Saturday, December 15, 2018

Game Preview: Liberty [at Huntsville, AL]

After a nine-day layoff for finals, the Alabama men's basketball team travels to Huntsville on Tuesday for the Rocket City Classic at the Von Braun Center. Alabama will face the Liberty Flames (KenPom: 88; Net Ranking: 36) from the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Flames enter the game with a 9-2 record, which is their best start since 1991. Game time is 7 P.M. CT. The official site does not list a TV option, but I checked the upcoming games on the ESPN app and this game is listed as an SEC Network+ game so for those of you unable to make the game in person you will be able to stream the game.

My Two Cents: Tell me if you've heard this before: Alabama is preparing to play a mid-major team expected to contend for its conference title. Liberty is in its first season as a member of the A-Sun, but the Flames are currently projected, along with Lipscomb, to win the league title. They also have a 26-point win over the same Georgia State team that upset Alabama and Georgia. KenPom only projects Alabama as a 3-point favorite in this game. So yeah, the same thing applies here as it did vs Northeastern, Murray State, Georgia State, etc.: If Alabama doesn't show up locked in and ready to play, Liberty is more than capable of beating them.

Liberty does quite a few things well based on the advanced stats at KenPom. They are currently rated in the top 100 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Flames play at a slow pace (ranked 309 at KenPom in adjusted tempo). What is frightening if you're an Alabama fan is that Liberty plays at a slow pace, but they're really efficient on offense. Their effective field goal percentage is a fantastic 57.4%, which ranks them in the top 10 at KenPom. By comparison, their opponents effective field goal percentage is 48.1% (the national average is 50.5%). Liberty also doesn't turn the ball over much; their turnover percentage is only 16.6% (the national average is 19.1%). They make their opponents defend for long stretches, protect the ball, and score efficiently. They make 39.2% of their 3-point shots and 56.3% of their 2-point shots, which rank them in the top 50 at KenPom in both categories. They also shoot the ball well from the free throw line, making 74.8% as a team.

Trendon Watford Names His Final Four Schools

There was big recruiting news on Friday. Trendon Watford, a five-star forward in the class of 2019, narrowed his college choices to four schools. Those four are Alabama, Indiana, LSU and Memphis. Watford is a top 30 national prospect and the top prospect in the state of Alabama. He's been a primary target of the Alabama coaching staff for at least two years. If he commits to Alabama, the 2019 class will certainly be a top ten class for the program with three top 100 players (Juwan Gary, Jaylen Forbes and Jaden Shackelford) already signed. Watford is currently scheduled to make an official visit to Alabama the weekend of the Kentucky game (January 5).

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Sleeping with the Enemy- Liberty Flames

I reached out to Jon Manson at A Sea of Red to find out a little bit about the Liberty squad.  He kindly provided the response below.  If you visit A Sea of Red, please abide by their site rules and be a good representative of our University.

This may be the best Liberty basketball team we've ever had. It's still really early and only time will, but Coach Ritchie McKay has this thing rolling. He was our head coach for seasons about a decade ago before leaving to go to Virginia and be Tony Bennett's top assistant for 6 years. He returned in 2015 and brought the pack-line defense with him. You will see a lot of similarities between the Flames and Cavaliers, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.

We've just moved from the Big South to the ASUN, this is our first season in our new league. Based on early season results, it should be an exciting two team race between Liberty and Lipscomb. We're currently leading the ASUN in scoring defense, steals, turnovers, FG%, FG% defense, 3pt FG made per game, 3pt FG%, and 3pt FG% defense. 

We have a very balanced team. Our big man Scottie James nearly averages a double-double. Lovell Cabbil is our senior leader and 1,000 point scorer. Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz is our 3rd year starting point guard and calming influence. Darius McGhee is a 5'9" spark plug off the bench. He's been our best players at times, and at others he's looked like a freshman.

The team will be very confident going into this game. We blew out Georgia State just prior to Alabama's buzzer-beating loss to the Panthers. We're hopeful we can pull out the win. It would be a big resume boost for us if we're able to make the NCAA Tournament and could help us stay off the 16-seed line.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Alabama Assaults Arizona, Crimson Tide 76 Wildcats 73

Alabama built a huge lead, blew it again, but made some big plays down the stretch to improve to 6-3 on the season with a hard fought win over Arizona.  This game showed why many of us still believe this team has the potential to be at least as good as last year's version, while also featuring some of the things that has frustrated us all in this early season.

