After returning from a trip to Nashville that saw the team experience its most emotionally draining loss of the year, the Crimson Tide basketball team plane landed in Tuscaloosa early Friday morning. Its next game comes Saturday afternoon in Coleman Coliseum. And it comes against the SEC West's hottest team, the Ole Miss Rebels.
Losing on the road to a high-quality, NCAA Tournament-bound opponent like Vanderbilt won't hurt our tournament resume, and it still leaves us very much alive in the SEC Championship race. However, with that loss now behind us, it becomes all the more imperative that we absolutely not slip up and lose a game we're not supposed to.
Bama will be a favorite in Saturday's game, though not overwhelmingly so. This, like most of the games we're going to play over the next couple of weeks, is virtually a must-win to stay in the SEC Championship and NCAA Tournament talk. For starters, a win would further strengthen our stranglehold on the SEC West standings, assuring us of a 4-game lead over Ole Miss, who I believe will be the strongest West team down the stretch; at least a 3.5-game lead over Arkansas; and at least a 2-game lead over Mississippi State, who we've already beaten twice. A loss meanwhile would pull Ole Miss--the team with by far the easiest remaining SEC schedule--to within two games of us, and could also pull MSU within only one game. In other words, win this and the West is all but won; we'd be focusing on chasing Florida for the SEC title more than likely down the stretch. Lose it, though, and winning the SEC title becomes unlikely; rather, we'd probably be worrying about staying on top of the West down the stretch and an NCAA berth would require virtual perfection from then on.
Aside from just that, this game will set the tone for how the upcoming 5-game stretch against SEC West opponents will shake out. Again, Ole Miss is probably the strongest West team right now aside from Alabama, so if we can manage to take them down after such a quick turnaround from the Vandy game, it will put is in strong position to take care of our business in this 5-game run of West opponents. I'll repeat what I said at the end of my Vandy recap article this morning: Bama really needs to somehow go 5-0 [in the next five games] to be in strong position for in the SEC Championship race and the NCAA bubble heading into the final week of play against Florida and Georgia. Perhaps we can afford to lose one of the five, but lose two and our SEC title and NCAA dreams are all but dead.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, enters the game on a three-game winning streak that saw them pick up highly impressive wins against Kentucky at home and Arkansas on the road. They've been the highest-ranked West team in the RPI all season long--they still are--and their 12-3 non-conference record, while short on quality wins, was better all-around than most West teams, including Alabama. Many, somewhat understandably, wrote them off after a 1-5 start to SEC play, but most failed to look more closely and see that four of those five losses came against ranked opponents. The Rebels have improved as a program since 5th-year coach Andy Kennedy took over the program, but they've failed to put it all together in one season and make the Dance, despite reaching the NIT in three of Kennedy's first four seasons. Their 1-5 start to SEC play ensures they won't be going this year either, but once again, they are a good enough team to make another NIT appearance if they close out this season strongly.
Full Ole Miss roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...
Anyone who's followed SEC basketball the last few seasons already knows all about Ole Miss point guard Chris Warren. The 5'10" senior has been among the top scorers in the league for three years now, and he's not disappointing in his last go-round. Right now he is second in the SEC in scoring (just behind Vandy's Jenkins) with 18.7 points per game this season. He is also tied for third in the SEC in assists with 3.8 per game. Clearly, Warren's stats speak for themselves, but beyond just the raw numbers he puts up, it's fairly safe to say that no team in the conference depends so much on one player as does Ole Miss with Warren. Despite his small size, he makes everything happen for the Rebs, whether it's creating his own shot--either by pulling up from deep or driving to the rim--or by breaking down defenses and dumping off to teammates, or by drawing fouls.
Warren attempts more 3-pointers than any player in the league, averaging 7.7 shots per game from beyond the arc--many from well beyond the arc. If he gets even a modicum of space, he's letting it fly, and when he doesn't get space, he'll either create his own or simply pull up several feet behind the arc. His percentage isn't overwhelming (35%) but it's high enough to justify his attempts and force defenders to come out and respect him, not to mention high enough for him to average nearly 3 made treys each game. Warren also leads the SEC in free throw percentage with an unbelievable average of 95% from the stripe--particularly dangerous since Warren draws a lot of fouls (4.9 attempts each game). Warren is one of those players where you just have to assume he's going to "get his". The real key is to keep him out of the lane and force him to take bad shots. Basically the old saying of "you can't stop him, so you just have to hope to contain him" applies here.
The Rebels' second-leading scorer is 6'6" senior wing player Zach Graham, who averages 14.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Graham is your traditional wing player with prototypical small forward size and skills. He's capable of hurting you from deep, as evidenced by his averaging 1.0 made treys each outing (at a 31% rate). Graham's biggest strength, though, is using his size as a "slasher" by cutting into the lane. This ability allows him to draw a lot of fouls, score around the rim, and break down defenses to get the offense going.
