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Tide faces first road test against Dayton

The Crimson Tide basketball team will face its first true road game of the season tonight, traveling to Dayton, Ohio to take on the Dayton Flyers of the Atlantic-10 conference. The game is scheduled to tip off at 6:00 pm CST, but will not be televised. However, it will be streamed live on Dayton's official website, and will be broadcast via radio on the Crimson Tide Sports Network.

Bama, now ranked #15 nationally, is looking to bounce back after a heartbreaking loss to #21 Georgetown last week that gave the Tide its first setback of the season. After struggling badly on offense, especially outside shooting, for two games in a row, Bama will hope to get back on track tonight against the Flyers. While Dayton has had a confusingly up and down season so far, the young Tide team--that now has four true freshmen among its top seven players--will certainly be tested in terms of having to play its first game in front of a hostile crowd.

The Flyers began the season with two home blowout wins over lowly Western Illinois and UNC-Wilimington, sandwiched around an overtime road loss at Miami-Ohio. They then traveled down to Orlando for the 8-team Old Spice Classic, which featured five schools from "BCS" conferences (Minnesota, Wake Forest, Texas Tech, Arizona State and DePaul) in addition to Dayton from the well-respected A-10. The Flyers ran away with the whole thing, knocking off Wake Forest, Indiana State and projected tournament team Minnesota in comfortable fashion. Upon claiming the Old Spice tournament crown, Dayton looked poised to break out onto the national scene as a likely tournament-bound team. But how did they follow up their big tournament title and big win over Minnesota? By taking an absolute woodshed beating at home at the hands of Buffalo, and then falling almost as badly to Murray State on the road.

With results like these, it's hard to make sense of what to expect from this team, which can win a big tournament with several high-major teams, and then fall hard against merely half-way decent mid-majors. We do know that the Flyers are ranked just inside the top 100 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The one thing that does stand out statistically is that they take a lot of 3-pointers. This probably explains a lot about their mixed results--as they say, live by the three, die by the three. Unsurprisingly then, the biggest factor for the Alabama defense will be challenging the three-point arc. In their biggest win (over Minnesota) the Flyers nailed 12 treys while shooting over 44% from the arc. In their two ugly losses since, they've shot a putrid 9-of-44, or just over 20%. Whether or not Dayton's cold streak continues will have a lot to do with how well the Tide's defense locates and closes out on outside shooters. Dayton's 3-point shooting may well be the biggest factor in this game.

On the other end, the biggest strength of the Dayton defense is their steal rate. If Bama can protect the ball, though, there may be some soft spots to exploit for Bama's slumping offense. The Flyers biggest weakness is defensive rebounding, which happens to match up nicely with the Tide's biggest offensive strength: pulling down offensive boards. Aside from their ability to generate steals, the Flyer defense isn't anything special, so this would be a great time (for many reasons) for the Tide to get on track offensively, particularly by getting the ball inside as early and as often as possible.

On an individual level, Dayton's most important player is 6'0" junior point guard Kevin Dillard, a transfer from Southern Illinois. Dillard not only leads the team in scoring with 12.5 points/game, but he also has a gaudy 5.1 assist/game average. As the classic point guard, Dillard is the key to creating and distributing on the offensive end for Dayton. He also has a very high rate of 2.4 steals/game on the defensive end, so he can be a real nuisance there as well. His matchup with Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey will be big on the individual level.

A pair of veterans anchor the backcourt along with Dillard. 6'4" senior guard Paul Williams and 6'6" senior wing player Chris Johnson are the team's top two shooters, and both average just over 10 points/game. Johnson is also a solid rebounder. Josh Parker is another versatile option, and the 6'0" senior can play either guard position with ease.

Inside, the Flyers are led by 6'9" junior Josh Benson, who is second on the team with 11.4 points/game, and another 6'9" junior, Matt Kavanaugh, who leads the team with 7.0 rebounds/game. 6'7" sophomore Devin Oliver sees plenty of time as well down low. 6'9" senior Luke Fabrizius provides depth, but isn't a big scoring threat even though he does like to step out and shoot from deep.

Tonight may be a bit emotional for Anthony Grant (...does he even get emotional?). After all, he played his college ball at Dayton. However, his big focus will be on how his young untested team will perform in its first road test. Dayton has proven capable of knocking off good teams when they shoot well, so the Tide should come in preparing for that to be the case tonight. If Dayton indeed shoots well and Bama's offense continues to struggle, especially if Dayton can force some steals, this trip could very well end badly. However, Dayton has also proven to be an imminently beatable team when they aren't hitting shots, and as such Bama needs to go in, play its typical lock-down defense, exploit mismatches on the offensive end by getting the ball around the rim, and then take a solid road win over a respected mid-major to get things back on track and gain confidence to win on the road.

For all their struggles in the last two games, Vegas hasn't lost hope in the Flyers. Bama is only a 5-point favorite as of Tuesday night, so clearly lots of folks expect this one to be close. Hope for the best.