Alabama played about as well as possible in the first 15 minutes of the game.  Donta got off to a slow start but kept his head in the game and really picked it up, dominating the boards.  Alex Reese was a key part in building the lead with his play on both ends.  He was arguably better in defending the post than Donta was, and he was scoring from inside and out.  T-Mack had one of his better games.  In general, we did a great job of getting in transition after securing defensive rebounds, and made 4 of 9 from 3 point range in the first half.

Unfortunately, once again we made some bone-headed substitutions late in the first half.  This business of playing Donta and Galin at the same time is about to drive me crazy.  At one point I even screamed at the coaching staff "This lineup doesn't work!  PLEASE put either Tevin or Alex in for Donta or Galin!"  CAJ and staff ignored me, other fans gave me dirty looks, and that lineup, which also featured AJ Jr, proceeded to allow the lead the dwindle to 9 going into halftime.  We also used the two big combination for a couple of minutes in the second half, and saw the remainder of our small lead disappear when Arizona went up for the first time.  I just can't understand why CAJ keeps putting them on the floor together when it hasn't worked all year.

To the team's credit, unlike in the Georgia State game, we responded when challenged.  We gave up too many easy baskets in the second half, but we played better defense after surrendering the lead, and got some key rebounds late in the game that allowed us to re-establish control of the game.  Arizona is a solid team, and you knew they would make a run.  I'm disappointed we let them come all the way back, but proud of how our guys responded.

Kira Lewis led the way with 20 points including a huge step back 3 with 13 seconds remaining to increase the lead to 5 points.  He really should have been in the game at the end of the first half with only one foul.  Alex had 15 and as I said above had a great all around game.  Tevin and Donta were also in double-figures with 12 and 13 each.  Donta had 9 rebounds and Alex had 8.  Galin also played well when he was allowed to play the 5 position and not sharing the court with Donta.  I really like Galin's game, he scored 8 points, and continues to work hard and give positive contributions off the bench.

JP continues to struggle with his shot, but unlike last year he's still helping us when on the court.  He played above average defense, had 6 good rebounds and 4 assists.  It's only a matter of time before the shots start falling.  Herbert is playing hard and still playing great defense, but he's a huge liability on offense right now.  He can't score from the field or the free throw line, and while he's always been somewhat limited offensively, it's never been this bad.  I think he may have a case of the "yips."  It could be that he's over-thinking it, as he knows that's the part of his game that needs to develop to play at the next level.    It got to the point where Arizona did not even bother to cover him beyond 5 feet from the basket, essentially giving them an extra roaming defender to double team at will.   I would not have had him in the game at the end, but he did get a huge rebound, and wisely passed the ball quickly before he could be fouled, and that led to Kira's dagger 3.  Dazon Ingram did not return after halftime due to back spasms.

Speaking of halftime, we were treated to Red Panda pictured above.  I love her.  I've probably seen her perform close to a dozen times and it never gets old.  She is arguably the greatest athlete of our generation.  I think we should offer her a scholarship and let her kick extra points during the upcoming football playoffs.  If she can kick bowls onto her forehead, surely she can accurately kick a football through the uprights.  I would bet she's a better free throw shooter than most of our team, too.

Considering it was a noon tip-off on a cold, rainy Sunday, I thought the crowd of around 7,000 was pretty solid.  The fans were positive and loud throughout, it was certainly the best home atmosphere we've had yet this year.  Arizona brought a couple hundred or so fans who were all in the upper rows of the coliseum.  They were loud enough that the "U OF A" chants could be heard on the floor during their run.

There was also a delay, with around 4 minutes remaining that seemed to kill some of our momentum due to a clock malfunction.  I understand yesterday the women's game was delayed because the roof was leaking.  We have such a lovely arena; I'm glad the renovations are in phase 2, clearly there is no need to be in any hurry.

