Friday, January 17, 2020

Game Preview: Missouri

One of the differences between good teams and mediocre/bad teams is that the good teams handle success well. Take the Baylor Bears for example. They won at Kansas for the first time in program history, and rose to #2 in the polls. What did they do for an encore? They returned home and beat a mediocre Iowa State team by thirteen points. They handled success. How will Alabama (9-7, 2-2; KenPom: 45; NET: 44) handle success? We'll find out on Saturday afternoon when they host the Missouri Tigers (9-7, 1-3; KenPom: 73; NET: 75). Game time is 2:30 P.M. CT, and will be televised on the SEC Network.

My Two Cents: Wednesday night's win over Auburn was great for the program. The fan and student turnout was tremendous, the energy was palpable even watching it on television in the Lone Star State, and the players effort for forty minutes was satisfying to watch. If this team can remain healthy, I'm excited to see what they can become over the next month and a half. But the question above must be answered. In the past, when Alabama has hit a high, the inevitable low was not far behind. If the culture of this program is truly changing, it will be reflected in how focused this team is on Saturday when they take the court.  Are they still celebrating a win over Auburn, or are they ready to get down to business?

The two teams are quite different in their pace of play. Alabama of course is top three in the country in adjusted tempo; Missouri is ranked 276 in adjusted tempo. Kentucky and Auburn were successful in slowing Alabama's tempo down some, and Missouri will need to do likewise. While Cuonzo Martin's teams are typically good on the defensive end - and their defensive numbers entering conference play were strong - their defensive performance in league play hasn't been up to their usual standards. Through four games, the Tigers are ranked low in the following defensive categories: defensive efficiency (13), effective field goal pct (14), defensive rebounding (14), free throw rate (10), 2-pt pct (10), 3-pt pct (14), and block pct (9). That opponent 3-pt pct (39.5%) ranking is particularly eye-catching for an Alabama team that wants to get three-point shots up. Where Missouri remains strong on the defensive end is forcing turnovers; they're currently ranked first in the league in turnover pct (24.2%) and steal pct (12.7%). The fact that they rank first in both categories means they force a lot of live ball turnovers, which can lead to a lot of transition opportunities. Alabama has improved its turnover pct as the season has gone on, and continued improvement will need to be a point of emphasis in this game.

On offense, the Tigers have been an average team with one glaring exception - they're 2nd in league games in three-point pct at 36.8%. I believe the three-point line will be more important than usual in this game. Important for Missouri because if Alabama protects the ball and makes the Tigers have to score in the half-court; important for Alabama because the three is such a big part of their offense, but their shooting from three has been down in the last two games so they could use a bounce-back game in that regard. The Tigers struggles on the defensive glass vs league competition also must be taken advantage of  by our guys.

Players to Watch: With the three-point shot likely playing a big role in this game, Alabama needs their best shooters (John Petty, Alex Reese and Beetle Bolden) to show up on Saturday. Kira and Jaden's three-point shooting numbers aren't quite as high as the top three, but we know they're more than capable of shooting a high percentage from three. If all of them shoot the three well on Saturday, even better.

The Tigers also have a trio of good three-point shooters in Mark Smith (40.6%), Javon Pickett (39.1%) and Dru Smith (36.4%). The team with the better trio from three (har har har) is your likely winner on Saturday.

Prediction: I'm impressed with how this team has progressed through sixteen games under this coaching staff. The improvement from game one to now is very clear. Not only in the offense and the scoring, but defensively, and just in the overall mindset of the team; this is a tougher group than we've seen in many years. Even when Auburn cut the halftime lead to two in the second half, I didn't worry about the team collapsing as we've seen in the past. I had confidence in them because it's so clear to me that they have confidence in themselves and what they're being asked to do. It's a welcome change. Maybe I'm eating crow early Saturday evening but I think the program is undergoing a positive culture change, and I think the guys will handle success well this weekend.

Bama - 83  Missouri 73

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