With the long, cold football offseason now upon us, it's time to truly turn our attention to basketball season. For those of you just now joining us: welcome! This is my corner of the internet where I tell you my (misinformed) take on Alabama's upcoming opponent. The Crimson Tide currently sit at 6-7 overall, but it's not as bad as it might seem. Alabama has played the 9th toughest SOS to this point, and all of our losses (besides USF) were against very good teams. With a good showing in conference play, Alabama can still turn this season around. They are as battle tested as any team in the country, and hopefully that will bear good fruit for us fans in SEC play.
Up first is the Vanderbilt Commodores (8-4). The 'Dores are in a second straight rebuilding season after the unexpected losses of Kedron Johnson, Sheldon Jeter and Kevin Bright this past offseason. However, they have played decently well for coach Kevin Stallings. While they are certainly not contenders for the SEC Championship, they are well coached and are only going to get better, similar to last season's team. Our only common opponent thus far, Georgia State, gave them a good game in their opening game, but it would be foolish to think that they haven't gotten better.
After losing those three guys I listed above, the 'Dores have lost a lot of depth in the backcourt. However, Vandy has gotten some great relief from Tulsa transfer Sophomore G Eric McClellan (14.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.3 SPG). McClellan is a high volume shooter, averaging over 11 FGAs per game. He commands the basketball on offense, and although he doesn't score at an outstanding rate (43.6%), he makes things happen for this team in the backcourt. He also turns the ball over quite a bit, so Alabama could definitely force him into some mistakes. Senior G Kyle Fuller (9.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.8 APG, 0.7 SPG) is the lone senior in the backcourt. He is a smaller, less aggressive version of McClellan in a way. He is a better three point threat, but he isn't a huge concern there (33.3%). Fuller is the best free throw shooter on the team, hitting 78.6% of his attempts. Both of these guys play well defensively, and they are pretty good rebounders for their size. Aside from them, only Junior G Dai-Jon Parker (5.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.3 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.5 BPG) gets any playing time off the bench for the Commodores in the backcourt. Parker is the three point threat, shooting at 45.2% from beyond the arc. Alabama needs to find him and prevent him from getting good looks from three. He isn't much of a threat to take the ball to the basket, so he can be very easy to limit offensively. Defensively, he is pretty good at forcing turnovers.
The frontcourt is where Vanderbilt does a lot of their damage. Senior F Rod Odom (13.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.6 BPG) is probably their best player. Odom plays nearly the entire game, and provides the rare combination of size (6'9) and shooting ability (43.1% FG, 43.8% 3FG, and 71.0% FT). He will be a tough matchup for Alabama. 6'10 Freshman C Damian Jones (10.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.3 BPG) is a physical presence in the middle. He is a pretty standard low post player, but he does it well. All of his scoring comes around the basket, he crashes the boards, and he defends the rim well. His playing time has gone up dramatically after Junior C Josh Henderson tore both his ACL and MCL about a month ago, ending his season. 6'7 Junior F James Siakam (7.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG) is a great defender. He does all of his scoring inside of the arc, and rebounds well, but his defense is truly his calling card. Expect whoever he is guarding to have an off game. Another 6'10 Freshman C, Luke Kornet (4.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.6 BPG), has also seen his playing time increase since Henderson's injury. Finally, F Shelby Moats (1.3 PPG, 1.7 RPG) rounds out the rotation, though he doesn't make a huge impact.
What To Watch For
1. No Memorial Magic. Alabama gets Vanderbilt at home, which of course means that we don't have to play the Commodores at their place. Anyone who has followed SEC basketball for some time now knows of Vandy's mysterious home court advantage. Luckily, Alabama avoids that this season. With this being the opening SEC game, and with all of the students being back on campus, hopefully we can get a good crowd for this one. The team really feeds off of it. The Tide has won 12 straight SEC games at home, by the way.
2. Backcourt Robbery. Trevor Releford and Retin Obasohan are really good at stealing the ball. Obasohan is first in the SEC and sixth nationally at 2.9 SPG, and Releford is second in the SEC and fourteenth nationally at 2.5 SPG. Together they make up the second best duo in the country at forcing steals, behind only VCU's Briante Weber and Rob Brandenburg.
Three Keys to Victory
1. Frontcourt Play. Vanderbilt's bigs aren't the best we will face all year, but they do have some serious size inside. Nick Jacobs, Carl Engstrom, Jimmie Taylor, and Shannon Hale are going to be crucial to our success in this game. We need them to get a body on these big guys when the ball comes off the glass, and we need them to hold their own on the defensive side of the court. Also, not turning the ball over every other time they touch it on offense would help greatly.
2. Free Throws. Vanderbilt is one of the worst teams in the country in FT%, coming in at 63.0%. That is bad enough for 330th in the country. Meanwhile, Alabama sits near the top of the SEC at 70.3%. But here is the thing, even bad free throw teams have shot well from the line against us this year, and it has hurt our chances of pulling off close games late. Opponents are shooting 73.9% from the free throw line against Alabama. If Vandy is 6/10 from the line, and not say, 10/14, Alabama has a greater chance of winning this game, obviously.
3. Three Point Defense. I have made this a key in many games this season, usually because the opponent we are playing is very good at shooting three pointers. Vanderbilt is not, as they really only have two guys who can consistently hit threes, and one of them is a post player by trade. This means that Alabama, who is one of the best in the country at limiting three pointers, has an opportunity to totally prevent Vandy from having any three point plays, which makes a huge difference in PPP (Points Per Possession). However, Vanderbilt is also very good at shutting down the three point line, even better than Alabama in fact. So they also have that same opportunity, as Alabama is a very streaky three point shooting team at best. Whichever team does a better job defending the three will more than likely come away with the win in this game.
With this being the opening game of conference play, it's obviously a big one. But it's also crucial because Alabama can't really afford any more losses, especially to an average team at home. The Crimson Tide actually has a pretty tough SEC schedule (Missouri twice, Florida twice, at Kentucky, LSU, Arkansas twice, Ole Miss twice),so the fact that Alabama opens up with a pretty easy slate (Vandy, at Georgia, Mississippi State) is very important. The Crimson Tide need to be at 3-0 after this opening stretch. But for now, let's just focus on beating the Commodores.
Tip off is at 8:00 pm CST and the game will be televised by ESPNU.