The Crimson Tide basketball team will be back out on the court tonight for the second round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament. The opponent? None other than the Wichita State Shockers, who ended Bama's season on a sour note less than eight months ago in Madison Square Garden, knocking off the Tide 66-57 in the 2011 NIT finals. The Tide will get their opportunity at revenge tonight at 8:00 pm CST, with the game set to be televised nationally on ESPN2. As always, we'll have our game thread here at RBR for those who want to comment and for those needing updates.
We already know how the Shockers' season ended up last year. They were a very good team throughout the season, ranking 26th in the nation in the final 2011 efficiency rankings. They were left out of the NCAA Tournament despite clearly being superior to many of the teams that qualified due to a lack of "good wins", and as we know all too well, they went on the win the 32-team NIT to cap off a successful season for the Missouri Valley Conference team.
Personnel-wise, the Shockers were most notable last season for the unbelievable balance on their roster. No player played more than 26 minutes/game, and no player scored more than 11 points/game. Meanwhile, all ten players in their primary rotation averaged at least 14 minutes/game and at least 4 points/game. Of those ten primary players, four graduated while six--five seniors and a junior--return to anchor what will undoubtedly, and by a wide margin, be the best team Bama has faced so far in this young season.
The Shockers lost only one guard off last year's team that was already deep on the perimeter to begin with. The most important player is probably 6'4" senior point guard Toure Murray, who is both the leading returning scorer and the leading returning assist man. 6'0" senior point guard Joe Ragland will also play a major role in the playmaking department. He is the third leading scorer returning to the roster and was second on the team in assists last season.
The most important player at the 2-guard spot will be 6'4" senior David Kyles, who is the second-leading returning scorer on the team. Kyles is also the top 3-point shooting threat on the team, nailing 75 treys last season. 6'2" junior guard Demetric Williams will provide depth on the perimeter, and 6'5" senior wing player Ben Smith is expected to start at that position after splitting time there last year. All five of these players knocked down at least 16 treys last season, so the Tide defense will have to respect pretty much every guard on the team outside. A sixth guard, 6'2" freshman Tekele Cotton, has also played some this season and is 2-for-3 from the arc already.
Despite all the overflowing talent and experience returning on the perimeter, the Shockers did lose three of their four primary post players from last season. The one returning player in 7'0" senior Garrett Stutz, who is extremely versatile and can also step out and hit shots on the perimeter. The Shockers beefed up their frontcourt with 6'8" JuCo All-American Carl Hall, who should help tremendously. Another 7'0" player, junior Ehimen Orukpe, provides depth but played only sparingly his first two seasons.
Wichita State returns the bulk of what was one of the top 30 teams in college basketball last season. With a nine-man rotation that includes five seniors and three juniors, they also have easily one of the most experienced teams in college basketball this season. Frankly, I'm surprised they aren't getting more love from the national media. At any rate, they are projected to be an NCAA Tournament team this year (as an at-large), and will probably be one of the best teams Bama faces in the entire non-conference schedule. To further drive home the point of just how good Wichita State is, Alabama is ranked 15th in the nation in the coaches poll, yet Vegas essentially has this game as a pick-em (the Tide is favored by 1.5).
We've thought that Oakland and Maryland might test this team, but honestly both teams were disappointing and likely will be even weaker than anticipated. With all due respect to those teams (and UAH and North Florida), Alabama hasn't seen anything like what the Shockers will bring. The Tide will be tested tonight on a neutral court on national television by a team that very well may be an NCAA Tournament team. This is where the rubber really meets the road. Hope for the best.