the youngest team in the country per KenPom - has struggled to put together consistent efforts all season. Some of that is due to the youth, some of it is because this Kentucky team lacks the elite type of players we're accustomed to seeing wear that jersey. Not that the team lacks talent - it was a top 2 class in 2017 - but it's been a group of guys that are in need of more development than many of the NBA-ready guys that Calipari has recruited during his time in Lexington. That said, getting out of Rupp Arena with a win is much easier said than done. Our guys will need to continue their high level of play if they have any chance of coming home with that win.

Players to Watch: Don't look now, but Braxton Key is putting together consistently good games. In Bama's last four games, Braxton is averaging 11.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 1.2 apg. He looks much more comfortable on the floor, seemingly finding his place on this team. Physically, he looks much stronger and confident on the floor. He had several drives in the LSU game in which he looked as explosive as we've seen him all season. I don't think it's a coincidence that Bama is 3-1 in these last four games. As someone who loves Braxton's versatile game, it's nice to see him back in rhythm.

There's any number of guys on this Kentucky roster that are capable of stepping up and having a huge day on Saturday, but I think Kevin Knox is the most dangerous player on this team. He's probably the most pro-ready player from a physical standpoint, but he has had no shortage of ups and downs this season. In the loss to Auburn earlier this week, Calipari actually had to sit Knox late in the game because his defensive effort and overall body language was so poor. He's a freshman, struggles are going to happen, but when he's on this Kentucky team rises to another level. Just ask West Virginia fans, players and coaches who watched Knox torch them for 34 points in the Cats biggest win of the season so far.

Prediction: This one is tough for me. On the one hand, I think you could make the argument that Alabama is the better team entering this game. Our guys should be extremely confident as I believe they're playing their best basketball of the season, and the efficiency stats on both ends of the court actually favor Alabama entering this game. On the other hand, the game is in Rupp, Kentucky is struggling but still immensely talented, and have a Hall of Fame coach. I won't be shocked if our guys get out of Rupp with the win (I'm almost expecting it, to be quite honest), but I just can't pick against Kentucky in Rupp. They could have lost ten straight entering this game, and I might still pick them to win in that building. Kentucky - 74 - Bama - 63   

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bama Buries Bayou Bengals, Alabama 80 LSU 65

It was a sad Fat Tuesday for our Cajun friends, as Bama dominated the second half to cruise to an easy victory.  With the win, Alabama is now 17-9 on the season, and 8-5 in the conference, still very much alive for a coveted top 4 finish.  We probably need at least one more win to feel really good about our chances on selection Sunday.

We jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, but once again we put a nonsensical lineup on the floor that allowed LSU to get back into the game.  We made some plays late in the half to take a 39-30 lead into the locker room. 

The second half started horrifically.  We had several bad turnovers, and LSU capitalize by making a couple of 3s and the lead was cut to 1.  With Collin Sexton going to the bench with his 4th foul, it looked like another midweek letdown was imminent.    Instead, we responded with a 23-3 run, and eventually led by as many as 25, before playing a couple of walk-ons the last couple of minutes which allowed LSU to make the final score somewhat respectable. 

Before some knucklehead cites this run and the auburn game as evidence that "we play better without Sexton," just stop it.  There is plenty of evidence of the offense struggling without Collin in the game, including the stretch in the first half of this game.  Despite the four fouls, he still ended up with 15 points and 6 assists in only 22 minutes of play.  This is not a one man team, though, and these types of performances with him on the bench should give the team confidence they can go without him when necessary, and will also give Collin confidence that he has more than sufficient help from his teammates.

Donta Hall was the clear MVP with a career high 20 points to go with 8 rebounds.  He had 5 dunks, including a couple of impressive "and ones" and was instrumental in putting the game during our big second half run.  "Basketball IQ" is a term that gets thrown around more so in regards to guard play, but Donta has as high of a basketball IQ as anyone.  Everybody notices the dunks, rebounds, and blocked shots, but watching him move and anticipate without the ball is a real joy.  He sets up those dunks by getting into great position, and reading the defenders rebounding angles and help-side defense when our guards drive the lane.  His ability to run the floor, catch the ball, finish at the rim, and know precisely when to cut to the basket have improved ten-fold over the course of the last two season.  Coach Pelphrey has earned his salary for his work with Donta alone. 

