The Crimson Tide basketball team will play its biggest regular season game in nine years tonight against the Florida Gators. The winner will walk away having clinched an SEC Championship. It simply doesn't get any bigger in regular season college basketball.
Tip-off is scheduled for 6:00 CST, with the game being televised nationally on ESPNU. The game stream is also available online at ESPN, but only for Time Warner, Bright House and Verizon TV subscribers. Sadly, all college basketball TV schedules are set before the season ever starts, so occasionally games like this that turn out to have huge implications can end up on lower-tier networks. By now, most people get ESPNU in their homes, but if you're one of the unlucky ones that doesn't, make sure you find a friend or sports bar somewhere nearby that does. You don't want to miss it if Bama wins its 8th ever SEC title.
Yesterday, we discussed what a big challenge awaits the Tide in Gainesville as the Tide must overcome not only a very good Gator team, but also a hostile crowd in a building where Alabama hasn't won since Antonio McDyess led the charge in a 1995 victory. Only Vanderbilt and their infamous Memorial Fortress hold a longer home winning streak against Alabama. With the nation's attention turned towards this game on Tuesday night, and the chance for Florida to clinch their 5th ever SEC title, you can rest assured the home crowd will be anything but the reserved gatherings Bama was fortunate enough to see in its last two road games at LSU and Ole Miss.
The site of the game and the Tide's recent history there, not to mention the "Rowdy Reptiles" in the stands, should be the least of Bama's worries, though. Regardless of the setting or even what is at stake, the team that will be wearing the white jerseys with the blue and orange trim on Tuesday night will provide a very formidable test for this Alabama team. The Gators will bring a stellar 22-6 record into the game that includes wins over NCAA Tournament teams Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Xavier, Florida State, Kansas State, Georgia (twice) and Tennessee (twice). They haven't looked completely dominant in several of their wins, and a few of their losses are semi-questionable, but at the end of the day this is a team with one of the top 10 or 12 postseason resumes in the country right now, and one that has an uncanny knack for winning super-close games.
Bama can win an SEC title by beating this team tonight, but that will take a monumental effort from the men in crimson.
Full Florida roster breakdown and game analysis after the jump...
Florida is blessed with an extremely talented and balanced starting lineup, probably the most balanced lineup in the SEC. All five starters were highly recruited and are each capable of first-team All-SEC performances on a given night. In fact, if all these players weren't in the same starting lineup, they'd each probably be locks for All-SEC selections in more featured roles with bigger stats.
Many point to the most important piece of the Gator puzzle as being 6'10" senior wing player Chandler Parsons, a player a full two inches taller than anyone Bama will put on the floor, who also happens to have guard skills. The Gators have two nice scoring guards and two nice post players to go along with Parsons, but he is really the piece that gives them an edge over the other top teams in the league. It's not often that you see a player lead his team in both rebounding and assists, two categories that usually don't correlate, but that's what Florida has with Parsons. Parsons is a true matchup nightmare, as his 3.7 assists per game indicate he can make plays around larger players who try to guard him on the perimeter, and his 7.7 rebounds per game indicate he can take advantage of smaller players who try to match up with him on the boards. Parsons also shoots 39% from the arc, where he averages just over one made trey per game, and he can use his unique combination of size and skills to find ways to score to the tune of 11.1 points per game.
Running the show for Donovan at the point is 5'8" junior Erving Walker. Walker will be the smallest player on the court tonight, but he may also be the most dangerous. He leads the team with 14.6 points per game, doing most of his damage from the arc and the stripe. He is a 37% shooter from long range, where he averages just over two made treys per game. He is a player liable to pull up from any spot on the floor inside 30 feet; sometimes that results in bad shots, but he's lethal enough that it forces defenders to play him out that far. This allows him to capitalize on his elite quickness and first step, which enable him to penetrate and also draw fouls at a high rate. He averages 5.4 free throw attempts per game, so clearly a big concern is keeping him off the stripe.
Joining Walker in the backcourt is 6'2" sophomore guard Kenny Boynton. Boynton is the second-leading scorer on the team, with an average of 13.5 points per game. He is also quite possibly the streakiest player in the league. Boynton is a very good all-around scoring guard, but he loves to fog 3's from deep, where he only hits 31%. Like Walker, he averages right at two made treys each game, but he has far more attempts. What makes him especially dangerous from that range however is his streakiness. If he hits one, it's a good bet that he'll keep hitting, and he's capable of completely going off in spurts. The Tide needs to hope he never heats up in this one, otherwise it's hard to see a path to victory given all the other weapons the Gators have.
