Tennessee is riding (relatively) high in SEC play.
UPDATE: Apparently, JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell remain suspended for this one. That alone is bad enough news to send every gambler scrambling to call up their bookie to put the house on Tennessee. But in case that wasn't enough, Alabama's next three most important players, Trevor Releford, Nick Jacobs, and Andrew Steele, are all banged up with various injuries. It really does seem like this season is about to fall off the cliff at this point.
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The Crimson Tide basketball team has a chance to start turning things around on Saturday when the Tennessee Volunteers visit Tuscaloosa for an early afternoon conference clash. Tip off is set for 12:30 pm CST with the game televised regionally on the SEC Network and streamed outside the region on ESPN3.
Despite all the turmoil on the team with the recent--and possibly ongoing--suspensions and the fact that the Tide has dropped six of its last nine games, Alabama is still in position to make the NCAA Tournament if Bama can start winning again. That winning must start on Saturday against a Tennessee team that, despite being 4th place in the SEC and playing very well as a team, is still ranked outside the RPI top 100. Getting a win Saturday is crucial to not only getting this team back on the right track, but also saving Bama's still-solid postseason hopes from taking a major hit with a home loss to a low-ranked RPI team.
There is still no official word on whether either or both of Bama's two star players will return on Saturday. Both are expected to come back at some point, but we'll have to wait until Friday afternoon's press conference to find out if that point will be Saturday or not. What comes out of that press conference will have a huge impact on Bama's chances in this game, because without Green and Mitchell, the Tide simply lacks the offensive firepower or the athleticism inside to beat most SEC teams.
With or without the suspended players back, this Tennessee team won't be an easy out. They were expected to be one of the weakest teams in the SEC this year after losing coach Bruce Pearl and virtually every star player off of last year's NCAA Tournament team, and after some questionable losses early in the season, most people wrote them off. Things began to turn around for new coach Counzo Martin however once SEC play rolled around, as suddenly the Vols have gone 7-5 since SEC play started, including three wins against projected NCAA Tournament teams (UConn and Florida twice).
Tennessee lacks star power, but they've been able to find consistent success over the last couple of months by playing hard-nosed defense and playing extremely good team basketball. No coach in the SEC has gotten more out of less thus far than Martin, who actually has the Vols in position to snag a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament with the team currently tied for 4th place in the league with projected NCAA Tournament team Mississippi State. After beating UConn, sweeping Florida, and playing #1 Kentucky down to the wire, this Tennessee team will be no pushover for Alabama, despite their RPI ranking. Alabama will need to truly turn things around as a team to win this one.
Quick Look at Tennessee
14-12 overall, tied for 4th place in SEC
8-7 in non-conference play: started off respectably enough, beating three cupcakes and losing competitive games against Duke and Memphis; however things quickly went sour after that with a four-game losing streak that included losses to sub-150 teams Oakland, Austin Peay, and College of Charleston; rebounded somewhat to win four straight against sub-100 teams, but lost to Memphis again just before SEC play started; biggest non-conference win actually came during January after SEC play started, topping a slumping but still projected tournament team in UConn at home; overall non-conference results were quite bad overall even with the UConn win, and will almost certainly keep them out of the NCAA Tournament and possibly even NIT.
6-5 in SEC play: swept top-15-ranked Florida; bested Arkansas, Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina at home; lost very close games at home to #1 Kentucky and on the road at projected NCAA Tournament team Mississippi State; worst losses were at Georgia in OT, and blowout road losses to #1 Kentucky and projected NCAA Tournament team Vanderbilt.
Much stronger defensively than offensively: Tennessee has been the 2nd-strongest team in the SEC in defensive efficiency during conference play. They are especially strong defending in the paint (2nd in the SEC in 2-point FG defense) and in cleaning up the defensive boards (2nd in the SEC in defensive rebounding rate). However, they rank only 8th in the league in offensive efficiency. They rank last in the SEC in offensive turnover rate and last in the SEC in allowing blocked shots.
: The 6'1" sophomore point guard is one of the few players on this team who played significantly on last year's NCAA Tournament team. He currently leads the team in scoring (13.1/game) and assists (4.8/game). He's not quite All-SEC caliber, but he's a steady scorer, shooter, and passer.
: The 6'7" junior forward has had a breakout season. One year after averaging only 2.6 points/game, he is now 2nd on the team in scoring (12.0/game) and leads the Vols in rebounding.
The 6'8" freshman sensation has been the biggest story for the Vols this season after joining the team in January. He actually graduated high school early, and is now a big-time contributor for this team. He is 4th on the team in scoring (8.4/game) and 2nd in rebounding (6.8/game) through only nine games.
: The 6'7" senior wing player is the one of the few major holdovers from the Pearl regime, and is 2nd only to Golden in minutes played this season. He averages 7.9 points and 3.9 rebounds each game.
Jordan McCrae: The 6'5" sophomore guard has stepped up big-time after barely playing last season. He is 3rd on the team with 8.8 points/game.
: The 6'3" junior 3-point specialist has made the most of his increased opportunities this season. He averages 7.2 points/game almost solely from the arc, where he shoots--and hits--at a very high rate.
Deep bench: The Vols have nine players who average double-figure minutes each game, and only two players (Golden and Maymon) who average double-figure scoring numbers. Other key players are 6'9" junior forward Kenny Hall, 6'9" senior forward, and 6'6" freshman guard .
Keys to the game
- Forcing turnovers. Tennessee is very good defensively, yet turns the ball over a lot. The Tide will be very well served by generating turnovers at a high rate in order to score in transition rather than relying on scoring in halfcourt sets, where Bama's offense struggles and Tennessee's defense excels.
. Alabama needs him. Let's hope for good news at this afternoon's press conference. If he doesn't return, it's imperative that stays on the court and plays well.
- Avoiding fouls. Tennessee is 3rd in the SEC in free throw attempt rate, meaning they are good at drawing fouls. For an offense like Tennessee's that can struggle when their 3-point shooters aren't hot, Alabama can't afford to put them at the line for easy points.