The Crimson Tide basketball team will return home Tuesday night for perhaps its toughest home matchup of the season when they host the #8 Tennessee Volunteers at 6:00 pm in Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa.
For those in the area, there are still a few tickets remaining which can be purchased here. Tickets will also be available at the ticket window inside Coleman Coliseum. For those who can't make it, the game will be televised nationally on ESPN.
The Tide will be returning home for the start of what will be a three-game home stand. Alabama is coming off two straight disappointing losses in SEC play, falling by one point at the buzzer at home against Vanderbilt last week and then losing by double digits in a road loss at Arkansas on Saturday. The Tide is now 1-2 in SEC play and 11-6 overall. Alabama will need to finish above .500 in SEC play to be in consideration for an NCAA tournament berth, so bouncing back from these two losses is crucial.
Bouncing back right now however will be easier said than done, as the Vols will bring a #8 national ranking in both polls to Tuscaloosa and are coming off an impressive four-game home stand in which they knocked off then-#1 Kansas and #21 Ole Miss in addition to blowout wins over Charlotte and Auburn. The Vols are 14-2 on the season and are undefeated through their first two SEC games. They are currently projected to be a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament according to ESPN's latest bracketology. Since taking over the program four years ago, UT coach Bruce Pearl has breathed life into both the team and the fanbase. He has taken them to four straight NCAA tournaments, including two Sweet Sixteens, and led them to the 2008 SEC championship, all while consistently filling up UT's massive 20,000+ seat arena with orange-clad Vol fans.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't remind our readers that early in the morning on New Years Day, four UT basketball players were arrested following a traffic stop for alcohol, drug, and gun charges. As a result of the incident, the four players, who were all among UT's top 8 players in minutes played, were suspended indefinitely. The player facing the most serious charges was their leading scorer, senior forward Tyler Smith, who was eventually dismissed from the team.
Bama fans shouldn't get too excited though, as the Vols haven't skipped a beat through all of this and if anything have been playing better (they are 4-0 since the suspensions, including their win over #1 Kansas). Smith has hardly been missed as others have stepped in to fill his scoring void, and although junior center Brian Williams' size in the post will be missed, the other two players, junior guard Melvin Goins and sophomore guard Cameron Tatum, will be returning to the floor for the first time against the Tide.
For more on what to expect from the #8 Volunteers as well as what Bama needs to do to pull off the upset and get back in the March Madness discussion, read more after the jump...
As a team, Tennessee likes to play a very uptempo style, pressing for much of the game on defense and pushing the ball in transition as much as possible on offense--not unlike the style of play Alabama has adopted under Coach Grant this season. Expect to see both teams provide full-court pressure for much of the game and push the ball in transition. Both teams cause lots of turnovers, so don't be surprised if the game gets sloppy at times. In fact, this game may very well come down to which team can cause the most turnovers--if Alabama can keep Tennessee's talented scorers at least partially in check throughout the game. Doing so will not be easy, as each can be matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.
Speaking of UT's talented scorers, they have four key players who have stepped up and carried them through the recent turmoil without skipping a beat. As with most teams, it all begins at point guard for the Vols, where senior Bobby Maze has gone from floor manager to All-SEC candidate with his play in the wake of the suspensions. In the first 12 games of the season, he averaged 7.0 points per game, but in the four games since the suspensions, he has been scoring at a rate of 13.8 points per game to go along with an impressive 5.0 assists per outing. Normally, Coach Grant would prefer to have Senario Hillman match up with a point guard like Maze defensively, but with the Vols' other perimeter scoring threats, we may need him elsewhere. If so, we may be forced to play Anthony Brock on him for large stretches and while Brock has the necessary quickness, at 5'9" he can struggle sometimes once players get momentum going into the lane. Keep an eye on how we defend Maze.
The Vol getting the most media attention since the suspensions has been senior forward Wayne Chism, a four-year starter for the Vols. In the last four games he is averaging a team-high 16.0 points and 8.3 rebounds, including two double-doubles and a whopping 26-point, 12-rebound performance in UT's most recent win over #21 Ole Miss. Although Chism is definitely a pure power forward, he is also capable of stepping out and knocking down 3s, and in fact is averaging one made 3-pointer per game. This is significant because when Bama goes with man defense, Chism can force players like Justin Knox and JaMychal Green out of the lane, opening things up for slashers like UT's J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson to get to the rim and score.