Up next, we make the trip to north Alabama for the Magic City Classic next Tuesday where we will face the Liberty Flames in Huntsville.  Tip off is set for 7pm (or 30 minutes after the UAH game) from the Von Braun Center, and there is no TV as far as I know.  Liberty beat Georgia State by 20+ points and played both Georgetown and Vandy close, so we will likely need to play better in this game than we have in recent years to get out with a win.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Game Preview: Arizona

The Alabama men's basketball team will attempt to halt a two-game losing streak on Sunday when the Arizona Wildcats (KenPom: 49) come to Coleman. Arizona (7-2) is arguably a top ten program in the sport over the last thirty years so hosting them in Tuscaloosa is a big deal. The hope is that Coleman will be full and loud on Sunday afternoon to greet them. Game time is 12:00 P.M. The game will be televised on ESPN.

My Two Cents: Let's be honest a moment. Those of us who have been following the program over the years have seen our fair share of basketball losses. A team is going to lose games in college basketball, it happens. But there are some kinds of losses that are so deflating that it can make a fanbase, if only temporarily, question the direction of the program under the current leadership. This is typically a direct result of the frustration that arises from the extreme highs and lows that are witnessed in such games. When the game ends on a low note, it's common for people to let the emotion of the result overwhelm them to the point of cursing and pointing fingers and assuming the worst is yet to come.

Maybe the worst is yet to come, or perhaps we'll look back a month from now at the Georgia State game and think, "yep, that one hurt, but it wasn't the end of the world for this team in hindsight." I'm all in when it comes to my Alabama basketball fandom, for better or for worse. I will sunshine pump when things are going well, and I will gnash my teeth when things are going poorly. And in rare instances, I will keep a cool head and try to take a sensible look at the state of things. That's my objective as I write this preview, ice pack attached firmly to my head.

Alabama hasn't exactly put itself behind the eight ball in terms of its postseason resume, but the margin for error has become very thin. Frankly, one could argue that these next four non-conference games prior to the beginning of conference play are of the must-win variety. Alabama's two best wins so far are Ball State and Wichita State on a neutral court. Both of those are currently quad two wins. The remaining four opponents will likely not rate higher than quad two wins by season's end, but wins in all four would stabilize Alabama's resume for the moment, while also giving this team momentum heading into its first two conference games vs Kentucky and at LSU, which will both be major tests. The short version of all that: Alabama needs a win on Sunday.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Bama Blows Big Lead, Georgia State 83 Crimson Tide 80

Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned off the seat belt sign.  You are now free to move around the cabin.

We had a 21 point lead at the half, led by 22 at one point and still had a 15 point advantage with only 9 minutes to play, only to flush it all down the toilet with terrible shooting and lazy defense.

In a move that should have been made at least three games ago, Tevin Mack finally started over Galin.  T-Mack had one of his better games.  He scored 12 points and played adequate defense for the most part.  The smaller lineup was able to get off to a fast start and build the aforementioned lead.

Once again, with a size advantage at nearly every position on the floor, our offensive game plan was to shoot 3s and try to beat them at their own game.  Somewhat surprisingly, it actually worked, at least for a half.  We made 8 from downtown in the first half. 

Unfortunately, that was unsustainable, and poor shooting combined with taking our foot off the gas on defense in the second half led to one of the most epic meltdowns you will see in a college basketball game. 

It was good to see Riley Norris return from his health issues.  He scored 4 points and switched with Alex for offense/defense substitutions in the final minutes.  Donta had a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, so that was an improvement over his previous efforts, but his defense of the rim down the stretch left a lot to be desired.  Dazon played well with 17 points and 8 rebounds, but uncharacteristically choked at the line down the stretch.  Kira continues to be our best player and leading scorer, but he struggled when they started playing more physical in the second half.  Herbert is in a terrible slump offensively.  He was 0 for 6 from the field and 1 for 6 at the line.  As I mentioned above, we did an offense/defense substitution for Alex/Riley at the end of the game, why not do the same with Herb and maybe JP?  Herb was every bit the liability on offense that Alex was on defense.  He missed two free throws that would have maintained a two possession lead in the final 2 minutes.

