The Crimson Tide basketball team will travel to Columbia's Colonial Life Arena tonight to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks. Both teams are struggling mightily as the season comes to a close, but Alabama will be coming in short-handed on top of everything else, with the suspension of its top player, sophomore forward JaMychal Green, and the possible continued suspension of another starter, junior guard Senario Hillman.
Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. Alabama (Central) time and 7 p.m. local (Eastern) time. The game will be televised nationally by ESPNU. For Tide fans in the Carolina region, tickets can still be purchased online here. Unfortunately the game will not be available on ESPN360, but those without access to ESPNU can still listen to the CTSN radio broadcast.
The Tide is limping into their final road game of the season having lost seven of their last eight games. Bama is exactly .500 on the season, with a 14-14 overall record, but the Tide is only 4-10 in SEC play after a string of late meltdowns and close losses. Now they must face their final road challenge with only seven scholarship players.
Second-year coach Darrin Horn is hoping to move South Carolina from perennial NIT-status to perennial NCAA-status. The program looked to be improving both on the court and in the stands under his direction, but the recent losing streak has killed their NCAA hopes for this year and their top three players are all seniors. One of those seniors, wing player Dominique Archie, was lost for the season back in November with a knee injury, dampening expectations for this season. Still, the Gamecocks were projected as a possible NCAA tournament team as recently as three weeks ago. At that point they were 14-9 overall and 5-4 in SEC play with a win over #1 Kentucky under their belts. However, they have lost five in a row since then, and now sit with the same overall record as Alabama, 14-14, with an SEC mark of 5-9. The Cocks have lost all hope of an NCAA bid and would probably need to win out to even get on the NIT bubble.
Read below the jump for more on the Gamecocks and Alabama's short-handed tactics...
South Carolina is led by senior point guard Devan Downey, who is the most prolific scorer in recent SEC history. His average of 26.4 points per game leads the SEC this season by a wide margin, and that's taking into account his recent (relative) poor performances the past few weeks. At the midway point of the SEC season, he was averaging over 30 per game. Most impressive of all perhaps is the fact that Downey has done all of this as one of the smallest players in the league at a listed 5'9". So how does he do it? Not only is he a deadly 3-point shooter, with nearly three made 3's per game while shooting over 35% from beyond the arc, but he can also penetrate at will and score with his trademark tear-drop floater in the lane. He is able to get his looks from deep because defenders have to respect his driving ability and he is a threat to pull up from way beyond the arc and hit. He also needs very little space to get shots off with his quick release and high-aching shot, and he is adept at fadeaways. Finally, he draws fouls more frequently than anyone in the league and scores nearly 7 points per game from free throws alone. In addition to his scoring prowess, he leads the team in assists with 3.2 per game in conference play and will soon be the school's all-time leader in steals, averaging 2.6 per game in league play this season.
Downey is joined in the backcourt by fellow senior guard Brandis Raley-Ross, who is second on the team in scoring with 11.6 points per game in SEC play. Raley-Ross is another dangerous 3-point threat, averaging over two makes per game in league play while hitting 34% from the arc. He scores the majority of his points in that way. The top reserve in the backcourt is freshman guard Ramon Galloway, who occasionally starts when Horn elects to go with a smaller lineup (let's hope for our sake he does with us having only two post players left on the roster). Additional backcourt depth is provided by freshman guard Stephen Spinella.
The Gamecocks have struggled to find a replacement for senior swing man Dominique Archie, who was lost for the season early on and was expected to be their second-leading scorer. Freshman swing man Lakeem Jackson has started every SEC game in that spot, averaging 6.9 points and 4.8 rebounds in league play while turning in nearly two assists per outing, second on the team. He'll play a lot of minutes and will probably be a solid player for them in the years ahead. Senior forward Evaldus Baniulis also sees time as a small forward and occasionally starts. He used to play a big role under former coach Dave Odom but only averages 1.2 points and 1.7 rebounds per game in conference play this year.
The only full-time starter in the post is junior forward Sam Muldrow. He has quietly put up some solid numbers this season, averaging 10.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in league play, but he also plays about 33 minutes per game, significantly more than most post players. Luckily for us, the Gamecocks don't have tremendous depth in their frontcourt. Junior forward Austin Steed and JuCo transfer Johndre Jefferson each see time down low and occasionally start, but neither plays more than 14 minutes per game. In fact, South Carolina post players play a combined 57 minutes per game, meaning that for more than half of each game, they play with only one true post player. In other words, if we're going to go into an SEC game without JaMychal Green and suiting up only two guys taller than 6'6", this is the game to do it.
Despite the fact that South Carolina is very thin in the post, you can't get around the fact that, assuming Hillman is still suspended, we will only be dressing out seven scholarship players, one of whom averages less than five minutes in SEC play. So really we'll be going into this thing with six players and one backup. There is a very real possibility that walk-on Greg Cage could come off the bench for some minutes here and there. Despite South Carolina's smaller lineup and their five-game losing streak, this will be a big challenge for our team. The Gamecocks have been very good at home (11-4 this year) and will be fired up for senior night, where they will honor several guys who have done a lot for their program.
Looking at our lineup, we will be without over one third of our scoring if Hillman remains suspended. That's a big blow for a team that's already at the bottom of the SEC in scoring. Picking a starting lineup shouldn't be hard with only six potential guys to choose from. Obviously Torrance and Brock will start at guard and Hines will start in the post. Mitchell will start somewhere, the only question being whether it's at small forward or power forward. If it's the former and we start with a big lineup, then Knox would get the start alongside Hines in the post. If it's the latter and we go with a small lineup then Davis would get the start as the third guard. However we start, we'll definitely play with a small lineup for much of the night, and Mitchell will have to play a lot at the power forward position. Eblen will also have to play the most minutes he has in any conference game. Let's hope he can step up and at least distribute the ball efficiently. The other six guys will all need to be ready to go 30 minutes or more, something that I'm not sure guys like Davis and Knox will be ready for. If foul trouble or fatigue hits, we'll have to send some walk-ons out there.
I suspect we'll have to play a zone defense for much of the game simply for fatigue purposes, but I don't think that's the ideal way to defend Downey. If we do go that route we'll just have to pray that Carolina's other shooters like Raley-Ross and Galloway aren't able to knock down their looks from deep when Downey kicks out to them. We'll also have to somehow limit offensive boards, which are more prevalent when a team plays a zone defense. If Hillman does indeed return, and he might, then I think we will play a lot more man defense, with Hillman and Brock rotating on Downey.
To win this one, and this is probably asking too much, but Torrance needs to at least come close to matching Downey in scoring. If he can do that and we can keep the rebounding gap low or even, we'll have a chance. Of course to make good on that chance we'll need our other guys to produce above what they're used to. Brock and Davis will need to make a high percentage of their 3's, Knox will need to score effectively in the post (he's proven he can do that in spurts), and Mitchell will need to produce like he was in the middle of the season.
In summary, against most SEC teams without Green, and especially without Hillman, I'd say we have no chance, but against South Carolina I think we might have a chance if Torrance and at least a couple of our other guys steps up and has a big game, and if we limit their second-chance opportunities. Hope for the best. Roll Tide.