Both Prince and Hopson are 6'7" but have guard skills. Prince, another senior, is more of a wing man and is adept at getting the ball to the basket. Like Maze, Prince has absolutely taken his offensive game to a whole new level in the last four games, upping his scoring from 6.0 points per game to 11.3. In addition to being a big scoring threat, Prince's ability to get into the lane opens up opportunities for his teammates, as evidenced by his 4.0 assist average in the four-game span. In fact, Coach Pearl has at times used Prince in the point guard position and is likely to do so on occasions against Alabama. We will need to use a bigger defender on Prince when we go man, so look to see Mikhail Torrance and possibly Tony Mitchell matched up on him. Hopson, a sophomore, is more of a pure shooting guard. He really has everything you could want in a perimeter player. He has great size (6'7"), shooting ability (leads the team in 3-point shooting), and like Prince can penetrate at times and cause matchup problems. He leads the team in scoring on the season. Hillman will likely draw the assignment on him defensively.
Tennessee's other post-suspension starter has been sophomore forward Renaldo Woolridge.** Although his stats on the season aren't all that overwhelming, he has averaged 8.0 points and 6.3 rebounds since earning his new starting spot four games ago. Despite his 6'8" frame and rebounding prowess, Woolridge, like Chism, can also step out and hit 3s when left open, yet another matchup problem for Bama as he will likely draw an interior defender most of the night. UT's sixth man of late has been freshman forward Kenny Hall, who at 6'8" provides depth in the Vol frontcourt.
As for depth in the backcourt, the Vols will greatly benefit from returning suspended players Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum. Tatum, a 6'6" sophomore guard, started several games earlier in the season, but it is doubtful Pearl will return him to the starting lineup so soon. Still, his 8.7 points per game will be a big boost for what was a thin Volunteer backcourt. Goins, a sophomore guard, will provide further depth. Freshman guard Skylar McBee is likely to continue to get minutes off the bench as well. He fires up 3s at a ferocious rate and has really given the team an added spark lately with his outside shooting.
To win this game, Bama will need nothing less than a full 40-minute effort. In what is definitely a rebuilding ("Process") year under a new coach, we have already proved we can play with the top teams at home. Now we have to prove we can finish those games. In our two biggest home games of the year, we have built double-digit second half leads, only to see them slip away when our offense sputtered down the stretch. To win this game we will need to be able to produce offensively in the second half. That means that Mikhail Torrance needs to be both rested and out of foul trouble late in the second half, and that our guards knock down open 3s throughout the game. Both of our two recent losses have been a result of our inability to hit open 3s in the second half, which has crippled our offense in crucial stretches of the game.
Of course in order to have a chance in the second half to begin with, we will need to play well overall in the first half and the start of the second. Like any game, we must defend and rebound well, protect the ball, and capitalize on offensive opportunities. However, we must do all of those four things consistently throughout the game in order to beat a top-ranked and talented opponent like Tennessee. Rebounding will be a big key because although Tennessee really only plays one true power forward in Chism, their perimeter players are very long and can snag rebounds and get out on breaks in a hurry. Their roster is full of 6'6"-6'7"-type guards, so we must box out and get to loose balls. We've actually done a very good job this year as a team on defense and in protecting the ball, but both will be challenged mightily against the Vols. Again, Tennessee has many long, athletic perimeter players, and they cause a lot of turnovers, so it is vital that Torrance and company make few mistakes in turning the ball over. Defensively, don't be surprised if we use a lot of zone relative to what we've seen so far this season. The reason we may see more of these looks has to do with the matchup problems discussed earlier in defending UT's scorers man-to-man. Finally, we must capitalize on offense. This means Torrance, Hillman, and Mitchell getting out and attacking in transition. It means JaMychal Green playing fearless and taking the ball at some of UT's smaller forwards. It means (again) Brock and Charvez Davis knocking down open 3s. It means Torrance finding lanes to drive and break down the defense in the halfcourt sets.
The Tennessee Volunteers are #8 in the country for a reason. Nothing short of doing all of the things outlined above will get us the win we need. And we do need it. At 1-2 in the SEC things aren't really that bad just yet in terms of our tournament hopes. Getting to 2-2 with a win over a top-10 team would put us right back where we need to be in terms of getting into the proverbial NCAA tournament "bubble". However, lose and fall to 1-3....well, all would not be lost, but getting to over .500 in the SEC from that point would be a fairly steep climb. We need this win like we haven't needed any other win all season long.
Here's to a big, loud crowd at Coleman, along with the support of Tide fans everywhere following on the ESPN national broadcast. Roll Tide!
**Oh, and yes, Bama fans, UT's Renaldo Woolridge is the one and only "Swiperboy", who brought us the Lane Kiffin/UT student riot updates last week from his dorm room via his Twitter account. Be sure to thank him.