I am still a little worried about Donta's wrist injury.  The trainers were working on his wrap during every timeout, and seemed to be favoring it at times. Also, Braxton Key was interviewed on the post game radio broadcast despite Donta being named player of the game, and I wonder if that was related to his wrist injury.

Speaking of Key, he had another solid performance with 12 points and 7 rebounds while playing great defense.  He needs to be starting of Giddens.  Dan filled the stat sheet with "4s," his total for rebounds, points, and of course, fouls.  He only managed to stay on the court for 13 minutes. 

Petty had 11 points on 3 of  3 shooting from downtown, and he finally seems to be contributing in other ways as his defense has also improved lately. 

Speaking of defense, Herb Jones played a huge role in holding Waters to only 5 points.  I looked up at the scoreboard late in the game and commented to my friend that Herb has played one of the best games I've seen to that point without scoring a single point.  He did get on the board, with a great move, drive, and dunk.  He was also efficient at running the point while Sexton was on the bench in foul trouble.

The crowd was much better than the Missouri game, but still not ideal, I would estimate maybe 8,000 or so.  The atmosphere was much better though.  Dazon set the tone early by making a 3 on our first possession, and the crowd was loud and engaged for the rest of the night. 

Up next, we travel to Lexington Kentucky to take on the Wildcats at Rupp Arena.  Long time readers of the blog already know that this is my favorite road trip in the SEC, and I'm planning to make the drive up Friday afternoon.  In most of my recent trips there; I've just been hopeful we could keep it respectable, but this time I think I have a legitimate shot at witnessing my third Bama victory in that building.  Tip off will be at 2pm Eastern (1 Central) on CBS. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Bracketology and SEC Standings

ESPN has us now as a 7 seed with what I would consider a very favorable match-up with the Dookies.
CBS has us as an 8 seed (I think this one is dated) and a not so fun match-up with Xavier.
The Big Lead has us as the 3rd 7 seed.

SEC Standings (via CBS Sports):
Miss. State6-618-757
Texas A&M6-617-817
S. Carolina4-813-1278
Ole Miss4-811-14103
We lose the tie-breaker to Mizzou (I see them finishing 4-2) so I think we should look to UF to drop a couple more (I see 3-3/2-4 in their future) to pass them up to get that key #4 seed in the SEC Tournament.

BTW- if that ESPN prediction comes through I will head over to Charlotte.

Game Preview - LSU

After their fifth win over a ranked opponent this season, the Alabama men's basketball team is looking to avoid another midweek letdown when the LSU Tigers visit Coleman Coliseum on Tuesday night. Alabama enters with a 7-5 record, tied with Missouri for fourth in the league standings (Missouri owns the tiebreaker). LSU enters with a 5-7 league record. This will be the second meeting this season; Alabama won the first meeting in Baton Rouge, 74-66. Game time is the dreaded 8 P.M. CT slot. SEC Network will televise the game. Click the links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: This young Alabama team has been very good under the bright lights in big games this season, but it's faltered when playing in the less-heralded games. Some of those struggles are due to the improvement of the league this season, but it's been clear in losses such as Missouri and at Mississippi State that the team isn't always locked in as a unit for those types of games. The next step for this team with four weeks left in the season is to find a way to generate the necessary focus and intensity to carry over from big performances such as Saturday when the team played arguably its finest game of the season. LSU is a solid team that has legitimate postseason hopes, despite being picked 14th in the preseason poll. This Alabama team is very close to having a resume in place that I think will result in the program breaking its six year NCAA Tournament drought. If the Alabama fanbase is serious about supporting this program it needs to be there for a young team that has clearly thrived when fans have been in attendance and are loud and supportive.

