After the fun win Wednesday night against Mississippi State, Alabama now heads back on the road in an attempt to notch their first true road victory of the season. The Missouri Tigers (13-3, 1-2 in SEC play) played very well in non-conference play. With wins over UCLA and NC State, and their lone loss being a one point loss to Illinois, the Tigers looked to be in great standing with the NCAA Selection Committee. But Mizzou has struggled since conference play began, with a pair of losses to two of the worst teams in the SEC. Their only win, at Auburn, wasn't exactly a quality performance in its own right, as Mizzou needed a late stand (and a terrible no call on a play where Missouri clearly stepped out of bounds with time remaining) in order to secure the victory.
Many are starting to wonder if Missouri is falling apart, or if they weren't that good to begin with. Others believe that the Tigers are just dealing with a tough slump right now (with a dash of some serious #SECBasketballFever), and that they are still a good, NCAA Tournament quality team. I think the reality of it falls somewhere in the middle. Listen, Missouri lost 4 starters from last year's team. The fact that they went 12-1 in non-conference play was impressive considering the attrition they faced. But this team is not as bad as they have played in recent games. I still think that Missouri is a NCAA Tournament team, but they will need to turn it around. Fortunately for Alabama, the Crimson Tide are catching Mizzou at the right time, and Anthony Grant's squad actually matches up pretty favorably against them.
The reason why I am optimistic about this matchup is because Missouri is a team that depends on three guys to do most of the work, especially on offense, and none of them are post players. Junior G Jordan Clarkson (18.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.6 APG, 0.9 SPG) is a transfer (something Frank Haith apparently can't get enough of) from Tulsa who, at the midpoint of the season, looked to be making a strong push for SEC Player of the Year. Clarkson is a very good player, though he has had his issues with turnovers at times. He isn't a very good long range shooter (27.5% 3P%), but he can score from almost anywhere inside of the arc (53.8% 2P%, 81.5% FT%). He also uses his 6'5 frame to grab himself a good amount of rebounds. Clarkson is the leader of this team, as the offense runs through him. He is definitely the guy that teams must try to stop first. Fellow Junior G Jabari Brown (18.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG) is the green-light shooter. Alabama has to keep a hand in his face at all times on offense, plain and simple. Brown shoots 47.1% from the field, 42.2% from three, and 75.0% from the line. He is also a very good rebounder, so whoever is guarding him is going to have his hands full. Not only do you need to prevent Brown from getting open looks, but you need to immediately find him when a shot goes up as well. Brown is not a passer, not only does he only average 1.4 APG on 36.8 MPG, but he also averages 2.3 TOPG. Look for the Tide to take advantage of that. The last of the three key Tigers is Senior G Earnest Ross (14.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.7 BPG), who somehow still has eligibility remaining. Ross is a good scorer (42.7% FG%, 30.9% 3P%, 76.5% FT%), but what makes him such a good player is his athleticism. Ross has serious hops, which is why he is such a force in rebounding. He also has good hands which, when combined with his length, makes him a very good stealer as well. However, Ross, like Brown, as the same issues passing and handling the basketball. Both of them have negative assist to turnover ratios. Joining the big three in the backcourt is Freshman G Wes Clark (4.6 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 0.6 SPG). Clark is the one true point guard on the team, and will get plenty of time at that spot during the game. He seems to still be getting his feet wet with Haith's schemes and the speed of the game, as he sometimes seems lost on both sides of the court. He has a lot of potential though, so Alabama doesn't need to take him lightly.
In the frontcourt, Missouri has a serious dropoff in both talent and productivity. Their best player is 6'9 true Freshman F Jonathan Williams III (6.9 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG). Williams is a raw product with a lot of potential, and he and Clark look to have a bright future for Mizzou, but he can be overwhelmed at times down low. He shoots only 48.8% from the field, which isn't what you want out of your leading scorer in the post (Alabama fans should understand), and he is a bad free throw shooter (55.6%). He is the leading rebounder and shot blocker, so Alabama needs to be ready for that. Senior F Tony Criswell (6.0 PPG, 4.6 RPG) has to be the most disappointing player on Missouri's roster. At 6'9, Criswell isn't a very good rebounder or shot blocker (0.1 BPG). Considering the kind of potential he has, his 47.4% FG% is underwhelming, but he does shoot the three pretty well for a big (30.8%). 6'10 Sophomore F Ryan Rosburg (4.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG) is a traditional low post player. He doesn't have much of a scoring presence, but he is an efficient scorer at 68.2% from the field. Rosburg is a role player in the post, but he gets a lot of minutes due to Missouri's lack of depth. 6'11 Junior F Keanau Post (1.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG) is the only other player that gets a significant amount of playing time.
What To Watch For
1. The Tiger Triumvirate. Clarkson, Brown, and Ross combine for nearly 36 FGAs a game. The rest of the team combined averages less than 20 FGAs per game. When you play the Missouri Tigers, you play The Tiger Triumvirate.
2. Trevor Releford's Homecoming. Releford is from the Kansas City area, so this game means a lot to him. Last season, despite the Tide getting run out of town by Missouri, Relly went for 26 points. Alabama is a better team when Releford is being aggressive with the basketball. Hopefully we will see a motivated Releford lead Alabama to a win.
Three Keys to Victory
1. Limit the Tiger Triumvirate. Listen, the three of them are going to get theirs. When you are that important to the team, you will keep trying to take over. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial that Alabama do whatever they can to make these guys uncomfortable and force someone else to make a play. Alabama is very good against the three, as we all know, so we should look to smother Brown and not let him get any good looks from there. Ross uses his athleticism to create open looks, so Alabama needs guys like Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph to defend him. The key is that they can't be overly aggressive, as SEC refs are extremely quick to blow the whistle on the defense, especially on the road. Clarkson can not get dribble penetration, as that is the key to his success. If Alabama can at least shut down one of these guys, the Tide's chances of success sky rocket.
2. Take Advantage: Turnovers. If Alabama is going to win this game, the Tide will have to take advantage of Missouri's inability to take care of the basketball. In recent games, that has really been a major issue for the Tigers. Alabama, of course, is very good at forcing turnovers. Releford and Retin Obasohan remain two of the best in the country at stealing the basketball. Of course, another factor in this is how the officials call the game. In many games where Alabama has struggled, it's been because the refs have prevented Alabama from being able to play aggressive defensively.
3. Limit Missouri's Advantage. Mizzou has a huge advantage on the glass. The Tigers use their combination of size and athleticism to dominate the boards, as they are one of the best in the country in rebounding. So while their frontcourt isn't great, they do crash the boards well. Jimmie Taylor, Nick Jacobs, Carl Engstrom, and Shannon Hale will have to come up big in this area. But the rest of the team will have to get a body on guys as well, as Missouri's whole team can rebound well. Alabama isn't going to win the rebound battle, but if they can keep the margin within a few boards, I like the Tide's chances.
This is a big opportunity for Alabama. Despite Missouri's struggles to start out SEC play, the Tigers are very much right in the thick of the NCAA Tournament conversation. This would represent Alabama's biggest win of the year, and it's not even close. Tip-off is set for 1:00 pm CST, and the game will be televised by ESPN2.