Alabama improved to 16-11 (7-7) with a 68-61 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores. Everything is not rainbows and unicorns because we managed to beat a horrific team, but the team did show signs of life in many areas despite concerns remaining in others.
I will give this team and coaching staff a lot of credit for the way they handled adverse circumstances in this game. With all of the negativity and their own fan base digging their grave it would be easy to throw in the towel, but they came out prepared and motivated, and emphatically stated, "we aren't dead yet!" That being said, some of the recent issues that have plagued this team reared their ugly head again. Let's get to it.
We stuck with the same starting lineup including JP, but actually let them play for an extended period of time to start this game. We came out playing with a purpose, moving the ball, making solid cuts on offense, and playing lock-down defense. Donta had a couple of thunderous blocks that really seemed to energize the team, and Kira, Riley, and T-Mack all made back to back 3s at some point. We had active hands on defense and forced a ton of turnovers, and all of this led to a 22 point lead at one point in the first half. Despite going cold the final 5 minutes in the first half, we still led by 15 at halftime.
We stretched the lead to 23 early in the second half, but with about 10 minutes left, we took the air out of the ball and Vanderbilt made a run. Instead of putting the game away, we allowed them to get it back to within 7 in the final 2 minutes, but we made just enough stops and free throws down the stretch to hold on.
While building the lead we forced an uptempo game that Vandy couldn't handle. They made a lot of mistakes, which led to easy baskets for us. While blowing the lead, we stood around on offense, and failed to defend the rim or get a rebound on defense. They cut our 23 point lead to 7, but we managed to make enough plays down the stretch to keep it from getting too intense.
We've spent a lot of time discussing the substitution patterns here, and notably we went to an 8 man rotation this game. AJ did not play at all, for whatever reason. Kira played 37 minutes, while Donta and Dazon played 35 each. At one point in the first half, Herb came into the game and Dazon headed to the bench, but CAJ stopped him and called Kira to the bench instead. At the very next dead ball, about 30 seconds later, Kira came in for Dazon. It's fair to wonder if part of the last 10 minute meltdown was due to guys playing more minutes than they are used to, but I attribute it more to our change in strategy and essentially slowing the game down to "play not to lose." I hope we stick with the "less is more" philosophy in the rotation and believe guys will quickly get used to playing 30+ minutes per game.
I do wonder if AJ's absence had anything to do with these recent Instagram posts...it's not a good look, regardless.
Anyway, I feel like Dazon takes a lot of undue criticism while not getting credit for his contributions. He was my MVP in this game. He ended up with a double-double, 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists to only one turnover, but also played great defense and seemed to win every 50/50 ball he was involved in. Donta also had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. T-Mack only had 8 points but I thought his hot start set the tone, and we sort of went away from him as the game went on. Riley scored 9 and also got his share of 50/50 balls.
I question why we left T-Mack and Riley in the game late in the first half with a huge lead and them with 2 fouls, but thankfully it worked out. I didn't like the way we managed our timeouts. We burned 2 with 20+ point leads when the next dead ball would result in a media timeout anyway, and then we allowed a 13-0 run before calling a timeout. As a result, we had to play the last 3 minutes or so without a timeout remaining. I realize this is nitpicking a bit, but if they somehow managed to make it a one possession game, that could have been an issue. Another nitpick, the NET metric that the NCAA selection committee is supposedly going to rely heavily upon, factors in margin of victory up to 10 points. We shouldn't just dribble out the clock when up by less than 10. We've also thrown in the towel when down by near that 10 point margin as well. I don't like that part of the metric, but being what it is and given that we are squarely on the bubble, we should be doing everything we can to maximize out standing.
Coming off a 3 game losing streak and with bad weather in the area, this game was played under a tornado watch, it wasn't surprising that the crowd was sparse. I would estimate only 6,000 or so were there. With the exception of a few scattered boos at the half and during Vandy's run, those that were there were generally positive and supportive, and I thought it was as good of an atmosphere as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.
Up next, we travel to Colombia, South Carolina to take on the Gamecocks Tuesday night at 6pm. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.