Alabama enters tonight's home game against Tulane smarting from a month-long slump that has seen the team's prospects go from promising to somewhat bleak after a 6-0 start has turned into a lackluster 7-4 mark as the non-conference portion of the schedule nears its conclusion. Although the losses themselves are concerning enough as they pertain to the Tide's postseason resume, what has been even more concerning has been the team's play in the past four games. Alabama was beaten soundly by a mediocre Dayton team, was non-competitive in a road loss to a very good VCU team, barely escaped with an ugly road win over a bad Texas Tech team, and then stunningly caved in during the final minutes and lost at home to an Atlantic Sun conference team last week.
Tonight's game, which tips off at 5:00pm CT and will be televised nationally on ESPNU, offers Alabama a chance to begin to turn things around. Such a turnaround however, if it happens at all, will have to come without starting center Carl Engstrom, who is out for the season with a knee injury he suffered perhaps not coincidentally right as the team started to falter. Alabama will also be without its only senior, guard Andrew Steele, who is expected to miss a few more games as he recovers from a sports hernia that likewise sidelined him right as the team began its slide. The Tide will be forced to once again compete with just eight scholarship players, and just two post players, both of whom have been extremely disappointing so far this season.
Tulane meanwhile will enter this evening's game with a fair bit of confidence, having already amassed a solid 10-3 record. While they don't have any impressive wins (all ten of their wins have come against teams ranked 221st or lower in the Pomeroy ratings) they have managed to win resoundingly against lesser competition, with nine of their ten wins coming by double digit margins. Their three losses have come against the three best opponents they have played: Georgia Tech, San Diego, and Nebraska. The Nebraska and San Diego losses were both in close, hard-fought games, while only the Georgia Tech loss, which was their very first game of the season, came by more than six points.
All told, this is a team that is probably right on the level of the Mercer team that Alabama infamously stumbled against last week at home. Like Mercer, they are significantly better than the weaker teams in Division I, but don't have the talent to consistently beat NCAA Tournament-caliber teams either. However, as Alabama knows all too well, teams like this are just good enough to knock off some less-than-elite major conference teams, especially when said teams aren't at their best. Alabama found that out the hard way against Mercer when the Tide let slip away what looked for most of the game like a fairly routine win. Alabama would have beaten Mercer on most nights, but a big letdown in the second half allowed the Bears to steal a win that looked almost certain to belong to Alabama for most of the game.
Tulane will present a similar challenge this evening. Like Mercer, they aren't strong enough to just come in and overwhelm the Tide, but like Mercer, they are good enough to compete and keep things close, and if Alabama plays poorly once again, even for just parts of the game, the Green Wave is capable of pulling off an upset similar to the one Mercer accomplished last week. Vegas has the Tide as a 9-point favorite as of Saturday night, indicating that while Alabama is the favorite, a competitive game is expected.
Tulane enters the game with an offense ranked 97th nationally in overall efficiency according to the Pomeroy ratings. On the offensive side, they have been most successful at drawing fouls and scoring from the free throw line, as they rank 15th nationally at free throw attempt rate and are hitting a solid 74% of their attempts from the stripe. Alabama's ability to defend without fouling will be perhaps the biggest key on that end of the floor, especially given the Tide's lack of depth.
On the defensive end, the Green Wave is ranked 147th nationally in overall efficiency according to the Pomeroy ratings. Their defense has been most effective at closing out possessions with defensive rebounds, as they rank 10th nationally in defensive rebounding rate. While the rest of the Green Wave defensive statistics don't really stand out, Alabama will likely not be able to rely on second-chance points, so creating good shots on the offensive end will be even more important than usual.
Individually, Tulane is led by star forward Josh Davis, a 6'8" junior who leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. Davis has been a monster so far this season, nearly averaging a double-double with 18.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He is also adept at drawing fouls, averaging nearly 8 free throw attempts per contest. With just two healthy post players, both of whom can be foul prone, Davis might be one of the toughest individual matchups Alabama's defense has had to face this season.
The Green Wave's best player on the perimeter is 6'2" sophomore guard Ricky Tarrant, who is second on the team with 15.1 points per game. He also leads the team with 2.9 assists each contest. Another guard, 6'0" senior Jordan Callahan, is the team's other double-digit scorer, averaging 12.4 points each game. Together, Tarrant and Callahan combine to average over 12 three-point attempts each game, providing most of the perimeter shooting firepower for the Green Wave offense.
Tulane's three key players, Davis, Tarrant, and Callahan, each rarely leave the floor, and in fact the three account for literally half the team's minutes played on the season and nearly two thirds of the team's points. The Green Wave's other two starters are 6'5" senior Kendall Timmons and 6'6" sophomore Trevante Drye. Both are good rebounders but neither is an explosive scorer. The only other two players on the roster who play more than six minutes per game are 6'2" senior guard Ben Cherry and 7'0" senior center Tomas Bruha.
Again, Tulane isn't a team that is going to overwhelm Alabama with superior talent or even superior depth. However, the presence of Davis in the paint for Tulane should frighten Bama fans everywhere after seeing what the much less talented Dan Coursey of Mercer did to Alabama's depleted interior defense in the last game. If Tarrant and Callahan can knock down some shots from outside, Tulane should be able to score enough to beat Alabama if the Tide doesn't get more consistent output from its offense, which has struggled mightily at times during the recent slump.
Although the prognosis for Alabama's season has begun to look bleak, it's still fairly early and certainly not too late for Alabama to begin to turn things around, but right now that means learning to win games again, score more consistently on the offensive end, and get better play out of the two post players who are left. Like Mercer, Tulane will not be a pushover, but this is still a game Alabama should win, and one that they need to win if they want to get their season moving back in the right direction. Hope for the best.