Players to Watch: The development of Donta Hall as both a player and a leader for this team has been one of the pleasures of this season. Donta came to Tuscaloosa as a very athletic player with a high motor, but he was very raw. He was also very quiet. The staff, particularly John Pelphrey, have done a tremendous job working with him over the last two years. And it's paid off this season. Donta is one of the top players, and he's been willing to be a more vocal presence on a team that has sorely lacked one at times. Donta has shown a lot of toughness as well. He's played with that injured wrist for weeks, despite possibly re-injuring it in the game at Starkville. That kind of toughness and leadership can inspire teammates, and it will be instrumental if Alabama can get across the finish line and make the NCAA Tournament.

Duop Reath is another big man that has been a leader for his team. The senior is ending his college career on a high note, averaging 14.2 ppg and 5.4 rpg. He's coming off a monster game vs Ole Miss in which he finished with 26 points and 5 rebounds. He's had two instances this season in which he's scored 30+. And though he doesn't take many, he is leading his team in 3-pt % at 44.8. His matchup with the Bama bigs will be something to keep an eye on.

Prediction: Let's look at the games after Alabama's biggest wins this season (Rhode Island, Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma and Florida). Alabama has only followed one of those wins (Auburn) with another win (Mississippi State). It's clear this team struggles to follow up big wins with consistent efforts. Is the trend doomed to continue Tuesday night? Well, it's not helpful that the game tips at 8. Fans have struggled to fill the seats for those games, and those that do show up are not always the most vocal. That has filtered down to the team, though it is unfair to blame inconsistent performances solely on a poor home environment. At some point this team has to grow up and just find a way to win games when the home crowd isn't as vocal or the opposing team doesn't have a number next to their name.

At this point in the season it's hard to believe a team will snap a trend so I don't expect Alabama to play at the level we saw Saturday, meaning this game will probably be closer to most of the mid-week games we've seen in conference play. LSU is a solid team that has a lot to play for. They've got a great shot to play in a postseason tournament with a strong finish to the season. A road win at a top 50 RPI Alabama team would be big for an LSU team with its next two games at home. I expect Bama's trend of mid-week struggles to continue, but this time they overcome the adversity and get the home win vs LSU. Bama - 76 - LSU - 72

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Vols Fall, Alabama 78- Tennessee 50

Bama bounces back after the loss to Miss $tate to beat down yet another top 25 foe.  I will get to some great individual offensive performances soon enough, but I want to lead off with a focus on the team's defensive effort.  Finally, we stopped switching on everything and fought through the majority of screens.  I've been very critical of JP's defensive effort, but he did a great job on that end of the court Saturday.  Dazon also played better defensively than he has in recent games.  Guys were being physical getting through screens, pressing the ball, moving their feet to prevent penetration, and for the most part, boxing out on defense.  If you love solid, fundamental basketball, and appreciate the things that happen away from the ball, it was a real joy to watch, and that hasn't been the case for this team for much of the year.  

I'm starting think our guys might actually read this blog.  In my recap before the Florida game I said AJ should not be playing so much, and he played a key roll in that victory.  After the $tate loss, I said JP should lose his starting position, and he comes out and puts up 14 points, makes 3 of 4 from 3 point range, and played great defense. I think I'm going to start calling these guys out more often.

CAJ had a great gameplan, and out-coached a very good coach in Rick Barnes.  We took advantage of our size advantage, not so much by posting up, but by penetrating on the dribble drive and and cutting behind their help-side defense.  Collin, Dazon, Key, and even Petty (still too many turnovers, but...) did a great job of beating their guy off the dribble.   It was a great effort by all involved.  

The complaint department is mostly closed after a 28 point win over a top 25 opponent, and I know this might seem a bit ridiculous given the results, but I have to take issue once again with the substitution patterns.  We built a double-digit lead in the first half, then with about 11 minutes left decided to go with a lineup of 1. AJ 2. Herb 3. Alex, 4. Braxton, and 5. Galin.  That's basically 2 decent defenders and at most one scoring option.  The results were predictable, a 4+ minute scoring drought that allowed the Vols to get back within 2.  We finally put the A-squad back in, and stretched the lead back to 10 by halftime before putting it away for good early in the second half.  

