After having the week off for finals, the Crimson Tide basketball team will resume non-conference action with another tough road test against a major-conference opponent tomorrow afternoon. Bama will travel to Providence, Rhode Island, to take on the Providence Friars of the Big East conference, arguably the nation's toughest basketball league. The game is scheduled to tip off at 1:00 C.T. on Saturday afternoon and will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
By now we know that the Tide is in for another tough rebuilding year in Anthony Grant's second season. The team is 4-4, but with no quality wins and a couple of questionable-at-best losses. All four of Bama's wins have also come at home, while the team is 0-4 outside of Coleman Coliseum. This game on Saturday gives the team a chance to pick up a quality win and to do it away from home.
As a Big East team boasting a 9-2 record, Providence fits the bill as a quality non-conference opponent. Like Alabama, Providence has been able to take care of business at their home in the Dunkin Donuts Center, compiling a perfect record of 8-0 there this season, though none of their wins there have come against particularly strong opposition. Their only other win came in a tournament in Cancun, Mexico, where they also dropped their first game of the season against a solid LaSalle team. Their only true road game came Wednesday night, where they lost at Boston College in a very close contest.
After a disappointing season last year in his second season at the helm, third-year head coach Keno Davis finds himself still trying to rebuild a program that has had its fair share of success in the past, including two Final Four appearances. One of those appearances came in 1987, when the 6th seed Friars, coached by Rick Pitino and led by young guard Billy Donovan (both of whom would go on to coach SEC schools to national championships) upset the 2nd seed Crimson Tide in the Sweet 16. The Tide, coached by Wimp Sanderson and led by Derrick McKey, were SEC champions and considered by many to be strong Final Four contenders, but ran into a red-hot Providence team that couldn't miss from the arc and were upset in the Sweet 16.
Saturday's game will be a return trip for Bama, as the Tide hosted the Friars in Tuscaloosa early last season and picked up a hard fought 84-75 win despite trailing for much of the contest. Along with wins over Baylor and Michigan, it was one of Bama's better non-conference wins last season. Keno Davis wanted a high-scoring system last year, and that's what he got from his Providence squad. They were third in the nation in scoring offense, but after starting out a respectable 12-8 with a 4-4 record in the Big East, the Friars collapsed down the stretch, dropping 11 straight Big East games while posting the second-worst scoring defense in Division I basketball on the year. Due to graduation and several off-court issues, the Friars lost over half their team from last year, and now Davis has adjusted to a more defense-oriented system with new personnel.
The Friars have done surprisingly well this year thanks in large part to the contributions of senior wing man Marshon Brooks, who has really begun to capitalize on his potential in his final year with a very impressive stat line of 22.0 points/game and 8.7 rebounds/game. He's long, athletic, and skilled. He averages 2.0 made 3's per game while shooting 33% from the arc, so he's certainly a shooting threat. He also averages 5.1 free throw attempts per contest, meaning he is capable of drawing contact in the lane. He's really just an all-around solid wing player who could give us plenty of trouble if we don't find him on every possession. We saw what can happen last weekend with Purdue's outstanding guard Moore when we had trouble keying in on an opponent's go-to scorer.
Providence also has a stellar point guard in sophomore Vincent Council, who has an equally impressive stat line with 16.7 points/game and a whopping 7.0 assists/game. That assist average is about as high as you're going to see in major college basketball, so clearly he is a player who can make things happen for the Friars in terms of getting easy looks for his teammates. Like Brooks, he's a threat from the arc, where he nails 1.8 3's per contest, but he really makes his presence known with his ability to penetrate, which allows him to rack up the impressive assist total and get to the line for 6.0 free throw attempts per game.
Offensively, Brooks and Council are the two players who really make things tick for the Friars, but the other players on the team have done a lot to improve the Friars defense this season and make them more of a complete team, despite the loss of several big scorers from last year's squad. Joining Brooks and Council in the starting lineup on the perimeter is highly-recruited freshman guard Gerard Coleman, who is third on the team with 9.9 points/game. All three perimeter starters are adept at driving the lane, so stopping penetration and avoiding fouls will be big keys for the Tide defense.
Additional depth for Providence in the backcourt comes from sophomore guard Duke Mondy, a solid 3-point shooter, and a trio of freshmen: guard Bryce Cotton, wing Ron Giplaye, and point guard Dre Evans. Providence has plenty of bodies in reserve, but they're all very young and inexperienced. If Bama can limit Brooks and Council or at least wear them down, Providence's depth could become an issue (not that our depth is good either, but we aren't as reliant on two star players the way they are).
The Friars have a pair of young 6'9" post players rounding out the starting lineup in freshman Kadeem Batts and sophomore Bilal Dixon. Both players average around 7 points/game, but Dixon is known as a monster rebounder, leading the team with 9.8 rebounds/game. 7'0" senior Ray Hall and and 6'9" freshman Lee Goldsbrough provide some depth but neither are particularly strong or skilled. The Friars have two nice young post players in Batts and Dixon that are big and strong--Dixon is especially strong--but they aren't players who should beat us or anyone in the Big East for that matter. Their size and strength though should be a good test to see if JaMychal Green has heeded Grant's call and is ready to finally start playing like our leading player, as I called for in this article from yesterday discussing his return to the team.
Providence is a very young team that, like Alabama, is looking to rebuild with a young roster. The Friars are a Big East team with a solid record of 9-2 so far, and though they look to be moving in the right direction, they are still likely to end up in the bottom half of the notoriously brutal Big East. Marshon Brooks and Vincent Council are stellar players who can play with anyone, but the Friars are extremely young and inexperienced elsewhere, both in the post and on their bench. Playing a quality opponent in a hostile environment will be tough, as always, but this isn't the impossible challenge that playing an experienced, top-20, conference champion Purdue team on the road was last week. Alabama is capable of winning this game, but we will have to play one of our better games of the year to do it.
The defensive key will be to limit penetration by Providence's guards, which is the basis for their offense, and also to limit fouls. Offensively we need to create some penetration of our own and start to run things through Green in the post to try and get him--and our meager offense--jump-started. And of course, as with any game, but especially a tough road game, we must be able to knock down at least 2-3 3's per half and limit turnovers as much as possible, something we haven't done in most of our losses this season.
Hope for the best. Roll Tide.