Trevor Releford and Rodney Cooper react to Cincinnati's buzzer-beater on Saturday. - US PRESSWIRE
Following a heartbreaking last-second loss on the road at now-#11 Cincinnati on Saturday, the Crimson Tide basketball team will return home tonight to face the Dayton Flyers, looking to bounce back not just from Saturday's dramatic loss, but also from a terrible loss last year to this very Dayton team.
Tonight's game will tip off at 8:00pm CT, and will be televised regionally on CSS and streamed nationally on ESPN3. Alabama's already thin 10-man scholarship roster will be reduced to a paltry 8-man roster tonight, as starting center Carl Engstrom and veteran guard Andrew Steele will both be sidelined with injury. Beyond just tonight, both injuries carry serious long-term concerns for this team, especially Engstrom's.
Dayton, an Atlantic-10 conference program with a strong basketball tradition, will come to Tuscaloosa tonight with a decent but not overly impressive 5-2 record. They boast wins over two major conference teams, Boston College and Auburn, although BC and Auburn are expected to be near the very bottom of the ACC and SEC, respectively. They also dropped a game to Colorado in the opening round of the same tournament at which they faced BC and Auburn. Aside from those three neutral-court games against major-conference foes, they've had four home games against lesser opponents, taking down Arkansas State, Manhattan, and Northern Illinois, but falling victim to an upset at the hands of Weber State.
The Flyers are currently ranked 99th in the Pomeroy ratings, and figure to be a borderline top-100 RPI team as the season progresses. Although they are a solid team that would likely finish near the middle of the SEC this year, they probably will not be an NCAA Tournament team. As such, this is a game that Bama wants to put in the win column of its resume, especially at home, even though Dayton will bring in a team that is certainly capable of pulling off the win. Vegas has the Tide as an 8.5-point favorite, meaning Bama is expected to win, but a loss would not be shocking in any way--especially given the putrid performance Bama turned in at Dayton last season that, coupled with Dayton's hot shooting, resulted in an ugly loss for the Tide.
This year's Dayton squad returns many of the same players that took down Bama last season, led by leading scorer Kevin Dillard, a 6'0" senior point guard who averages 13.9 points and 4.0 assists each game. Dillard is adept at penetrating, passing, shooting, and drawing fouls, so he'll be a handful for the Bama defense and the key Dayton player to watch.
The Flyers feature three other double-digit scorers in addition to Dillard. Vee Sanford, a 6'3" junior guard who is playing his first season at Dayton after transferring from Georgetown, averages 11.7 points and 2.6 assists. Like Dillard, he is also a capable shooter. Josh Benson, a 6'9" senior forward, is averaging 10.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, while another post player, 6'7" junior Devin Oliver, is likewise averaging 10.6 points per game and is leading the team with 8.0 rebounds each outing. The Benson-Oliver duo in the post will challenge Alabama's thin interior defense, who will be playing without starting center Engstrom tonight.
Five other players play at least ten minutes each game for the Flyers--all of them newcomers to the team. Two of the freshmen, 6'6" wing player Dyshawn Pierre and 6'9" post player Jalen Robinson, each come in averaging just under seven points per game despite playing just under 20 minutes each game, so both are capable scorers. 5'11" freshman guard Khari Price, 6'7" sophomore wing player Matt Derenbecker (an LSU transfer), and 6'9" freshman post player Devon Scott all play regularly but average less than three points per game.
As a team, Dayton has not been particularly noteworthy on either end of the floor, for good or for bad; they rank right around 100th nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and they don't play a particularly unique style on either end. Defensively, they have been fairly strong in forcing turnovers, but have surrendered a very high percentage of opponent's shots, suggesting that they play aggressively on that end but often give up open looks. On the offensive end, the Flyers have struggled with turnovers, which is a bad sign for them against an Alabama defense that is very good at forcing them. However, the Flyers have been pretty efficient at scoring when they don't turn it over, so turnovers generated by Alabama's defense could be a real key tonight.
Overall, this is the kind of game that Alabama needs to find a way to win, even though a win will not come easy. The Tide will likely face just two opponents in the non-conference portion of the schedule that will be NCAA at-large teams (Cincinnati and VCU, both on the road), so taking care of business against the solid-but-not-quite-tournament-caliber teams like Dayton will be crucial for building Alabama's resume this year. Hope for the best.