The Crimson Tide basketball team will begin a three-game non-conference holiday homestand tonight when the Lipscomb Bisons visit Coleman Coliseum. The game will tip off at 7:00 C.T. and will not be televised. Instead the game will be streamed live on TideTV and will be available on radio throughout the state on the Crimson Tide Sports Network.
Believe it or not--and like it or not--this will be a tough game for the Tide. Scott Sanderson (son of former Bama coach Wimp Sanderson) led Lipscomb to a share of the Atlantic Sun Conference title last year, and they return all five starters from last season on this year's squad. They are the consensus favorite to win the conference outright this season and potentially earn the school's first automatic berth to the Big Dance with an A-Sun tournament title.
Entering tonight's game the veteran Bisons are 7-2 on the season, with their only two losses coming in fairly close games on the road against top-20 teams North Carolina and Baylor. They don't have any marquee wins, but outside the two top-20 opponents they've been flawless, and their Pomeroy ranking of 105 is very good for a mid-major school and in fact is just below that of Alabama and a handful of other SEC teams. This will be by far Bama's toughest non-conference home matchup.
The Bisons are led by 6'8" senior forward Adnan Hodzic, a legitimate NBA prospect who was the second-leading scorer in the country last season. This season he averages 21.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and is one of the better big men in the nation, regardless of conference. If he is allowed to catch the ball near the basket, it's a pretty good bet he'll be scoring. Probably the biggest key in this game for Bama defensively will be limiting his touches near the rim. When he gets the ball down low he can draw fouls (6.5 free throw attempts per game) and score efficiently (59% shooting from the floor). He will undoubtedly be one of the toughest post players we will see all year.
The Bisons aren't just a one-man team, though. 6'3" senior guard Josh Slater was an all-conference player last season and one of only four players in the country to average over 15 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game last year. So far this season he barely trails Hodzic for team scoring honors with 19.0 points per contest. His assist numbers are excellent too, as he dishes out 4.6 assists each game. Any player who can score that much and still create at such a high rate for his teammates is extremely dangerous. Slater can pretty much do it all: shoot the 3-ball, penetrate off the dribble, pull up inside the arc, score near the rim, distribute to teammates, and draw fouls. Just for good measure he also averages an impressive 2.4 steals and a mind-blowing 8.2 rebounds each game (remember he's 6'3"). I've never seen a player of that size have anywhere close to that rebounding average.
Hodzic and Slater could play for absolutely anyone in the country: Duke, Kansas, you name it. Fortunately for Bama, though, they don't have a whole team of Hodzic's and Slater's; still, they do have some nice role players who are just good enough to keep teams from keying in solely on Hodzic and Slater.
Their third-leading scorer is 3-point specialist Jordan Burgason, a 6'3" junior guard who is a specialist for a reason: he hits 2.8 treys each game while shooting 41% from the arc. He doesn't do much else, but when you're nailing almost 3 treys each game, you don't really need to. A pair of 6'3" freshman guards, Brandon Barnes (son of former Ole Miss coach Rod Barnes) and Robert Boyd, each average around 8-9 points/game and see plenty of action in the backcourt as well. 6'4" sophomore Jacob Arnett and 6'5" senior Michael Teller round out the playing rotation on the perimeter.
Overall, the Bisons are a very dangerous offensive team, with an elite player both inside and outside who can score on anyone and some capable role players who can do some damage if left alone. Overall, they are probably every bit as good an offensive team as Oklahoma State and Providence, two major-conference teams we have faced recently, and probably significantly better than Iowa and St. Peter's, two teams we lost to earlier in the year. Slater is going to make things happen, Hodzic is going to find ways to get the ball and score, and the supporting cast, especially Burgason, will no doubt bury some shots as the game goes on. The keys for Bama defensively though will be to create turnovers and prevent foul trouble. Lipscomb's biggest weakness offensively is turnovers (they rank in the bottom third of the nation in turnover %) while our biggest strength is in creating steals and turnovers (we rank near the top of the nation in those categories), so this is an area where we can cause them problems and create chances for ourselves. Avoiding needless fouls will be big too. Coach Grant has begun to rally thin out his playing rotation lately, which has helped in some areas but has led to some serious foul trouble for our top players in our last two big games (Providence and Oklahoma State).
While the Bisons are an excellent offensive team, they don't quite measure up to the major-conference teams we've seen defensively. They rank in the bottom half of Division I in defensive efficiency, in generating steals, and in creating turnovers, and they are near the very bottom in blocked shots. If Bama is to win this game, then, we need to exploit this weakness by executing offensively. We have been most effective offensively when allowing our two most skilled players to work, whether by feeding the ball inside as often as possible to JaMychal Green or by clearing space for Trevor Releford to penetrate the lane. This is also a game where our two best athletes, Tony Mitchell and Senario Hillman, will have a distinct advantage that hopefully they can exploit to generate some points.
Don't let the name "Lipscomb" fool you. A win tonight would be Bama's biggest non-conference win of the season (not saying much, I realize, but hey). If we can find a way to beat such a talented and experienced offensive team at home it will bode well for our ability to get wins against at least the lower-tier SEC teams at home later on this year. A loss might be embarrassing because of their name, but it shouldn't be a surprise. Lipscomb is probably on par with Iowa, better than St. Peter's, and capable of beating several SEC teams this year. Hope for the best.