Alright everyone, the big non conference stretch is finally here. Up first, Alabama hosts the undefeated #11 Wichita State Shockers (10-0), a team that made a Final Four run last March before falling to the eventual champions, the Louisville Cardinals. This is clearly a huge opportunity for the Crimson Tide, especially since we get them at home. Alabama and Wichita State have some recent history together: Alabama lost to Wichita State in the NIT Championship in 2011 before getting some revenge against the Shockers the following season at home. Wichita State has been very good under Gregg Marshall, and despite losing a few key players from a year ago, this could be his best team yet. The Shockers have won handily all season long, including a 70-61 win over Tennessee the other night. They are solid offensively and very good defensively, as most of Marshall's Wichita State teams have been.
The Shockers usually go 9-deep in their rotation, though there are four guys who do most of the damage for them. In the backcourt, a trio of very good guards lead the way for Wichita State. Sophomore G Ron Baker (14.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.1 BPG) is an up-and-coming star for this team. He really does it all, as he can score from anywhere (65% from 2 point range and 39% from three), plays salty defense, knows how to distribute the ball, hits his free throws (86%), and plays well around the rim. Junior G Tekele Cotton (11.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.1 SPG) is a very good guard for the Shockers. Cotton is a solid player who fills a similar role to the one he had last year. He can score, grab rebounds, plays good defense, and is a key role player who really contributes. Finally, Sophomore G Fred Van Vleet (11.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2 SPG) is another up-and-comer who leads the team in minutes from the point. Van Vleet is your prototypical all-around PG, he doesn't take a bunch of shots, but he is a very efficient scorer (46.8% FG including 50% from 3). He runs the offense well, and does a great job of freeing up his guys for good looks. He also is very active with his hands, and plays smart on defense, he could really make us pay if we are careless with the ball. Although this trio of guards is relatively young, Senior G Nick Wiggins (5.3 PPG, 2.4 RPG) provides critical experience and depth off of the bench. He played in nearly every game of their Final Four run last season, and came up big in a few spots. He is a very valuable player for this team, despite not being the most talented guy on the court. Sophomore G Evan Wessel (1.1 PPG, 1.6 RPG) doesn't do much in the way of stats, but he does add depth off of the bench.
In the frontcourt, 6'8 Senior F Cleanthony Early (14.2 PPG, 6 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 0.5 BPG) is the main player to watch out for. Early is a scorer, plain and simple. He lead Wichita State in PPG last season, and he was big in a lot of their games during that Final Four run. He is a high volume shooter (he averages over 11 FG attempts a game) and he often makes them count (43% FG). He doesn't hit three pointers consistently, but he can make them. His size and athleticism make him a nightmare to defend. Most teams this season have tried their best to limit him, and I expect Grant to do the same. Early doesn't look to pass very much, so that can often be used against him. Expect Alabama to double down on him when he gets the ball inside. After Early, Wichita State likes to rotate three other forwards pretty frequently. 6'9 Senior F Chadrack Lufile (7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.8 BPG) gets the most minutes of the three. He has a wealth of experience and is a strong, physical player. He doesn't have a ton of skill in many areas: he doesn't pass the ball well and he doesn't create shots very often, but he does play pretty well in the post and he plays good, solid defense. Junior F Darius Carter (6.6 PPG, 5 RPG) is another solid player off of the bench. He plays defense well, rebounds pretty effectively, and scores often enough to give his team a nice boost. 6'9 Senior C Kadeem Coleby (5.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.8 BPG) runs about the same script as Lufile and Carter. He is another big, solid player off of the bench who provides plenty of experience. He can rebound, play defense, and he hits his shots here and there.
There is really no other way to put it than to say that this Wichita State team is just an all-around solid team, and not in a bad way. They play fantastic team defense, and score enough points on offense to get the job done. They are, in a way, what Anthony Grant aspires Alabama to be. They have a few guys who carry the load offensively, and the rest of the team buys in and adds the critical roles that a team must have to be successful.
What to Watch For
1. Trevor Releford's Hip. Everybody was taken by surprise when it was revealed that Releford was not in the starting lineup the other night. However, it turns out that Grant just wanted to hold him out to get some extra rest for a nagging hip injury that has been bothering him. All signs point towards him playing against Wichita State, but keep your eye out on how much that hip is bothering him. Releford does a lot of his damage by using that quick burst of speed that he has, and a nagging pain in his hip could severely limit that. Let's hope that he can battle through it effectively.
2. Defense. Alabama and Wichita State have been staples of good defense the last few years. Anthony Grant and Gregg Marshall are two of the best when it comes to teaching good, fundamental team defense. The Shockers come into this game at 15th in Defensive Rating, while Alabama finds itself at 60th in Defensive Rating despite playing high octane offenses like Duke and Oklahoma already. If you are expecting a shootout,
you haven't been paying attention then you are in for a surprise. Points per possession will be big in this game, as will the ability to come away with cheap points (off turnovers, offensive rebounds, etc.).
3. Home Sweet Home. Despite not having the greatest home court advantage in the world, Alabama has still been very good at home under Anthony Grant. That has not changed this season, as Alabama finds itself at 5-0 at home. This will be by far and away the Tide's toughest home opponent to date, but it's still an encouraging sign that Alabama plays so well at home.
3 Keys to Victory
1. Success in the Half Court Offense. After getting off to a hot start to the season, the Crimson Tide has cooled considerably in the half court offense. This is obviously a bit of a concern given Alabama's struggles in recent years in this area. Wichita State is a very good defensive basketball team, as I have mentioned, and good looks will be at a premium in this game. Alabama is going to have to do a better job of creating space and moving the ball around. The Shockers aren't nearly as inept when they have the ball in the half court, they will get their points. Alabama has to be able to at least keep it close scoring-wise on half court possessions, and hopefully some big hustle plays will put us over the top.
2. Limit Their Big Four. The Shockers have four guys who do most of the damage offensively. If Alabama can execute a sound game plan on those four guys, Wichita State will have a hard time relying on the rest of the team to create good shots. Double down on Early in the post, take away that first look for Van Vleet, etc. I'm confident that Grant will have some nice looks to give those guys, the Tide just needs to execute.
3. Hustle Plays. A good script to follow in order to pull off an upset in basketball is to keep it close in areas such as half court play, and then make a few big hustle plays. Nick Jacobs snatching a rebound to prevent a second chance for Early, Releford ripping Van Vleet when he's not expecting it, Levi Randolph diving for a loose ball to flip possession, Retin Obasohan swatting a shot into the open arms of Jimmie Taylor, etc. These plays go a long way when trying to pull off the upset, especially against a team as stingy as Wichita State is on defense.
Alabama has a huge opportunity at home to pull off a big win for the ole resume. Wichita State is a very good basketball team, that comes as no surprise. Alabama will have to play a near flawless game in order to pull out the win. Hopefully, that's exactly what happens. With Alabama's defense, any game is within reach. The Crimson Tide will have to execute better than they have recently on the offensive side of the ball. Coach Grant is very familiar with Marshall and the Shockers, so I'm hoping that he has a nice curve ball to throw at them.
Tip-off is set for 8:00 pm CST and will be televised on ESPNU. If you are in town, and I know a lot of people won't be because of the holidays, please stop by. The team really plays well when they can feed off of the crowd's energy.