The Alabama Crimson Tide will be kicking off Anthony Grant's 5th season for real this time, as our beloved Tide heads out west to take on the Oklahoma Sooners in Dallas. While there isn't much evidence as to how we should expect either team to perform today, there are many things that we can breakdown to see how good Alabama's chances are of pulling out the victory. Simply put, this is a crucial game. It won't end up making or breaking our season, but this could be a game that both teams look back on in February when everyone is sizing up tournament chances.
Oklahoma is led by Lon Kruger, who will be leading the Sooners for the 3rd time this season. Some of our older crowd may remember Kruger as Florida's coach in the 1990's, before Billy Donovan took over. After many successful years leading UNLV, Kruger has gotten Oklahoma quickly onto the right track. After missing the postseason and finishing with a losing record in 2012, the Sooners rebounded to make the NCAA Tournament last season where they earned a 10 seed and were quickly knocked out by San Diego State 70-55.
Last season's Oklahoma team was a very good all-around team, they weren't phenomenal at any one thing, but they weren't bad at much of anything either. However, this year's team looks to be drastically different than last year's due to their team's makeup. Last year, the Sooners were a slow paced, halfcourt team that leaned on their big men to really make things happen. They had a lot of youth and inexperience in the backcourt, so the post players really carried the team. Romero Osby and Amath M'Baye were the two centerpieces of the frontcourt, and both have moved on. Additionally, their best scoring guard from a year ago, Steven Pledger has also graduated. Because of this attrition, Oklahoma is left with a bunch of returning guards with potential, and very few big men, as they lost some depth at that position as well.
Because of the shakeup in personnel, Kruger and the Sooners' players have been hinting at playing a completely different style this year. They want to play up-tempo and push the ball down the court. They will be a lot more active on defense and try to cause some turnovers that will lead to points in transition. This is not something that we would have seen much from Oklahoma last year, so Alabama really doesn't have a lot of great tape on the Sooners' current gameplan. However, this is the type of team that Alabama likes to play against. The Sooners won't have as much experience running the up-tempo style, and that should be an opportunity for the Bama defense to cause some turnovers. The Sooners also won't be able to exploit our current weakness (post play) due to the attrition that struck the frontcourt. These are both very good things for the Tide.
As I mentioned before, Oklahoma has a group of young, but experienced guards ready to run the show for the Sooners this year. This includes senior Cameron Clark (6.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, and 0.4 APG last season), and a trio of up and coming sophomores in Buddy Hield (7.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.9 APG), Je'lon Hornbeak (5.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, and one of the best names in college basketball), and Isaiah Cousins (2.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG, and 1.6 APG). Cousins has been nursing an ankle injury, though Kruger said he should be good to go by game time. These guys will dictate how the season plays out for Oklahoma, especially early on. However, keep your eye on a true freshman by the name of Jordan Woodard, he has played very well for the Sooners in their preseason games.
Oklahoma will probably play a shorter, quicker lineup this season, and because of that, the frontcourt will be more on the athletic side than the big side. They will look to two players who didn't even play last season. F Ryan Spangler had to sit out last season after transferring, and F DJ Bennett redshirted. Bennett has had some injury issues lately, and he may not play, which would leave the Sooners with only one true big man in Spangler, who is only 6'8. Not only will Alabama not be at a disadvantage down low, the Tide should actually have the upper-hand for once.
Again, there isn't a whole lot of analysis one can use when the sample size is zero games played, but I believe that these two teams are very similar, and I think Alabama's experience, both in games played and relative experience with the gameplan, will be a big factor.
What to Watch For
1. Will Levi Play? There have been some indications that Levi Randolph might see some playing time, this is obviously big news.
2. The New Guys (Part 2). I know I had this listed the other night, but seeing as no one could watch the game, I'll reiterate it here. Keep an eye on Jimmie Taylor, I really like what I saw out of him the other night.
3. Oklahoma's New Frontcourt. As I have mentioned at length, Oklahoma lost pretty much every significant contributor down low from last season. How this new look smaller-but-quicker approach works for them will be crucial to their team's success.
4. Trevor Releford. I know Alabama basketball can be unwatchable at times, but everyone needs to enjoy Releford's final season here. The guy is awesome.
3 Keys to Victory
1. Get to the Free Throw Line and Make it Count. Combine Oklahoma's lack of experience and depth down low with the new rules on fouls and a lack of experience in their new aggressive defensive approach and what do you have? A golden opportunity for Alabama to get people in foul trouble, which severely exploits their lack of depth, and get to the free throw line for easy baskets. Releford could have a big game doing just this. Another performance where he takes it to the rim early and often and makes his free throws count could be the difference.
2. Win the Turnover Battle. I know you are thinking "well duh", but this point is even more important for this game. Early indications are that the Sooners will try to push the ball, which is something that they didn't do much last year, and they are playing against one of the best defenses in the country. Alabama has to take advantage of that and force turnovers while also limiting this scrappy Sooner bunch from taking the ball away themselves.
3. SOMEBODY REBOUND. Seriously, this may just stay here at point number 3 all season. Alabama has to rebound better, plain and simple. The Tide has a great opportunity going up against an undersized Sooner team. Oklahoma is quick and athletic, they will be able to rebound. But Alabama has the height and the depth, and they need to capitalize.
All indications are that Oklahoma is a good team. They have guys who played in the NCAA Tournament 8 months ago. But this is a new look Sooners team. Both Alabama and Oklahoma have a lot of potential, but both teams need to develop that into results. There is no better stage for that than in Dallas this afternoon, and this game will be a big starting point for one of these two teams. The game is at 4 pm CT and will televised by Fox Sports South.
Roll Tide, everybody.