After dropping a close, hard-fought road battle with NCAA Tournament team Mississippi State on Saturday, the Crimson Tide basketball team is set to return to Coleman Coliseum tonight for another huge game against an NCAA Tournament team. The opponent will be the Vanderbilt Commodores, a preseason top-10 team and one of the favorites to challenge Kentucky for the SEC championship. The game will tip off at 6:00 pm CST and will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
The Crimson Tide is still in solid position for an NCAA Tournament bid themselves, but with opportunities to get "big wins" starting to run low, Bama really needs to take advantage of what is expected to be a large and boisterous crowd in Tuscaloosa tonight and get a big-time win on its resume. A loss, meanwhile, would leave the Tide with few opportunities remaining to get such big resume wins (of Bama's last eleven games, only two are against projected NCAA Tournament teams). Further, with a trip to Lexington and Rupp Arena somehow looming less than 40 hours later, Bama could easily find itself 2-3 in conference play, which might very well make February another tense journey through the NCAA bubble. Alabama would much rather spend the rest of the season chasing the league title and a strong NCAA seed, but to do that and avoid any bubble talk, the Tide needs to get some of these big wins when the opportunities present themselves.
Beating the Commodores would certainly qualify as a big win. They are currently projected as a #4 seed in the latest ESPN Bracketology and are tied with Kentucky for 1st place in the SEC with a perfect 3-0 league mark. The 'Dores are coming off an extremely successful season in which they finished among the top 20 teams in the country, although they were upset by Richmond in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Returning literally every major contributor from last season, they were ranked in the top 10 nationally preseason and were facing the loftiest expectations in program history.
However they stumbled early, dropping home stunners to Cleveland State and Indiana State and letting games slip away (in overtime) that they should have won against Xavier and Louisville in back-to-back games. Despite these setbacks, most of which happened without star center, the Dores have lined up plenty of solid wins, knocking off Oregon, North Carolina State, Oregon State, a solid mid-major Davidson on the road, and then smoking then-ranked Marquette on the road, all in non-conference play. Since SEC play has begun, they have returned to the form that most expected from this preseason top 10 team. They absolutely humiliated Auburn, picked up a solid road win over South Carolina, and then beat Georgia comfortably to move to 3-0 in SEC play.
It's no accident that Vanderbilt finished as a top-20 team last season and are currently in position for top-16 seeding in this year's tournament; the Commodores have the best combination of talent and experience in entire SEC. Again, they return literally every single key player from a team that was seeded in last year's NCAA Tournament as one of the nation's top 20 teams.
Vandy is far from a one-man team, but if there is one player offensively who stands out it has to be 6'4" junior guard John Jenkins, one of the best shooters and best scoring guards in all of college basketball. Jenkins had an excellent case to be the SEC Player of the Year last year, and he's certainly on the short list for the award this year as well. He leads the entire SEC in scoring with 19.8 points/game and is making an unfathomable 3.9 treys per game while shooting a blistering 45% from beyond the arc. Jenkins obviously gets most of his points from downtown and has to be shadowed with the utmost diligence when he tries to get free for a shot on the perimeter, but he isn't completely a one-dimensional player. He is extremely crafty, which allows him to find creative ways to get open for 3-point looks, to get to the rim, and to draw fouls. He doesn't average a cool 20 points per game for lack of teams trying everything they can to stop him. He'll get his. He's one of those rare players who you just have to concede will score. The key is to make him work for it and not allow him any easy ones.
As good as Jenkins is, 6'7" wing player Jeffery Taylor is probably more talented and may be more dangerous. He would be the outright star on most teams in the league with his 16.9 points/game scoring average to go along with his 5.6 rebounds/game and 2.1 assists/game averages. As it is, he has a very good shot of ending up on the First-Team All-SEC list at season's end. Taylor is probably the only wing player in the league that can match Tony Mitchell's combination of size, athleticism, versatility, and skill. Taylor may not quite match Mitchell on highlight-reel dunks, but he's an even better shooter, nailing an extremely impressive 45% of his 3-point attempts. But while Taylor is very dangerous from the arc, he's equally if not more dangerous inside of it. He has the ability to use his 6'7" frame to mismatch smaller defensive players in the paint and to crash the offensive boards. He'll be a major challenge for the Bama defense and like Alabama's own Mitchell, he'll find ways to stuff the stat sheet no matter what the defense tries to do.
