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SEC lead at stake on Rocky Top

The Crimson Tide basketball team will travel to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 4:00 CST, with the game being televised regionally on Fox Sports and streamed world-wide by ESPN3.

Although ESPN's College Gameday will be in Gainesville for the Florida-Kentucky matchup, Alabama's game at Tennessee will be the only contest in the SEC this weekend in which a win by either team could earn them a first-place spot in the SEC standings. The Crimson Tide currently has a one-game lead over the Volunteers in the SEC championship race, so a win by UT would tie both teams with 6-2 league marks at the mid-way point of conference play. A loss here would by no means kill Bama's SEC championship dreams, as even with a loss, the Tide would be in no worse position than a half-game behind Florida, and possibly even still tied for first should the Gators fall to the 'Cats. A win by Alabama, meanwhile, would guarantee the Tide remains out in front in the SEC championship race and add even further distance between Bama and two of its top three competitors for the conference title (Tennesse would lose, as would either Florida or Kentucky).

Beyond just the SEC title race, though, this game could have major postseason implications for Bama. As we all should know by now, despite our excellent play and results of late, the Tide is nowhere near being a serious candidate for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. This is partially due, of course, to our awful start in the first month of the season, but a big part is also because we will only get a chance to play an NCAA-tournament worthy opponent 4 or possibly 5 times during regular season SEC play. The only chance we have to get in the tournament conversation is to win several of those 4 or 5 games and avoid losing to the rest of our opponents. I still think it will be too difficult to make up for the hole we dug ourselves, but if by some miracle we are to make a surprise move onto the bubble, we have to win at least a few times when given these rare opportunities to face NCAA-caliber competition. This game in Knoxville is one such opportunity.

Tennessee, a preseason top-20 team, started out gangbusters in non-conference play, slaying #11 Villanova on a neutral court and knocking off #4 Pitt on the road. By early December, the Vols had risen to #7 in the nation in both polls and looked like the most talented and formidable team in the SEC. It was then, though, that the Vols hit a curious and prolonged skid that ultimately knocked them completely out of the rankings. They lost 4 out of their last 7 non-conference games, all to inferior opponents, and then proceeded to drop their first two SEC games, albeit both in close fashion in tough games. Back-to-back emotional wins--a major comeback at home against top-25 Vanderbilt and a buzzer-beater on the road against top-25 Georgia--seemed to snap them out of their funk. They lost a close road game at #8 UConn during their SEC bye week, but their competitiveness on the road against such an elite opponent signaled to many that the Vols were back. Since then they have proceeded to easily knock off three straight SEC West opponents, are currently only one game out of the SEC lead, and are currently projected as a #7 seed in the NCAA tournament. One final note is that this will be the 8th and final game of Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl's mandated suspension from Mike Slive and the SEC office, so UT assistant Tony Jones will be calling the shots from the sidelines for the last time this year.

Full Tennessee roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...

The big news for this game from a personnel standpoint is the availability of Tennessee's leading scorer, 6'7" junior wing man Scotty Hopson, who was on his way to likely All-SEC honors before suffering what is believed to be just a minor injury last week. He did not play in Tennessee's win at Auburn on Thursday night, and as of Friday afternoon he was listed as "doubtful" by the UT training staff. Hopson is currently leading the team with 16.5 points per game, so his potential absence could be huge for Bama's hopes.

Although he doesn't have the flashiest stats on the team, 5'11" senior point guard Melvin Goins has been integral to the Vols' success in his two years on campus as a JuCo transfer. He leads the team with 3.1 assists, and also has contributed 8.1 points per game this season. He's not a dominate scoring guard by any means, but he plays the point guard role nicely on both offense and defense for the Vols.

One likely starter on the perimeter will be 6'6" junior guard Cameron Tatum, who is third on the team in scoring with 10.3 points per game while also contributing 2.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds each game. Tatum is an excellent all-around guard with great size and ball skills. His size allows him to get off a lot of shots from the perimeter (1.3 made treys per game), finish around the rim, and find open teammates when he penetrates. Tatum will be a tough matchup for the Bama guards given his length.

