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Arkansas @ Alabama: Game Preview

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The Crimson Tide basketball team will return home to Coleman Coliseum on Saturday to take on the red-hot Arkansas Razorbacks in a key SEC West showdown. A January 19th matchup in Fayetteville sent the two teams in opposite directions, as a reeling Arkansas team rallied in the second half to take down what was at the time a fairly confident Tide team 71-59. Since that game, Arkansas has reeled off wins in five of their last seven games to propel them to a shocking position atop the SEC West standings. Alabama meanwhile is trying to salvage its season after losing five of its last seven since the teams first met in Fayetteville.

Tip-off on Saturday is set for 3 p.m. local time and tickets remain on sale here. This will be only the Tide's second weekend SEC home game of the season, and should be a great opportunity for fans in the area to catch a glimpse of Coach Anthony Grant's young team. For those who can't make it to Tuscaloosa, the game will be televised throughout the Southeast on the SEC Network. Those in other areas of the world can watch the game online at ESPN360.

Having now lost four games in a row in what was a brutal stretch of the schedule, the Tide is sitting at 13-11 on the season and only 3-7 in SEC play. Entering the final four weeks of the season, Alabama is looking to pick up enough wins to mount a run at an NIT bid, which would be a strong way to close the season. A win over Arkansas at home is crucial if the Tide hopes to end things this year in such a strong manner.

Arkansas will come into Tuscaloosa on Saturday absolutely on fire. They have won five games in a row now after blowing out hapless LSU on Wednesday night by 35 points at home. While this kind of streak in a much improved SEC is impressive in itself, it's even more impressive when you consider that Arkansas was a downright embarrassment to the whole conference with their performance in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Entering his third season in Fayetteville on a slightly warming seat after spending two rough years rebuilding a depleted roster, head coach John Pelphrey looked to have the pieces in place for a possible run to postseason play. However, major suspensions early on all but ruined the Hogs chances before they even began. Playing without two of their starting guards for much of the non-conference games, they dropped losses to the likes of Morgan State, East Tennessee State, and South Alabama.  Later in the non-conference slate they avoided embarrassing losses but continued to struggle until their star player and the absolute engine of the team finally returned to the court after a two-month suspension. They haven't been the same since, and there are whispers, faint though they may be, that Arkansas might conceivably be able to overcome their awful non-conference performance if they keep up their current pace in SEC play.

Read below the jump for more on the Arkansas Razorbacks and the keys to an Alabama victory...

Although he's not as talented as Kentucky's John Wall or as prolific a scorer as South Carolina's Devan Downey, there is no question which SEC player is most valuable to his team. After finally returning from a half-season suspension during which his team flailed against even the weakest competition, sophomore point guard Courtney Fortson returned just in time to transform Arkansas from an SEC bottom-feeder to the top of the West division heading into the final four weeks of the season. No team in the SEC relies so heavily on one player, as Fortson's unbelievable playmaking is the engine that makes the Razorback offense run. Since Fortson has so revolutionized the Arkansas team since his return just before conference play, there's no point in even looking at what players did before SEC play started, so any statistics referenced from here on will be conference games only for the Hogs.

Arkansas is led by four players who score in double-digits, two on the outside and two on the inside. On the perimeter, the Hogs are led in both points and assists by Fortson. His 20.0 points and 5.9 assists per game are both near the top in the SEC, but again, even those numbers don't do justice for the things he does for the Arkansas offense. He can break down a defense better than anyone in the conference, can get to the rim and find ways to scoore inside despite a small stature, and is just dangerous enough from the arc to command respect, knocking down just over one 3 per game. Another dangerous player in the Arkansas backcourt is yet another sophomore guard, Rotnei Clarke. Clarke is a pure shooting guard who averages 11.9 points per game while leading the team in 3-point shooting with 2.6 makes per game. He shoots 39% from the arc and is one of the most deadly pure shooters in the SEC. When he heats up, no one in the conference is better.

Junior guard Marcus Britt and senior guard Stefan Welsh split time on the wing. Britt usually starts, but isn't much of an offensive threat. He only attempts one shot every eight minutes on the court and averages just 3.2 points per game. He is a very strong defensive player though and is a solid rebounder for a guard. Welsh is a bit more dangerous on the offensive end and is the second best 3-point shooter on the team with right at one made 3 per game despite coming off the bench. He averages 5.7 points each game. Depth in the backcourt is provided by two newcomers, JuCo transfer Jemal Farmer and freshman Julysses Nobles.