I've criticized the playing rotation a lot here, but I realize I haven't offered many solutions, so here is my proposal:  My starting lineup is 1. Collin 2. Herb 3. Dazon 4. Key 5. Donta.  JP is first off the bench, and his minutes largely depend on how his first couple of shots go.  Collin goes to the bench at the under-12 timeout of each half and comes back some time between the first dead ball under 10 or at the under 8 timeout at the latest.  Basically, he rests 2.5 minutes per half.   AJ replaces him for these minutes.  For a different look at various times, I would also move Collin off-ball and let Herb or Dazon run point for 5-10 possessions each.  Dan backs up Donta down low, but can play them both to go big occasionally depending on matchups, but I would not start them both.  Galin only plays when one of them is in foul trouble.  Alex would back up Dazon and Braxton as a stretch 4 for 6-8 minutes per game, but may play more depending on matchups.  I'm sure I'm missing something, there's a reason nobody is paying me to coach college basketball, but this seems fairly common sense to me.

You knew it was going to be our night when Collin turned it over in the back court, gave up on the play, but UT missed the uncontested layup, and Collin, recognizing as soon as they released the shot that it would be off, recovered from beyond the arc, got the rebound, and raced the length of the floor to score at the other end.  

Collin had a great game with 16 points and also 4 assists.  Notably, JP also had 4 assists.  Donta was the leading scorer with 17 points and 11 rebounds.  He also did a lot of things that don't show up in the box score.  I'm loving the way he runs the floor.    Dan had 6 rebounds but only stayed on the court for 14 minutes before picking up 4 fouls.  

Lawson Schaffer was unavailable, but Tyler Barnes took on the role of crowd favorite.  He got in the game late but missed a couple of free throws.  

It was a sellout crowd and the atmosphere was great while we were building the huge lead.  There were not many empty seats, but there was a strong contingent of bright-orange clad UT fans, I would estimate 500+, mostly up in the corners but a quite a few scattered throughout.  They made their presence known during their run in the first half, but most of them left early.  I love the thought of those people getting excited about finally beating us in something, driving all the way down from east TN in the rain, then returning home dejected with a nearly 30 point loss.  Kudos to the band for finally bringing back Rammer Jammer.  

Up next, the LSU Tigers are coming in with confidence after a 16 point win over Ole Miss.  The game will tip off at 8 pm CST Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa on the SEC Network.  Folks, we need at least two more wins.  This is precisely the type of game we've struggled with.  Not only does the team deserve your support given all of their wins over top 25 opponents, they NEED you to be there Tuesday night.  We're on the verge of locking up a spot on selection Sunday.  This is the classic "trap game" sandwiched as a late midweek game between two top 25 opponents.  This team clearly thrives in packed environments.  Frankly, if we can't at least draw 12,000 or so for these types of games, we don't deserve a consistent tournament team as a fanbase.   Sadly, there are still plenty of tickets available.  If you're reading this, presumably you care about the University of Alabama men's basketball team.  If at all possible, get your ass to Coleman Coliseum Tuesday night.  I hope to see you there.  

Friday, February 09, 2018

Game Preview - Tennessee

The Alabama men's basketball team will seek their fifth victory against a ranked opponent this season when the Tennessee Volunteers visit Coleman on Saturday. Alabama enters the game at 6-5 in league play, while UT enters with a 8-3 record. Game time is 5 P.M. CT. SEC Network will televise the game. The university has announced that this game is a sellout. Hit the links for game and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: Alabama will have their hands full with this Tennessee team on Saturday. Rick Barnes has done an amazing job developing this team. Even more amazing when you realize that none of these guys were top 100 recruits coming out of high school. It's been player development and chemistry that has led to this season for the Vols. Only a game behind Auburn in the standings, Tennessee is very much in the hunt for an SEC title, Grant Williams is, in my opinion, the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year, and Rick Barnes is right there with Bruce Pearl for the Coach of the Year honor.This game has been announced as a sellout. Fans in attendance will have to bring their A-game to help lift the Bama players to play their best. Tennessee is currently in the RPI top 10 so a victory for Alabama will be yet another quality win on the resume.

