On Saturday night, Alabama fans of all ages will hopefully be celebrating yet another SEC Championship for the football team. While Tide fans are (hopefully) basking in the triumph of another successful football campaign, the basketball version of the Tide will be hitting the court for a huge test. After another solid home win on Tuesday night, the Crimson Tide (5-1) turn their attention to the Xavier Musketeers (5-2) in their first true road game of the season. Chris Mack's squad is coming off yet another NCAA Tournament appearance a season ago, and as many Bama hoops fans will recall, they escaped a close one and handed Alabama a heartbreaking loss in Tuscaloosa about this time last year. The Musketeers were scorching the nets the first five games of the season, and it looked like this team would be an unstoppable offensive juggernaut this year. However, the team cooled off just enough in their recent trip to the Wooden Classic last week, dropping back to back games to UTEP and Long Beach State (who they had oddly already beaten earlier in the year). Xavier returns only two starters from last season's team, but they have a bunch of contributors back from last season, and a key transfer from Indiana in Remy Abell.
- PG Dee Davis (8.0 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 6.0 APG 1.9 SPG)
- SG Remy Abell (8.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 2.3 APG)
- SF Trevon Bluiett (16.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 APG,)
- PF James Farr (5.4 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.6 BPG)
- C Matt Stainbrook (16.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.1 BPG)
Davis is a high volume point guard for the Musketeers. The offense flows through him, as is obvious by his six assists per game. However, he also turns the ball over a good bit (2.6 TOPG), and he isn't a great shooter (38.5% FG%, 28.6% 3P%), despite the fact that he averages 7.4 FGAs per game. He's got great hands as a defender, as evidenced by his 1.9 SPG, but his positioning hasn't been very good on a play-to-play basis. Abell has been a nice addition to the backcourt as well, but his three point percentage (23.5%) and free throw percentage (50.0%) need some serious work. However, he is shooting a crazy 80.8% 2P%. Bluiett has been a freshman phenom for Xavier. He is a nightmare to defend, as he can shoot the ball very well (55.7% FG%, 50.0% 3P%, 86.4% FT%), and his 6'6 frame makes it nearly impossible to close out on him. He's a guy Alabama needs to really focus on when he is in the game. In the low post, Xavier has two giants in Farr (6'10) and Stainbrook (6'10). Farr is a solid player in his own right, especially on the boards and defensively, but Stainbrook is a stud. The guy can do it all: he scores well (72.6% FG%!, 50.0% 3P%!, 75.0% FT%), passes well for a big man, crashes the boards with authority, protects the rim, etc. He will be an absolute load for Alabama's post players, just as he was a year ago when he went for 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.
- G Myles Davis (10.0 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.2 APG)
- F Jalen Reynolds (8.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
- F J.P. Macura (6.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
- F Brandon Randolph (3.0 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 2.4 APG)
Davis is basically a sixth starter for the Musketeers, as he averages 22.3 MPG and has started before. His shooting (41.3% FG%, 48.0% 3P%, 90.9% FT%) is his calling card, though he only shoots 33.3% from inside the arc, as his 6'2 frame has been a bit of a limitation for him. Reynolds is the main back-up in the frontcourt, standing tall at 6'10, he has shot 65.1% from the field this year, which is a strong percentage. Basically, these two guys will come off the bench, and the Musketeers offense won't miss a beat. It may even be argued that, depending on who they sub out, they are even better offensively with Davis and Reynolds out there. Macura and Randolph are young players who give Xavier some solid depth off the bench, as they are both decently effective on both sides of the court.
What to Watch For
- Road Woes? Alabama's struggles away from home in recent years have been talked about at length in this space before, so it comes as no surprise that playing at the Cintas Center will play a major role. However, this year's edition of the team has gone 1-1 away from home thus far, splitting games against quality opponents. Let's see if the team can get the true road game monkey off of its back.
- Flipping the Script. For years, both Alabama and Xavier have exemplified the idea of buying into the defensive side of the court, and letting the offense figure itself out (Xavier has found a lot more success in this model than Alabama of course). This season, however, both teams have totally thrown that out of the window. Alabama's been surprising explosive offensively. Off-ball and on-ball movement has improved ten-fold, and the team can finally rely on multiple guys to hit jump shots for once. Xavier, meanwhile, is currently 16th in the country at 83.6 PPG and 14th in the country at 52.0% FG%. That's ridiculous, no matter the competition. The Muskies defense has really cost them as of late though. Opponents are hitting 40.6% of their three pointers, putting Xavier at 332nd in the country, and they are also scoring 68.6 PPG on 44.4% shooting on the Musketeers. Considering the schedule thus far, that's pretty porous defense. To be fair, Alabama's had plenty of defensive struggles as well.
- The Dynamic Duo. Levi Randolph and Ricky Tarrant are currently the SEC's highest scoring duo, as they are averaging 33.5 PPG between them (Randolph at 19.5, Tarrant at 14.0). If the two of them can continue this kind of play all season, it will be a successful one for Bama fans.
Three Keys to Victory
- Defense in the Post. With guys like Stainbrook, Farr, and Reynolds all using their 6'11 frames to bang in the post, Alabama's bigs will have their hands full. Jimmie Taylor, in particular, will have to bring his best defensively. Michael Kessens has been a solid player thus far, but his positioning in the post needs to improve quickly. He allows way too much leverage down low, and he is way too quick to commit the foul when he gets beat. With a frontline like the one the Muskies bring, Alabama can't afford to lose Kessens to the bench because of fouls.
- Make the Threes Count. Alabama has been a very high volume three-point shooting team this season; there are quite a few guys on this team that like to let the ball fly. However, the Tide only makes a fair amount of them (32.4%). Xavier has been slow on ball rotation all season, thus the reason why they have given up so many open threes, but that won't matter unless Alabama makes them pay by putting the ball in the basket.
- Hands UP! Xavier is currently 7th in the country in total assists, and that is not by accident. Much like the Iowa State game, Alabama can not play lazy defense and expect to come out with a win. It just won't happen. The defenders need to get their hands up, cut off passing lanes, rotate quickly when the pass does get through, and close out on the shooters. The Tide's inability to do these things cost them that game against the Cyclones. Xavier will do the same thing.
Alabama has a golden opportunity to add another good win away from home to the resume, especially since the game Saturday will be a true road game. It will be a challenge, especially given Xavier's offensive prowess, but this Alabama team truly does have a different feel to it. At this point in the season, there can be no doubt about that.
The game will tip-off with Xavier at 7:00 PM CST (or 8:00 PM EST for those of you rolling out of the Georgia Dome), and the game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.