Alabama will return home for the opening game in Coleman Coliseum tonight, as the Crimson Tide will greet the Texas Tech Red Raiders (2-0) in the opening game of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Tide had a disappointing lost to Oklahoma last Friday in the opener in Dallas, but there will be plenty of more opportunities for Alabama to get some quality wins. The first might come tonight, as Texas Tech looks to be a completely reinvigorated team under first year coach Tubby Smith (yes, that Tubby Smith).
Alabama played at Texas Tech a year ago, and came away with a 66-62 win in a game that saw the Tide blow a 20 point lead with only 12 minutes to play. Last year's version of the Red Raiders was not very good; they went 11-20 (3-15 in Big 12 play). They do have a lot of experience returning, and could challenge the Tide, but Alabama should win this game. Especially if Alabama has any dreams of being a good team this year.
Before I do the breakdown, let me say that Anthony Grant has landed a very talented top 25 recruiting class for next year. With a trio of 4 stars (PG Justin Coleman, SG Devin Mitchell, and SF Riley Norris) faxing in their letters of intent this week, the Tide landed three Top 150 recruits according to 247sports.com's composite rankings. Coleman and Norris are both in-state products, and I am very excited about their potential, especially Coleman. We will have a bunch of talent on our hands next season. Alabama's 2014 class currently sits at #21 according to 247sports.com.
As I mentioned before, Texas Tech was not good last year. They haven't been good in a while, in fact. But they did give us quite the scare when they made a furious comeback in Lubbock last December. With new head coach Tubby Smith on board, the future looks pretty bright, but this is still not an extremely talented team. Texas Tech is 2-0 on the year with a couple of wins over overly-matched opponents in Houston-Baptist and Northern Arizona, so in essence, we don't really know much about this team.
The Red Raiders are led down low by a pair of 6'7 forwards in Jordan Tolbert and Jaye Crockett, who absolutely dominated us last season. This is a big key for them, as Tolbert (15 PPG and 9.5 RPG) and Crockett (10.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.5 APG) are also two of their most experienced players. I think this goes without saying, but these two guys scare the Tide out of me. Alabama doesn't do very well against good post players (see: Spangler, Ryan Oklahoma), so this will be a good test for our frontcourt. Carl Engstrom has to show some more physicality in the low post on both sides of the court, otherwise it's up to Nick Jacobs and a pair of true freshmen in Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale to do it. As much as I like both Taylor and Hale, being this early in their development is not a good thing against a pair of good, experienced big men. To make matters even worse, Crockett, the more flexible of the two, has seen a lot of playing time at the 3-position, because 7'0 C Dejan Kravic (5 PPG, 3 RPG and 2 BPG) has blossomed into a legitimate force in the post. He didn't play much, or very well, against Alabama last year. But I'm sure he's eager to prove that he is someone to pay plenty of attention to. 6'8 freshmen Aaron Ross (5.5 PPG and 3 RPG) and Alex Foster (5.5 PPG and 5.5 RPG) add plenty of depth off the bench. In other words, this team is not Oklahoma in more than a few ways.
The backcourt is led by JUCO transfer Robert Turner (16.6 PPG on 63.6% shooting and 3 APG) at the point, and he is their main scorer. The guy can flat out play, but this will still be his first game against a legitimate opponent, who also happens to have one Trevor Releford guarding him. At the other guard spot, sophomore Dusty Hannahs (10.5 PPG, 2.5 APG and 2.5 RPG) is no slouch either. Both can shoot from behind the arc well, and this could lead to a serious problem if Alabama decides to pack the paint with a zone in order to defend the bevy of big men. Senior Jamal Williams (6.5 PPG) provides leadership and depth off of the bench, but he is really all the Red Raiders can rely on to spot Turner and Hannahs some relief. This offers Alabama an intriguing opportunity, as the Tide can run quite a few people in the backcourt.
As with Oklahoma, there is still much to be seen from this team, as they have played in two glorified scrimmages to this point. But the Red Raiders certainly look to be a much different beast than the Sooners. Not much depth in the backcourt, but a bunch of depth and experience in the frontcourt. Unfortunately, that works against the home team in a few ways.
What to Watch For
1. How do the Guards play? We know Releford is going to go to work, but how will Levi Randolph, Retin Obasohan, and Algie Key perform? Key and Obasohan tore it up offensively against Oklahoma, combining for 34 points on 13-18 shooting. That was an awesome surprise. Randolph struggled mightily though. Obviously his injury is still nagging him a little, but the 5 turnovers were a killer. I did appreciate how hard he fought though, hopefully he has continued to progress well, health-wise.
2. How does Alabama Defend? Texas Tech provides a much different change-of-pace than Oklahoma did. Short on guards and chock-full of big men, the Red Raiders will try to move the ball inside to take advantage. Anthony Grant likes to use a 2-3 Zone, and this would make a lot of sense. But the problem is that Turner and Hannahs can shoot, and a 2-3 Zone can often be exploited by playing inside-out and freeing up those two guys for open looks. Alabama will probably switch between zone and man, but it will be interesting to see how Grant plays a totally different looking team.
3. Home Court Advantage. I have always been a big believer in home court advantage in college basketball. It's tough to go on the road into an intimidating gym and play well, especially if the other team is full of experienced players. The home team wins a lot more than the away team in college basketball more often than in almost any other sport. With that being said, I am curious as to how many people show up for the home opener. Hopefully plenty of Tide fans will be there, we need to show some support for this team.
3 Keys to Victory
1. Low Post Play. Texas Tech has a lot of experience, depth, and a good amount of talent in the frontcourt. Alabama has to be ready to defend these guys. Engstrom is the key here, as I really don't want to see true freshmen Taylor and Hale having to take on Tolbert and Kravic for a large portion of the game. We will also need a good effort from Nick Jacobs, and Rodney Cooper may have the most vital matchup against Crockett. Offensively Jacobs and Cooper are going to have to make plays on these guys. I have lost a lot of confidence in Engstrom's offensive ability, and the true freshman factor looms even bigger here for Taylor and Hale than it does on defense. If Alabama can just bring points per possession between Cooper, Jacobs, and Engstrom to a tie with Crockett, Tolbert, and Kravic, I will feel pretty good about this game.
2. Foul Trouble. We all saw what happened when Releford and Obasohan dealt with foul trouble last Friday. Oklahoma quickly overcame a 16 point deficit, and then led for the majority of the second half. We HAVE to keep our guys out of foul trouble. I was watching the Baylor-South Carolina game the other day, and their were about 60 fouls called in that game. The new enforcement of the rules combined with teams struggling to adapt are proving to make quite an impact. Releford and Obasohan got hit with a few weak calls, but they can't let that continue to happen. Releford specifically needs to stay on the court as much as possible.
3. SOMEBODY REBOUND. I told you this was going to stay here until it improved. While Oklahoma only ended up out-rebounding the Tide by 2, Alabama had to rely on Cooper to grab 10 himself. Jacobs played well in this regard and grabbed 10 also, but the rest of our frontcourt combined for 1 single rebound. Engstrom got 0, by the way. He's seven feet tall. Anyway, Texas Tech has dominated the boards in their first two games. We need to crash the boards on this one. If we can stay within 2 rebounds of this big frontcourt, we will win this game.
Alabama needs to win this one, guys. We can't open up the season with a pair of losses, especially since Texas Tech seems to be more of the NIT flavor this year. It's the home opener, and I want to see people pack the place out for the team. If you can't make it, the game will be on ESPN2, and tip-off is at 8:00pm CST.
Roll Tide everybody, let's defend Titletown.