We had a ten minute scoring drought that allowed the Panthers to chip away at the lead, primarily with Simonds attacking the basket on the dribble drive.  The body language from our guys and the defensive effort down the stretch was most disappointing.  The lack of leadership on this team was on full display.  We need an alpha dog that will get in somebody's grill and challenge others to pick up the intensity when things start going south.  We had that last year in young Bull.  It's obvious the coaches aren't going to do it, so we need someone to fill that role.  Everyone thought the game was over when we were up 20+, and when they got back to within shouting distance, we acted like we were more annoyed to still be in a game rather than motivated to meet a challenge. 

We have a lot of talent on this team.  I wrote earlier this year we have one of the longer and more experienced teams we've had in some time.  We need leadership, but I'm not sure anybody has the personality to step up.  Ideally it would be your best player, but it's not fair to expect that from a 17 year old who should be playing high school basketball. 

Give some credit to Georgia State.  They never gave up, fought their way back into the game, and took advantage of their opportunities.  We double teamed their star and they found the open man who made the game winner at the buzzer.

I understand the frustration, but please keep in mind we are only 8 games into the season.  As I said above, this team is not as bad as it's looked at times.  We will probably pull some upsets and probably lose some more like this when we are favored.  We've said repeatedly on here that the 2019 recruiting class will be key to the near term future success of this program.  Like it or not, Coach Johnson will not be involuntarily terminated at the end of this season, regardless of the results.  The best thing we can do for this program as fans is continue to support this coaching staff and team in a positive way.  Not only are the coveted prospects of the 2019 class watching, but should the rumors of CAJ's return to the NBA prove true, so will be potential head coaching replacements.  Let's all do our part to make Alabama basketball an attractive place to play and coach.  It's easy to be a fan when we're winning NCAA tournament games, but now is the time the guys need us to step up.

The crowd may have been the worst of the season.  I don't think there was more than 4,000 there, and it wasn't at all noisy until the very end.  Georgia State only brought 20 fans or so, and other than the one I knew sitting near me, I really didn't even notice them until the buzzer when they were rightfully excited and cheering.  My Tuscaloosa connections tell me that the marketing of the program seems to have dropped off from recent years.  There's been no stories of CAJ going to speak at fraternity or sorority houses, fewer if any radio and billboard ads, etc.  This, combined with the assistant coaches seemingly taking on a more prominent role in the actual coaching on the bench during games, makes me wonder if perhaps he is eyeing one of the two already open NBA positions.

Up next, the Arizona Wildcats will be visiting from the wild west for a high noon tip-off Sunday.  This isn't the same Arizona team featuring two lottery picks that we dealt with in Tucson last year, but even a relatively down Arizona squad will be a formidable foe.  The show down will be broadcast nationally on ESPN, but please, if it's humanly possible for you to get to Coleman, please do so.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Game Preview: Georgia State

Alabama will attempt to bounce back from its second loss of the season on Tuesday when it welcomes a tough Georgia State (KenPom: 114) team into Coleman Coliseum. The Panthers (5-3) have already beaten one SEC school (Georgia) by 24 points so Alabama will need to be locked in for this one. Game time is 7 P.M. CT. The game will be streamed via SEC Network+.

My Two Cents: There are no nights off for this team from a scheduling standpoint. Georgia State is yet another opponent that is expected to contend for their league title. As I mentioned, the Panthers have already dispatched Georgia by 24 points, and the program has reached the tournament twice in the last four years. In addition, Georgia State has finished first or second in the Sun Belt in four of coach Ron Hunter's five seasons. They're a good team, and quite capable of leaving Tuscaloosa with a win on Tuesday night.

It's worth noting that the Panthers play small, with no one on their starting lineup taller than 6'6. That's one more reason for Avery to scrap the lineup with two bigs and roll with a smaller lineup to start the game; be it Alex at the four, or even a guard-heavy lineup with Dazon or T-Mack. I dont doubt that Avery had good intentions when making the decision to go with the two-bigs lineup to start the season, but it hasn't worked particularly well. I'm a big fan of Galin and the improvement he's made from the beginning of last season to now, but he doesn't really give the team a dynamic scoring or defensive presence at this point. The team is better with him coming off the bench and going with a smaller, quicker lineup that features more scoring options.

Avery started the second half at UCF with Alex in place of Galin. In postgame comments Avery made to Chris Stewart about slow starts, he led me to believe that we will see a different starting lineup on Tuesday.