Well, it's February. The month of broken dreams if you're a Crimson Tide fan. Tuscaloosa News columnist Cecil Hurt pointed out on Wednesday night that, since 2017, the program is 11-21 in conference regular season games in February/March. That record includes a 6-10 home record. Nate Oats wasn't the coach over that entire span, but an 0-2 start to the month - both losses at home - doesn't fill one with confidence that the February blues are going away any time soon. But Saturday brings a new opportunity, this time on the road, when Alabama (12-10, 4-5; KenPom: 49; NET: 44) travels to Athens for a date with the Georgia Bulldogs (12-10, 2-7; KenPom: 95; NET: 90). Game time is 5:00 P.M. CT, and will be televised on the SEC Network.
My Two Cents: Both of these teams have been guilty of losing games in which they have led by double digits. Both teams led the Florida Gators by 21 in the second half in Gainesville, but lost. Georgia also led by 20 at Missouri, and lost. We all know the struggles that Alabama has had holding onto to big leads. There has been no shortage of jokes about the team that falls behind early by double digits in this game will be the likely winner.
The Bulldogs are ranked 245 in offensive turnover pct. Guess who's right behind them at 246? Needless to say, the team that can be better than their current rank in that stat will have a higher chance of victory. After it appeared that Alabama had overcome their turnover woes, they've returned bigger and better than ever. During this three-game losing streak, our guys are averaging 15.3 turnovers per game (18.5 in the two home losses this past week). It's not rocket science; value the ball!
Another issue for Alabama in recent games is sending their opponent to the foul line way too often. In the last game for example, Tennessee had 32 foul attempts, while Alabama had 8. As a result, Alabama is ranked 235 in opponent free throw rate. It would be one thing if aggressive defense was leading to turnovers with some opponent free throws mixed in, but our guys rank 255 in opponent turnover pct so that's not happening. And when those opponents are getting to the free throw line, they're making 73.9% of their attempts (76.7% in league play). Alabama's first shot defense has been decent; it's the opponent free throws, rebounding (Bama is ranked 255 in opponent offensive rebound pct), and of course the turnovers leading to transition opportunities (Alabama is 13th in the league in offensive steal pct) that has been the biggest impediment to Alabama having a more successful defensive unit.
But the Bulldogs haven't been much better. They rank 13th in the league in adjusted defensive efficiency; 14th in opponents effective field goal pct; 9th in defensive turnover pct; 10th in defensive rebounding pct; 10th in defensive 3-pt pct; 13th in 2-pt pct; and 13th in block pct. They're just not good on the defensive end of the floor, which is a big reason for their 2-7 record in league play. And frankly, they're not that good on offense either based on the stats. I don't want to get the cart before the horse here but, despite the struggles, this is certainly a winnable game for our guys.
Players to Watch: This has been a tough season for Alabama when you factor in the injuries, JQ's waiver denial, and trying to adjust to a new coaching staff and system. A silver lining has been freshman Jaden Shackelford. In conference play Shack is averaging 13.8 pts, 36.6% from 3, 4.6 rebs and 1.3 asts. Defense is a work in progress, but he's improved as the season has advanced. Teams are focused on limiting Kira and JP so this team needs Shack to continue playing well. Assuming he does, Jaden should be an easy selection for the all-freshman team.
Speaking of freshmen, the SEC Freshman of the Year award is likely going to go to one of four players; Georgia's Anthony Edwards is certainly on that list (along with Isaac Okoro, Trendon Watford and Tyrese Maxey). While Georgia as a team has struggled, Edwards has done his part from a numbers standpoint. He's averaging 19.9 pts, 5.2 rebs, 2.9 asts, and 1.4 stls. In an ideal world, Herb Jones would be tasked with defending the freshman. But with Herb out, that task will likely fall on JP's shoulders. Some fans have been grumbling about John's offensive numbers (only averaging 6.6 pts during this three-game losing streak), but having to guard the best player on the opposing team for the majority of a game is going to force you to expend more energy, thus getting into your legs as the game wears on. And with the lack of a bench right now, John's also having to play major minutes. Limiting Edwards will be a chore, whoever guards him. The important thing is to not let Edwards get too much help. Only one other player on the team (Rayshaun Hammonds) is averaging double-figures.
Prediction: It is my belief that Nate Oats and his staff have created a positive culture in the program, which is why the lack of poise the team showed in the second half on Wednesday was so disappointing. From my vantage point, it was not a team that expected to win when adversity kicked in. That's a holdover from recent seasons. Hopefully, it isn't a harbinger of the rest of the season. With the lack of bodies, this team has to remain poised and lean on each other to get through this season. The coaching staff has to be better as well. As DJC pointed out in his recap, Tuesday night was not their finest hour. One reason why I remain optimistic is the reaction of Nate Oats to the recent troubles. In his postgame press conference following the UT game, it was obvious that he was bothered by those struggles and how to fix it. It shows a competitive spirit, which, frankly, I don't think the program has had from the head coach since the days of Wimp. Whether that will help this team overcome the injuries and the poor play that has come and gone this season is hard to predict. But I do believe that the work is being put in by the players and coaches to correct this, despite the circumstances. That's a step in the right direction. Changing the culture at Alabama from a program that expects to lose to one that expects to win doesn't happen overnight, but how this team handles the final nine games will say a lot about what the future may hold. Despite the struggles, I remain confident that Greg Byrne hired the right guy. I remain confident that this group of players can rally around each other and prevent a total collapse. No time like the present, fellas.
Bama - 83 Georgia - 76