Players to Watch: Where have you gone, John Petty, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. On January 17th, JP scored 27 points in Bama's 76-71 win over Auburn. Since that game, John is averaging 5.1 points per game. Are the struggles part of the dreaded "wall" that freshmen are expected to hit over the course of a long season or just merely the highs and lows that come with a player who relies almost exclusively on the 3-point shot? Whatever it is, this Alabama team hopes that it's temporary, because without John's outside shooting the offense has a tendency to get bogged down. Teams pack it in the paint to limit Donta around the rim as well as disrupt Collin's strength in getting to the basket. I don't think it's a coincidence that in games in which JP scores 10 or more points, Alabama is averaging 76.3 ppg. In games in which he scores in single digits, the team is averaging 69.8 ppg. I think in order to win Saturday, Bama needs John Petty at his best.

As of today, I think Grant Williams is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year. Yes, this Tennessee team is thriving because of great coaching and team chemistry, but without Grant Williams efforts this isn't a team contending for the league title. Williams is averaging 15.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, and 2 apg. He's undersized as a 6'7 center, but at 241 lbs he can outmuscle most of his bigger opponents. But he's also skilled, great hands and feet, can make post moves, step out and hit a mid-range jumper. He's a smart player, knowing how to reach the spot on the floor he wants to receive the ball. Good defender. He's a great player, and someone who Alabama is going to have to respect, even with a size advantage inside. However, double-teaming Williams is not always the best recipe for success because he's a willing passer, and this Tennessee team can shoot the ball (39.1% as a team from 3). There are multiple guys who can step up for this Tennessee team, but I think beating them must start with limiting Williams production.

Prediction: Tennessee overcame an 0-2 start in conference by cleaning up their play on the defensive end. Since that 0-2 start, the Vols are holding their opponents to 62.1 ppg. For the season, UT is forcing their opponents to turn the ball over on 21.6% of their possessions per game. That's among the top 40 in the country for that stat. And for an Alabama team that seems incapable at times of ball security, that stat doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Should Alabama turn the ball over 15 or more times Saturday, I'm not convinced they can win the game. Alabama has been good at home this season with a 10-2 record in Coleman; with a sellout crowd on hand, I wouldn't be shocked if the team comes out ready to play and wins this game. Unfortunately, I have to agree with DJC in his recap post that UT is the most complete team in the league. I think they control the tempo, force Alabama into a halfcourt game, and, well, we've all seen how that's gone for Alabama this season. Tennessee - 65 - Bama - 58

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Mississippi $tate holds on late, Bulldogs 67 Bama 63

This loss didn't bother me as much as some of the others.  I felt like the team was motivated and played hard, but they just didn't play well enough to get the win on the road. 

It was an ugly, hard-to-watch game.  I would imagine only the Bama and $tate die-hards managed to last through the whole thing.  Neither team could make a shot, and the refs called so many fouls it became a long, drawn out, free throw shooting contest, as the teams combined for 58 attempts.  This game is exhibit A as to why men's basketball needs to go to quarters.  Nobody wants to watch nearly 60 free throws in a two and a half hour game.

Neither team was able to take control of the game.  We led by 5 for much of the first half, but trailed by 2 going into halftime.  Donta Hall landed on his injured wrist late in the first half, and had to leave the game, but thankfully he returned and seemed fine in the second half.  The $tate fans booed his injury, and if you've ever been to a game over there you know that's not surprising.  They are mostly a classless bunch, but they make up for it by being totally unknowledegable.