The third starter in the Rebel backcourt is 6'4" sophomore guard Nick Williams, an Alabama native who transferred after playing one year at Indiana. Williams averages 7.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists each game. He isn't great at creating his own shot, but he's a decent all-around guard on each end, capable of scoring when getting the chance. The best comparison is probably with Alabama's Steele in terms of size, skills, and what he brings to the team.
Starting at one forward spot in the post is 6'9" sophomore Reginald Buckner, the third-leading shot-blocker in the SEC. Buckner is extremely athletic for his size, making him a great defender and a formidable rebounder. His biggest weakness is his lack of shooting touch--he only hits 39% of his free throw attempts--but he still gets position around the rim enough to get plenty of dunk and put-back opportunities. He averages 7.4 points per game and leads the team in both rebounds (6.6 per game) and blocks (3.1 per game). Buckner will be a tough matchup for Green in the post.
The other starter in the frontcourt for the Rebs is 6'10" junior center Terrance Henry. Henry is third on the team in scoring with 8.8 points per game and second in rebounding with 5.8 boards per game. Henry isn't a quick as Buckner, but he has better shooting touch and is a more polished offensive player. He will also have a size advantage, as the tallest player in the Bama rotation is only 6'8".
The Rebels enjoy a fairly deep bench that features some talented newcomers. The one experienced bench player in the rotation is 6'2" junior guard Trevor Gaskins, who started several games earlier in the year. Gaskins has some impressive numbers for a player who comes off the bench: 7.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. The Rebels don't lose much when Gaskins comes in as their sixth man. The other guard who plays regularly off the bench is highly recruited (4-star, top-100 national prospect) freshman Dundrecous Nelson, who averages 6.4 points and 1.4 assists per game. Both Gaskins and Nelson are good shooters, each averaging right at one made trey per game while each shooting over 34% from the arc.
Two more newcomers provide depth in the post. 6'9" JuCo transfer Steadman Short is the first post player off the bench. He isn't a big scoring threat, but he has good size and is a pretty good rebounder. He averages 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game. Another highly recruited (4-star, top-100 national prospect) freshman, Demarco Cox, sees regular action as a reserve in the post, though his minutes and numbers have been fairly limited.
Not surprisingly, given the talented scoring guards that the Rebels have on hand, they are a very strong offensive team. They rank 41st in the nation in overall offensive efficiency, behind only Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida in the SEC. No one component of their offense stands out as particularly strong, but their effective shooting rate, turnover rate and offensive rebounding rate are all very solid. Their one weakness is their free throw attempt rate, which ranks 282nd nationally. Essentially, aside from Warren and Graham, they don't draw many fouls, so hopefully for once we don't have to worry about getting outscored from the free throw line. Still, Ole Miss's offense will very much challenge our defense in the other major components. They are a good offensive rebounding team, they don't turn the ball over a lot, and they are a good shooting team with at least three players on the floor at all times capable of draining from the arc. We'll need one of our trademark defensive efforts in this one.
Ole Miss isn't quite so strong on the defensive end, though. They rank 144th in the nation in overall defensive efficiency, ahead of only Mississippi State and Auburn within the SEC. Their biggest weaknesses come in creating turnovers and in allowing free throws, two categories where they rank in the bottom half of the country. Their biggest strengths on defense are their defensive rebounding rate, which is the 4th best in the SEC, and their block rate, which is 14th best in the nation. Alabama needs to be aggressive on the offensive end at attacking the rim. They are a good blocking team, but they also foul a lot and in general they have one of the weaker defenses in the conference. Given the offensive strength of this Ole Miss team, we'll need to score consistently in this one to win.
A lot of similarities can be drawn between this Ole Miss team and the Vanderbilt team we saw on Thursday night. Both are very good offensive teams with shooters all over the floor that have to be accounted for and an elite scoring guard. The differences are that Ole Miss is weaker on the defensive end, and that this game will be played in the friendly confines of Coleman Coliseum rather than that awful gym in Nashville, two factors that might lead you to believe this game should unfold in Bama's favor given the way we played Vandy toe-to-toe.
The only problem with that line of thinking is that with mere hours to put that emotional Vanderbilt loss behind us, this has all the makings of your traditional trap game, and many believe we're prime for a letdown. That has to be the biggest worry for Bama fans heading into this one, and considering how vital this game is for us, the worrying is justified.
My hope for avoiding the "trap" is twofold. First, we need the crowd in this one more than we have in any other game all year. It appears as though Coleman is expected to be at full-on 15,000+ capacity, but beyond just being full, we need the crowd to be loud and energetic. Such an electric home atmosphere could be the best medicine to give us that lift we need coming off the short turn-around. Second, I have a sneaking suspicion that the loss, particularly the way it went down in the end, will only add fuel to this team's fire as we move forward.