The Crimson Tide basketball team will return to action tomorrow night after a week-long layoff for finals for a nationally televised clash with the Kansas State Wildcats. The late-night game is scheduled to tip off at 9:00pm CST and will be televised on ESPNU live from the Sprint Center in Kansas City. This will be a return trip as part of a semi-home-and-semi-home series; Kansas State played the Tide in Mobile's Mitchell Center two years ago.
It's no secret that Alabama has become bogged down in a funk after a hot start that included an impressive run at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with wins over projected NCAA Tournament teams Wichita State and Purdue. During its last four games--a last-second home loss to Georgetown and an ugly road loss at Dayton sandwiched between two ugly home wins over VCU and Detroit--the Tide offense has become mired in a slump and the usually stifling defense has shown signs of vulnerability.
Offensively, Bama's troubles have been most pronounced at the 3-point line, where the Tide has shot an abysmal 17% during the last four games. Perhaps more troubling though has been the lack of offensive contributions from the Bama backcourt. In that four-game stretch, 64% of the Tide's scoring has come from its frontcourt--and it's a thin frontcourt, consisting of only, Tony Mitchell and . That means Bama has gotten less than 23 points/game combined from all of the six guards in the lineup, three of whom are usually on the court at a time: , , , , Charles Hankerson and . If the Tide offense is going to break out of its slump, it's time for all of those players to step up. And it's not just scoring; the Bama guards have had increasing difficulty in initiating the offense from the point of attack, and responsibility for that falls primarily on the team's two primary ball-handlers, Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey.
Trevor Releford, in particular, is probably the biggest key to re-igniting this Alabama team (that is still projected to be a #5 seed in the Dance despite the two recent losses). Releford has to become more aggressive as the primary playmaker, and there's no better time or place for him to take the team by the reins than tonight against a very good Kansas State team in his hometown, where he'll be playing in all likelihood for the only time in his college career.
The Kansas State squad Bama will be facing on Saturday night has been off to a fairly strong start, winning their first four games comfortably against mid-major foes at home before scoring a huge road win at Virginia Tech. Their only loss came in their sixth game, falling in double-overtime to former coach Bob Huggins and West Virginia. Oddly enough, the Wildcats have only played seven games thus far, with the last becoming an ugly and ultimately scary (for Wildcat fans) overtime nail-biter against North Florida, a team Bama pasted in its season opener. Despite the heartbreaking loss to West Virginia and the unflattering win against North Florida, though, KSU enters the game with a nice 6-1 record and expectations for another trip to the Big Dance.
The Wildcats are being led this season by surprise star freshman forward Thomas Gipson, who is leading the team in both scoring at 14.0 points/game and rebounding at 8.1 boards/game despite playing less than 26 minutes/game. The 6'7" Gipson wasn't that highly recruited, only rated as a 3-star by the major services, but he's been nothing short of a beast inside as a true freshman.
Gipson is joined in the post by another 6'7" forward, senior Jamar Samuels, who averages 11.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, despite also playing less than 26 minutes per contest. 7'0" center Jordan Henriquez plays about 20 minutes/game in the post as well and provides additional size and rebounding as well as an incredible 3.0 block/game average--one of the highest shot-bock rates in the country. Clearly having two double-digit scorers in the post in addition to a 7-foot shot-blocking machine makes for a strong frontcourt, so Bama's frontcourt, which has had to carry so much of the load in recent games, will be challenged in a big way on Saturday night.
6'3" sophomore guard Will Spradling and 6'4" junior guard Rodney McGruder are the scoring leaders in the Wildcat backcourt. Both are excellent playmakers and score over 12 points/game, but Spradling is the better shooter (2.0 made treys each game) while McGruder is the better rebounder (5.1 boards/game). Both are dynamic players and scorers who will challenge the Tide's perimeter defense.
6'1" junior point guard Martavious Irving, 6'6" sophomore wing player Shane Southwell and 5'11" freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez all play at least 17 minutes/game in the backcourt as well, and combined they contribute 8.0 assists/game in addition to 17.9 points/game, indicating that they all play a big role in the offense even if their scoring numbers aren't as high as Spradling and McGruder.
Kansas State coach Frank Martin, a high school teammate of Anthony Grant, doesn't have any superstars on his team, but he has proven to be a very capable coach and he has plenty of very good players on his roster. Kansas State is expected to be one of the better teams in the Big XII this season, and they are expected to at least make a run at the NCAA Tournament. In what will be a virtual road game, this will be a very stiff test for the slumping Tide. But as always, with great challenges come great opportunities, and a road win for Bama over a very good Kansas State team would do wonders for the team's confidence (not to mention the team's tournament resume) as we inch closer to January and the start of SEC play. Hope for the best.