A slow start to the second half allowed $tate to build a 9 point lead, but our guys kept grinding and managed to come back and eventually re-take the lead.  Sexton and Hall combined for an amazing steal around half-court when Sexton knocked the ball loose to Hall, who gave it back to Sexton, who threw an amazing over the shoulder alley-oop back to Donta.  One key play in the game was around 5 minutes left, JP finally made a 3 to give us a one point lead, then after a defensive stop he hoisted a 30+ feet, contested brick about 3 seconds into the possession with nobody under the goal.

The perimeter shooting was atrocious in this game.  We were 3 of 18 from three point range.  Key made one, Petty made the one wide-open shot referenced above, but was otherwise 0 for 7, and AJ made a desperation prayer late in the game, but then picked up a technical for calling a timeout that we didn't have.  MSU missed the free throw, but then made one of two to put the game away.  It's interesting that our last two trips to Starkville have resulted in late game technical fouls for calling timeouts.

My biggest beef with this game was our shot selection in the final 4 minutes of the game.  I don't know whether to put more blame on the players or the coaching staff, but as mentioned above, the refs were calling the game fairly tight, and we were not making any perimeter shots.  We totally abandoned the post game and the dribble drive in the final minutes in favor of chucking 3s, despite not trailing by more than 4 until the final 30 seconds. 

Dan Giddens fouling out was a big factor in the game.  He played well the 15 minutes he managed to stay on the court, scoring 11 points, but his foul trouble meant 8 minutes of mostly unproductive playing time from Galin Smith.  We were also forced to go smaller late in the game, which hurt us on the glass. 

Sexton had a good game with 18 points and 5 rebounds, but he did go 0 for 7 from beyond the arc.  I've been critical of AJ at times, and while he is a liability on defense and tends to dribble too much, he always plays hard, never quits, and is shooting as well as anybody on the team now.  I would consider playing him more over Petty and maybe running him through some of the same screens to see if we can get him some open looks.  He ended up with 9 points in 15 minutes.  It was also good to see Key play fairly well, he ended up with 11 points and 6 rebounds.  JP is killing us right now, he's a defensive liability, he's not making any shots, and he's compounding the problem with poor decision making.  It's time for Herb to replace him in the starting lineup, in my opinion.  I'm also a little surprised we didn't give Alex a chance to come in and break the perimeter drought, but I suppose Coach Avery was concerned he wouldn't be able to match up with $tate's physicality. 

Due to the early start I watched this game at a local establishment on my way home from work, and am pleased to report there were another 7 or 8 Bama basketball fans there, and they even put the audio on for us.  Speaking of which, SEC Network's coverage was terrible.  We missed live action at times because they were showing replays of Howland's "mic'ed up" segments, they routinely failed to explain whistles when the ref was not in the screen shot, and they neglected to show replays of several controversial foul calls. 

The loss drops us to 6-5 in the SEC and a four way tie for the coveted 4th seed in the SEC tournament.  Due to some other games not going our way lately, we have dropped to 43 in the RPI.  I still think we need 3 more wins to feel good about our chances on selection Sunday.

Up next, the 15th ranked Tenneessee Vols come to Tuscaloosa for a 5pm start Saturday evening.  I know auburn beat them and has a better record, but UT is the most complete team in the SEC in my opinion.  The game is a sellout, and hopefully a good atmosphere can will our guys to another very high quality, and much needed, win.  SEC Network will be handling the television broadcast again. 

Monday, February 05, 2018

Game Preview - at Mississippi State

This crazy, random Alabama men's basketball season continues following their big win in Gainesville over the weekend. The team will next travel to sunny Starkville, Mississippi on Tuesday night for a return game vs Mississippi State. Alabama won the first matchup 68-62, and enter this game with a 6-4 conference record. State enters with a 5-5 record, and have won three straight. Game time is 6 P.M. CT. SEC Network will televise the game. Swallow your pride and click those links for team and KenPom stats.

