Friday, March 06, 2020

Game Preview: at Missouri

If you're going to torpedo your NCAA at-large chances, you may as well do it with style. Alabama (16-14, 8-9; KenPom: 53; NET: 51) did that by losing at home to a Vanderbilt team that entered with just one conference win. It was Alabama's fourth home loss in the month of February/March, something that is becoming a Crimson Tide tradition. The final game of the regular season comes (mercifully?) on the road this Saturday when the team travels to play the Missouri Tigers (14-16, 6-11; KenPom: 104; NET: 94). Game time is 1:30 P.M. CT, and will be televised on the SEC Network.

My Two Cents: I don't believe Nate Oats took this job lightly when he was hired, but Tuesday night may have been the first time it dawned on him what an uphill battle he's in for to change the culture of this program. His frustration and disappointment during the game and after was palpable. Comments he made about players in his press conference needing to get into the gym to improve (as well as captured audio during the telecast) was a window into the state of things. Sure, we can critique some of the coaching decisions (and I will certainly share my opinions after the season wraps up), but it appears that the staff are going through the usual first year problems that arise when some guys buy in, and others do not. You throw in the additional struggles with injuries this season - more than any team in the league - and perhaps we shouldn't be surprised how this season has progressed.

At this point Alabama will have to win the SEC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. After the loss on Tuesday, the team is now also in danger of missing the postseason entirely. Some of you could care less about a postseason that doesn't involve the NCAA Tournament, but I'm always going to hope for the season to last a little longer, even one as frustrating as this one has become. After the mid-week results, Alabama will now be the nine or ten seed in Nashville depending on how other games shake out. Some fans are making the argument that avoiding the Kentucky side of the bracket gives our guys the best chance of advancing, which is true. But does anyone really think that this team with its short bench and banged up roster can win four games in four days? This team has only won four straight once this season - Auburn, Missouri, at Vanderbilt and Kansas State. That Auburn win, in hindsight, appears to have been the peak moment of the season. Sure, they won three more, but they were far from flawless, with the issues that have continued to plague them (turnovers, poor shot selection, a lack of physicality in the paint, and bad defensive execution) rearing their ugly heads. While a win Saturday puts Alabama in the top half of the bracket, it also gives them a greater chance to continue playing, assuming they are unable to advance far in Nashville.

Since February 1st, our guys have lost four games at home. All four were very winnable games that the team lost by a combined 19 points. With that in mind, maybe it's a good thing that this game is taking place in Columbia, Missouri.The Tigers are still trying to crawl out of the Kim Anderson shadow, but they're a team under Cuonzo Martin that will always play hard. They own several quality wins this season (Illinois, Florida, Arkansas, and Auburn) not because they were the more talented team, but because they play hard. They have a tendency to go into scoring droughts, but they will defend Alabama for 40 minutes and they have enough size that will discourage the Alabama guards from getting into the paint. The hope is that John Petty will be available to play in this game after missing the last two games with an arm injury.

Players to Watch: If you want to be encouraged about the culture of this program under Nate Oats in the future, look at the second half that Jaden Shackelford had on Tuesday night. His performance in the first half was one of his worst of the season, but he didn't go into a shell as other Bama players have been prone to do. Instead, he scored all 18 of his points in the second half, playing a pivotal role in Alabama getting back into the game. It wasn't enough of course, but it was good to see Shack play with a purpose after such a lackluster beginning. If this team has any chance of making noise over the next week, Shack has to be one of several players locked in from start to finish.

Dru Smith is the most versatile player on this Missouri team. You could say he's the Herb Jones of their team, except he has the use of both hands. The junior guard is averaging a team-leading 12.5 pts, 3.8 asts, and 2.1 stls. He's also second on the team in rebounds at 4.3. In the first meeting he finished with 18 pts, 6 rebs, 4 stls and 2 asts.

Prediction: Tuesday night was bad, even by Alabama's standards. But is it so crazy to think this team won't go on the road and win this game? Remember, it was DJC that had the crazy idea a couple of weeks ago that Alabama would win at Ole Miss, maybe win at Mississippi State and then lose at home to Vanderbilt and South Carolina. He wasn't far off. This team, like many before it, is maddening. None of the predictive metrics seem to grasp what Alabama is going to do. We thought the ironic "Buckle Up" motto (ironic because the slogan came to mean something stressful rather than exciting) for the Avery Johnson teams was in the past, but this season has proven much of that cultural hangover remains. It will be interesting to see what happens this summer with the current roster as Nate Oats attempts to transform the culture. Until then, expect the unexpected.

Bama - 73   Missouri - 68

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