In the two teams' first meeting in Fayetteville, Alabama did a decent job keeping Fortson in check for most of the game, but Senario Hillman's ejection midway through the second half with the game still very tight freed Fortson up from Bama's best perimeter defender and allowed him to run free down the stretch. Alabama's defense never recovered and Arkansas succeeded in breaking open what was at the time a one-point game. Alabama's defensive demise without Hillman was no coincidence. We need Hillman in this game more than almost any other to play smart and keep the opposing point guard off-balance. Defending Clarke will be important as well and all of Bama's perimeter defenders will need to focus on limiting his looks from the arc.

Arkansas has gotten excellent production from its two starters in the post, and like the rest of the team, they have only picked up their play as the season has gone on. Senior center Michael Washington has been no surprise this season. He is third on the team in scoring with 12.1 points per game and shares the lead in rebounds at 7.2. He does an excellent job getting to the free throw line, where he shoots over 70%. He is a solid all-around post-player and as one of the few veterans on this young Razorback team, he brings a nice bit of experience and leadership to the lineup. The big surprise for the Hogs in the post however has been the breakout season of freshman forward Marshawn Powell. Powell came in as a highly-rated four-star recruit, but few expected him to be posting 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in SEC play. He shoots over 50% from the floor and is extremely active in all phases of the game. If there were such as award, he would be the SEC West's freshman of the year. Depth in the Arkansas frontcourt is provided by two newcomers, freshman forward Glenn Bryant and JuCo transfer Delvon Johnson.

Together, Washington and Powell give the Razorbacks a duo that very few teams in the conference can match. In fact, outside of Kentucky's starting frontcourt duo, this is probably the most dangerous in the SEC. Both Powell and Washington gave the Tide fits in Fayetteville in the previous meeting. Both had monster games: Powell with an 18-point 10-rebound double-double and Washington with a 17-point 13-rebound double-double. Now, I'm not one to ever want JaMychal Green to foul, but in allowing those two to go off like that on him while he only picked up one foul tells me he probably wasn't aggressive enough on defense or on the boards. Green, along with Justin Knox and Chris Hines, must fight like their lives depend on it for every rebound and make things tough on both Hogs post players defensively. We can not afford to let those two have free reign on the boards. This will be a big key to the game, probably the biggest I'd say.

Offensively the keys for Alabama are getting the ball to the post, offensive boards, and Mikhail Torrance. Getting the ball to the post is pretty self-explanatory. JaMychal Green has not gotten near enough touches near the basket the last few games and this has hurt his effectiveness overall. He's the type of player who elevates his game on both ends when he gets involved offensively and he hasn't been enough in the last few games. Forcing either Powell or Washington into foul trouble would be a very nice bonus. The Razorbacks succeeded in out-rebounding the Tide by a whopping 40-27 margin the first time around. This was the biggest factor in the Arkansas win. Alabama managed only 6 offensive boards off of 33 attempts for only 18%. Alabama must improve in this area to produce second chances and limit the Hogs' opportunities. It's hard to win games when the other team is getting 13 more shots than you are. Finally, Mikhail Torrance needs to have a big game. He was excellent against Florida and in the first half against Ole Miss, but has been MIA for the last three halves of basketball. I'd like to see him be more aggressive and look to draw fouls, and I think the Arkansas defense is has some spots he can attack. Both Powell and Washington are good post defenders but not great shot blockers, so Torrance needs to capitalize when he is able to get inside. On the perimeter, Fortson is a quick defender but at only 5'11" Torrance will have a half-foot advantage; Clarke can be beaten off the dribble and is only 6'0" himself. Torrance should look to exploit these matchups and step up to deliver us a big game. We will need it. As always, guys like Arkansas native Anthony Brock and recently hot Tony Mitchell need to knock down their looks from deep when they get them. Having Charvez Davis back would be huge as well.

This game will be huge in determining the trajectory of our season over the final homestretch. We have a full week until our next game after this one, so a win would be a nice way to enter the break with some momentum and some hope for perhaps piecing together an NIT run. Arkansas will not be easy. They are one of the hottest teams in the country, but they can be had. We need to defend our home floor and break this losing streak. Go out to the Coliseum on Saturday and help us do it. Roll Tide!