Tonight offers last chance for marquee non-conference win

At 5:30 C.T. tonight the Crimson Tide basketball team will take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys live on ESPN2. The game will be held in Oklahoma City's aptly named Oklahoma City Arena as part of a double-header that will feature Oklahoma and Cincinnati in the nightcap. Although this is not technically a true road game since it won't be played in Stillwater, it might as well be.

With 1/3 of the regular season now behind us, Bama is off to a slow start at 5-5, with all five wins coming at home against lowly regarded mid-major teams. Meanwhile the Tide is 0-5 away from home, with four of those losses coming against major-conference teams of varying quality. Tonight, therefore, presents Bama's fifth and final chance to get a win against a major-conference team--and its sixth and final chance to get a win away from home--before SEC play begins in January.

The Cowboys, however, will be no easy task. Third-year coach Travis Ford has taken Oklahoma State Dancing in both of his two seasons thus far, and looks to return the Cowboys for a third straight year this season. They are currently projected as a bubble team by ESPN, but for the most part the jury is still out on this year's version of the Cowboys, who lost their two biggest stars from last year's team. Their 9-1 record is impressive, but they lost their only game against a major-conference foe when they dropped a 56-51 game to Virginia Tech on a neutral court. Although all nine of their wins have come against mid-major foes, four of those wins have been away from home, and two of them (LaSalle and Missouri State) have come against very strong mid-major opponents.

The Cowboys' top player this season has been 6'7" senior forward Marshall Moses. He leads the team in both scoring (18.6/game) and rebounding (8.9/game). Moses is more of a traditional banger down in the post. He doesn't really stretch the defense out with his shooting, but he's very efficient when he gets the ball down low, as evidenced by his shooting over 62% from the floor despite attempting 12 shots per game. Against our three toughest opponents thus far this season, we've allowed each team's elite scoring threat to torch us, from Seton Hall's Jeremy Hazell (27 points) to Purdue's E'Twuan Moore (23 points in a low-scoring game) to Providence's Marshon Brooks (33 points). Moses is averaging close to what those players did, so let's see how well we can contain him.

Alongside Moses in the post, 6'8" JuCo transfer Darrell Williams splits time with 6'8" senior Matt Pilgrim. Williams has begun to emerge as the better scoring option and actually is tied for the team rebounding edge with Moses at 8.9 boards/game. With two seniors and a junior in the post, including a star player in Moses and another excellent rebounder in Williams, Bama's forwards will have their hands full in this one. The Tide needs another stellar performance from JaMychal Green and solid contributions from Chris Hines on the boards and on defense.

Oklahoma State's top player on the perimeter is tiny 5'9" junior guard Keiton Page, who is second on the team in both points (14.7/game) and assists (2.3/game). Don't let his size or his looks fool you; Page is a dangerous player who is known to score in streaks. His shooting numbers are a bit down this season, but he is still a danger to pull up from pretty much any spot within 30 feet of the basket. He averages 1.5 made 3's per game while shooting just over 31% from the arc, but again, this is a guy who likes to pull up from almost anywhere on the court and is capable of sparking the Cowboy offense. He is also effective inside the arc as well, as evidenced by his ability to draw fouls (4.8 FT attempts/game) and score inside (3.0 made 2-point FGs/game). This is a player Bama's guards have to keep an eye on all night.

Sophomore Ray Penn joins Page in the backcourt and handles primary point guard duties, averaging 8.1 points and 2.5 assists per contest. Like Page, Penn is tiny in stature at 5'9", and while his numbers aren't quite as big as Page's, he is still a very capable player who can also shoot and draw fouls. The other starter on the perimeter is 6'4" senior Nick Sidorakis. His offensive numbers aren't very impressive, but he gets tons of minutes for his defensive abilities. 6th man Jean-Paul Olukemi is beginning to emerge as a dangerous scoring threat himself. The 6'7" wing player is known as a slasher who can use his size to cut into the lane and create problems by breaking down the defense, drawing fouls, and scoring. Freshman guard Markel Brown rounds out the playing rotation on the perimeter.

As for what to look for in the game, I see two big keys in looking at Oklahoma State's numbers. First, the good news: they are 338th in the nation in 3-point shooting, averaging only 3.9 makes per game. To give you an idea--keeping in mind how big a weakness our own 3-point shooting is--we average 4.5 makes per game. To beat a quality opponent who is struggling that badly to make 3's in a virtual road game, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if we don't hit more 3's than they do, we won't win this game. They're 9-1 without making more than two 3's per half of basketball, so if we let them get much over that, we're in trouble. Meanwhile, we know all too well how important it is for our offense for us to hit 3's ourselves. Hopefully we can hit six or more this time. You have to hit your outside shots to beat quality teams on the road.

The second big key is free throw shooting. Oklahoma State is very good at drawing fouls and getting to the line, while that has seemed to be a weakness of ours. They are averaging 23.7 free throw attempts per game, and free throw disparity was probably the single biggest factor in three of Bama's five losses thus far. Not only do we need to avoid sending the Cowboys to the line, but we need to be more aggressive in attacking the rim on the offensive end ourselves. In our last two games against quality opponents (at Purdue and at Providence), we have been most effective offensively when attacking the basket. Hopefully we'll see more of that tonight.

This is a rebuilding year, and it's doubtful we'll be playing for any tournament spots at the end of this season. That said, this is a big game tonight. It's our last non-conference game against a major opponent, it's on national TV, and it gives us a chance to pick up a road win before hitting the SEC grind. A loss against a 9-1 Big XII team on the road would be far from devastating, but a win sure would be nice. Hope for the best.

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