The Gators also enjoy arguably the top post duo in the SEC in a pair of experienced seniors. The starter at center is 6'10" Vernon Macklin, who is in his second year in Gainesville after transferring from Georgetown. Macklin is second on the team in rebounding with 6.0 boards per game, and is third in scoring with 11.2 points per game. Macklin may not be all-world or an NBA lock, but he is a very good college center with a great frame. He is solid in defense and on the boards, has a great motor on both ends, and scores very efficiently when allowed to catch the ball in the paint, as he shoots an impressive 57% from the floor. Macklin will challenge Bama's post defenders like no one has at least since the Vanderbilt game.
The other starter in the post is 6'8" senior Alex Tyus. Tyus averages 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. He is a bit more likely than Macklin to pull up with jump shots, but he isn't as strong around the rim. Still, he's a very capable post player in his own right who has loads of experience. Macklin and Tyus's numbers might not jump out as super-impressive, but considering that each average only 24 minutes per game, suddenly those numbers become a bit more flattering.
The reason that Macklin and Tyus each spend so much time on the bench is because the Gators have a pair of very talented young backups who provide plenty of depth and fresh legs in the post. 6'9" freshman Patric Young is an explosive athlete for his size who provides great energy on defense and on the glass. He only averages 3.2 points each game, but he has impressive rebounding and block numbers for a bench player. 6'10" sophomore Erik Murphy also sees plenty of action off the bench in the post. He is a more polished scorer than Young, averaging more points per minute than even the starters, but he isn't as explosive an athlete.
6'2" freshman Scotty Wilbekin comes off the bench as the backup point guard, where he has been fairly effective. He doesn't score a lot, but he dishes out a lot of assists in his time on the floor and doesn't commit a lot of mistakes. A pair of freshmen wing players, 6'6" Casey Prather and 6'7" Will Yeguette, provide additional depth in the backcourt.
Not surprisingly, given the talent on hand and the successful coaching experience of Billy Donovan, the Gators are a very good team on both ends of the floor. Defensively, Florida ranks 43rd in the nation in overall efficiency, behind only Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee in the SEC. Their biggest strength is their foul rate, which ranks an amazing 3rd nationally. Given the fact that Bama's offense ranks 303rd nationally in free throw rate, it's probably safe to assume that the Tide won't be spending a lot of time shooting free throws, especially with SEC refs' tendency to swallow their whistles when road teams have the ball. The biggest weakness of the Florida defense comes in creating turnovers, where they are just below average nationally with a ranking of 189th. Against a Florida defense not known for forcing turnovers, Bama's offense must do a much better job than in recent games protecting the ball in order to have a chance to win. If they can do that, the Florida defense is not impenetrable, as they rank 106th nationally in effective field goal percentage defense.
On offense, the Gators rank 31st in the nation in overall efficiency, behind only Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the SEC. Obviously, Alabama's defense, ranked 6th in the nation in overall efficiency, is capable of playing with this unit, but this will truly test just how good this much-hyped Bama defense really is. The big key will likely come on the offensive boards, as Florida ranks 10th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, while defensive rebounding rate is the biggest weakness of the Tide defense. Closing out defensive possessions by preventing offensive rebounds is the biggest thing to watch on that end of the floor. Florida averages rebounding 38.5% of their missed shots. Bama needs to keep that rate around 30% or below to have a chance to win.
Make no mistake about it. This Florida team is very good, they match up fairly well with Alabama, and they'll have the all-important home court advantage to boot. The Gators are the clear favorites in this game, and they'll be the ones expected to be celebrating a championship at the end of the night, possibly by cutting down their own nets.
Bama isn't expected to win. But Bama wasn't expected to be just one win away from an SEC Championship in only Anthony Grant's second season, either. Not this Alabama team. Not the one that was left for dead after the shipwreck in the Virgin Islands. Not the one that has only three SEC-caliber players. Not the one that has no shooting and little depth.
This Alabama team has overcome a lot in the last few months, and they've surprised a lot of people along the way. Does this Tide team have one more surprise performance left? If so, a plane will be landing in Tuscaloosa late tonight with SEC champions on board.
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