My Two Cents: I have no idea. Trying to figure out what you're going to get from this Alabama team is an exercise in futility. If inconsistency breeds among the young, there is no greater example than this team. Saturday was a microcosm of this season. Alabama was pretty bad in the 1st half, turning the ball over fifteen times. Fortunately, Florida didn't play much better, and Alabama only trailed by six at the break. If Florida goes into halftime with a double digit lead, I'm not sure Bama comes back to win. Or maybe it wouldn't have mattered. Our guys smashed Florida in the face with a brick in the 2nd half, outscoring the Gators 41-17 en route to the largest margin of victory ever by an Alabama team in Gainesville. However, I'm not going to get too excited because we've seen this movie before following big wins. Will Tuesday night be any different?

The win in Gainesville did take a little pressure off the game in Starkville. With nine games remaining, I thought the four game stretch beginning at Florida and ending with a home game vs LSU would be important. I thought Alabama needed to go 2-2 in that stretch, and at least 2-3 in the final five game stretch that includes road games at Kentucky, Auburn and A&M, along with tough home tests vs Florida and Arkansas. With the quality wins already on their schedule, plus their overall schedule strength, I figure 18 wins is the magic number for Alabama to feel positive about their postseason hopes heading into St. Louis. If Alabama can find a way to consistently play at the level they did in the second half on Saturday, they should easily reach or surpass that number. If.

Players to Watch: Collin Sexton may not be at 100% right now, but he's been fantastic in the last three games, averaging 19.3 ppg, 5 rpg, 3.3 apg, and 1.0 spg. That game at Florida was arguably his most complete day of the season, as he scored, rebounded, made some sweet passes that led to baskets, and played under control, even with the poor overall play of the team in the first half. I think we were all worried at various times this season that Collin's expected lone season in Tuscaloosa may not include an NCAA tournament appearance. It's not set in stone yet of course, but Collin's doing everything in his power to get this program to that finish line. Despite the ups and downs of the team this season, it's been a joy to watch this young man play the game of basketball in an Alabama uniform.

You may remember Lamar Peters leading the charge for Mississippi State in the first game at Coleman when the Bulldogs came storming back from a 19-point deficit in that game. Peters was on fire again this past Saturday vs Georgia, finishing with 20 points, 2 assists, and 4 steals. At times I watch Peters and wonder if he's a legitimate SEC guard, and then he has games such as he did against our guys in Tuscaloosa, and the game he had on Saturday, and I realize I just need to stop thinking that. Peters can play, and if this goes south for Alabama on Tuesday night I won't be shocked if it's largely because of his performance.

Prediction: The way this season has gone, I should just drop this portion of the previews because it's become impossible to predict what will happen nightly in this league. In that way, Alabama is perfectly in harmony with the league in that nothing makes much sense. Auburn and Tennessee (picked 9th and 13th in the preseason poll) are at the top of the league, while Florida, Kentucky and pretty much every other team is chaos theory in action. However, I like to predict the games for a bit of fun. I actually went back to see what my record was in picking the games and was surprised to see that I have a 16-7 record in picking the winners this season. Better than I thought. Only a game off from Alabama's current win/loss record. Having read that now, you should bet your house on my predictions going worries.

I'll bet Ben Howland wishes now he had scheduled a better non-conference schedule. State sits at 5-5 in the league, but the non-conference schedule was so laughably bad (ranked 310th, 8 of their 17 wins have come against sub-200 RPI teams). A better non-conference schedule and State would be in the bubble conversation. As it stands, I believe they must win 10-11 conference games just to get on the bubble, despite their current RPI ranking of 58. I think this team is destined for an NIT postseason (not bad considering recent history), but that doesn't mean they're not playing well lately. As I mentioned, they've won three straight and enter this game with momentum. With Alabama's second half surge at Florida, does that mean we get only one good half of basketball Tuesday to even things out? I really want to pick Alabama to win this game, but I think State is playing well; and we can't just forget that 1st half happened in Gainesville on Saturday, can we? Mississippi State - 71 - Bama - 69