6'1" freshman Trae Golden is the backup point guard, playing largely in relief of Goins. He is an excellent distributor. 6'3" sophomore guard Skylar McBee is known mostly as a perimeter sharpshooter, and can be very dangerous, even from several feet behind the 3-point line. 6'3" senior guard Josh Bone, who started in Hopson's place at Auburn, will likely see a larger role in this one, though he isn't known as much of a scorer.

Tennessee's leader in the post has been freshman sensation Tobias Harris, who is second on the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game, and leads the team with 7.6 rebounds per game. The 6'8" Harris is a superb athlete with excellent skills. Despite his size and rebounding prowess, he has the shooting range to knock down shots from the 3-point line and can score anywhere between the arc and the rim. He's on the very short list for SEC freshman of the year, and he'll be a tough matchup for the Bama forwards.

A pair of seniors split time alongside Harris down low. 6'9" John Fields, a transfer from UNC-Wilmington, is averaging 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in SEC play after seeing his role increase later in the season. 6'10" Brian Williams is the team's best rebounder, tied with Harris with 7.6 boards per game despite playing fewer minutes. He also averages 7.0 points per game, and is a bigger offensive weapon than Fields. 6'5" senior Steven Pearl--Bruce's son--also sees time in reserve as a forward, averaging around 10 minutes per contest.

Tennessee is certainly one of the most talented teams in the SEC right now, but the biggest advantage they'll have personnel-wise against Alabama will likely be their length. With a full lineup (including Hopson), UT has 4 starters 6'6" and taller, while Alabama only has 3 players in its entire 8-man rotation taller than 6'4". This could have a major impact on rebounding, one of UT's biggest strengths. Tennessee, who usually goes at least 10-deep as a rotation, is probably the deepest team in the league, and will certainly have a big advantage in this department as well. The good news for Bama fans is that Hopson's potential absence would help lessen UT's edge in both categories.

As a team, the Volunteers are good, though not great, on both ends of the floor. Defensively, they rank 52nd in the nation in overall efficiency, good for 6th in the SEC (well behind Alabama and Kentucky,  and just behind Florida, Vanderbilt and Georgia). The strongest feature of their defense is their block rate, which is good for 35th nationally. The weakest part is their tendency to give up a lot of 3-pointers (303rd nationally). Unfortunately, these strengths and weaknesses match up precisely with Bama's own offensive strengths (scoring in the paint) and weaknesses (3-point shooting). Given the Vols' tendency to allow so many 3-point attempts, Bama's shooting percentage from deep could play an even bigger role than it normally does. If ever Bama needed a big shooting performance away from home--something we haven't seen all year--it would be in this one.

On the offensive end, Tennessee ranks 55th in the nation in overall efficiency, good for 5th in the SEC (well behind Kentucky and Vanderbilt, and just behind Florida and Ole Miss). By far the biggest strength of the Vol offense is offensive rebounding, as they rank 7th in the nation in offensive rebounding rate. Their biggest weakness is 3-point shooting, as they rank 261st in 3-point shooting percentage. Clearly the big challenge for Bama's defense in this one is going to be closing out stops by protecting the defensive boards. Keeping our big rebounders--Mitchell, Hines and Green--out of foul trouble will be big, as will be boxing out UT's lankier guards.

Obviously, Tennessee has more talent, has had better overall results this season, and will be playing on their home court in front of over 20,000 fans in the newly-renovated Thompson-Boling Arena, one of the largest arenas in all of college basketball. Clearly, they'll be the favorites in this one, but there's no reason that Bama can't keep it close and stay competitive if our defense plays as well as we've seen it. Stealing a win in this one will require one of our best performances of the season, but if we're to dream this year as highly as some Bama fans have openly started to do, we have to rise to the occasion in at least a few of these big games.

Hope for the best.