The third All-SEC candidate on the Commodore roster is giant 6'11" senior center Festus Ezeli. Ezeli missed the first eleven games of the season, and still hasn't recaptured his form from last season. A year ago he averaged 13.0 points/game, 6.3 rebounds/game, and 2.6 blocks/game en route to becoming arguably the best center in the entire SEC. He was a consistent enforcer in the paint, giving Vandy a physical presence inside they had been lacking in recent years. He's now back in action, though his numbers haven't returned to where they were last season. It's yet to be seen if this is just him shaking off rust, or something more permanent. Either way, he is massive at 6'11" and 255 pounds and has all the physical tools to disrupt Bama's effectiveness in the paint, something the Tide typically relies on a great deal.
While he's not an All-SEC candidate, 6'3" senior point guard Brad Tinsley has quietly put together an extremely effective career as a college point guard. He is third on the team in scoring with 10.3 points/game and is fourth in the SEC with 4.4 assists/game. Tinsley has a gift for distributing the ball to open teammates, especially Jenkins and Taylor, but he has also become king of the timely shot for Vandy (see last year's ridiculous jumper with 19 seconds left that sank Alabama in Memorial Fortress). Like most other Commodore guards, he is extremely efficient from the arc, shooting--you guessed it--45%, just like Jenkins and Taylor. While he may not be as flashly or explosive as those two, he's definitely the quiet leader of the team.
The fifth starter is 6'8" senior forward Lance Goulbourne--that's right, four seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, all of whom have been with the program since their freshman year. Goulbourne likely won't "wow" you, but the senior has become a very solid, very productive power forward. He averages 10.1 points/game and leads the team with 7.5 rebounds/game.
Two key returning players from last season fill in for Goulbourne and Ezeli in the post. 6'9" senior forward Steve Tchiengang sees big minutes and is a big, physical presence. He has loads of experience but isn't a big-time scoring threat. 6'9" sophomore Rod Odom likewise has the size and athleticism to ensure there is no major drop-off when either Ezeli or Goulbourne head to the bench. Both Tchiengang and Odom have shooting ranges out to the 3-point line.
A trio of young guards come off the bench to fill in when Vandy's three veterans on the perimeter take a breather. 6'1" sophomore point guard Kyle Fuller is the most experienced, but his minutes have been dwindling at the expense of two highly-touted freshman. One of those freshmen is 6'3" Kedren Johnson, a player Anthony Grant and staff wanted to sign with the Tide. The other is also a 6'3" guard, Dai-Jon Parker. Both Johnson and Parker look to be nice players with great potential, but neither accumulates enough minutes to score more than about 3 points/game.
Clearly, with all of this talent, shooting ability, and experience, Vanderbilt is an extremely dangerous offensive team. They rank 10th in the nation in effective shooting percentage, but their overall offensive effectiveness has been hampered a good bit by their turnover rate, which is something the Bama defense definitely needs to exploit, because the Tide won't win a shooting contest with this bunch. Speaking of shooting, Vandy loves the 3. We would love the 3 too if we had three starters who could shoot 45% each from downtown. As a team they rank 18th in the nation in their rate of 3-point attempts, meaning they shoot a ton of them. Bama's defense will have to be extremely disciplined to ensure wide open looks are minimized, especially on inbounds plays and in transition. And of course, as always for these teams that rely so much on the 3-point shot, a lot of it really just is plain old luck. Will an especially high or low percentage of them fall tonight? Who knows, but as Vandy's losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State show, a bad shooting night makes Vanderbilt extremely beatable, while a good shooting night likely spells doom for Bama, even in Coleman. Vanderbilt is too good to be shooting lights out and be beaten by most teams.
On the other end, Vanderbilt actually matches up very well with Alabama. The strength of the Commodore defense has been their size and physicality in the paint, while their weakness has been at defending on the perimeter. Obviously, this makes for a terrible matchup for Bama's offense, but the Tide can overcome this if they can take advantage of open looks from the perimeter like they have in several recent games. Again, Bama almost certainly won't win a shooting contest with Vanderbilt, but if they can knock down a few of their own the Tide has a good chance to do enough elsewhere to win.
This will be an extremely tough contest for the Crimson Tide, who desperately needs this win to fortify their tournament resume with a big win and to prevent a 2-2 SEC start heading into Lexington on Saturday. Right now, based on SEC play alone, the Commodores are probably the second-best team in the SEC behind Kentucky, and this is not fluke. They were predicted to be second in the league this year, and they have a mixture of talent and experience that makes all but about six or seven coaches in America envious. This is a difficult test and a difficult matchup for Alabama, but it is one the Tide needs to find a way--any way--to win at home if Bama wants to make a run at a good spot in the Big Dance and not just hang on for an invitation to the thing. Hope for the best.