The calendar may not say October, but don't get it confused: it's hate week everybody. Anthony Grant's squad hits the road for the first time in conference play as the Tide heads to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Volunteers (9-4, 1-0 SEC). After shellacking Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa (where have I heard that before?), Alabama must get ready to end a long, painful true road game losing streak that dates back to February 2013, when the Tide defeated Georgia in Athens. Tennessee is led by first year head coach Donnie Tyndall, who seems to have just escaped NCAA violations at Southern Miss, but has otherwise been a very good head coach. This Vols team is nothing like last year's Sweet Sixteen group, as they lost four starters from that squad. Tennessee is really inexperienced, short, has plenty of talent and potential, and doesn't really like to play much defense.
- PG Josh Richardson (16.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.2 SPG)
- SG Kevin Punter (10.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.4 SPG)
- 3G Devon Baulkman (6.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
- SF Armani Moore (9.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.2 BPG)
- PF Willie Carmichael (4.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
There are many teams in college basketball that rely on one guy to really carry the team. Few of those teams rely on one sole player as much as Tennessee depends on Richardson. The lone returning starter from last season, Richardson moved from the wing to the point because his team desperately needed somebody to step up there, and he has flourished. Richardson averages 12 FGA per game, and he makes them count (46.3% FG%, 39.1% 3P%, 81.1% FT%). He's the best passer on the team, as well as one of the best rebounding threats. Richardson could be the SEC MVP, simply because there is absolutely no way Tennessee could replace him; he's indispensable for the Vols. Punter, the JUCO transfer, has given the Vols a steady second scoring option (49.0% FG%, 40.5% 3P%, 70.6% FT%). His ability to knock down threes is something Grant will need to be keenly aware of. Baulkman is a solid contributor who starts mostly because of his experience. He isn't going to 'wow' anybody, but his shot selection and efficiency from the three point line are big pluses (45.8% FG%, 51.9% 3P%). He is also a great free throw shooter (87.5% FT%).
The Vols frontcourt is only really considered a frontcourt because, well, somebody has to play around the basket. Moore, who was a strong wing player off the bench last year, has had to pull off his best post player impression this season. The thing about it is that he's done the job really well. Despite being only 6'5, Moore is the leading rebounder and shot-blocker for Tennessee, and they aren't shabby numbers by any stretch. He plays with a lot of energy and is also the best defensive player the Vols have. Freshman Carmichael has had to play bigger than he is (6'8), and he has struggled a bit with it. His numbers aren't terrible, but they aren't what Tennessee fans were accustomed to seeing in the post when Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon were around.
- G Detrick Mostella (5.6 PPG, 1.5 RPG)
- F Derek Reese (5.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG)
- G Robert Hubbs (4.8 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.1 APG)
- C Tariq Owens (0.8 PPG, 1.1 RPG)
Tennessee is not only short, size-wise, they also lack in depth. The Vols currently only have nine scholarship players, which is a little light on the bench. Mostella is a freshman who came in with some high expectations. Although he has played a good bit, he's been a bit underwhelming thus far, as he is still trying to adjust to the college game. His shooting numbers are pretty mediocre (31.5% FG%, 29.2% 3P%, 72.2% FT%), and he hasn't contributed much in the way of passing or defending. Mostella's a talented player though, he just needs more time to develop. Reese is another guy who is having to play in the post even though he really isn't a post player. Like Moore, Reese is more of a wing forward, but he's played decently well in the post, and he can step out and knock down shots (45.1% FG%, 45.0% 3P%). Hubbs is a young guard who, like Mostella, is going to be the future of the Volunteer backcourt. He has had his struggles with shooting as well (29.2% 3P%, 58.8% FT%), but he's been able to play around the glass pretty well (48.5% 2P%). Owens is a 6'10 freshman, who sees 7.6 MPG because the Vols need him to develop quickly.
What to Watch For
- Retin Obasohan. After not seeing much playing time during the non-conference part of the season, Obasohan came alive for the Tide against A&M on Tuesday. Retin's been dealing with offseason surgery, and the influx of new talent in the backcourt has caused his minutes to drop significantly. However, when healthy Obasohan is arguably the Tide's best defender (Jimmie Taylor being the other contender for that title), and he showed some explosion against the Aggies offensively, dropping 12 points in 13 minutes of play. If he is fully healed and can drive to the basket the way he did the other night, that adds another quality option off of the bench for Alabama.
- Road Woes. Another road game, another chance for Alabama to snap that nasty losing streak. The truth of the matter is that Alabama will have to win a few true road games if they want to have a successful season and make the NCAA Tournament, it's as simple as that. Tennessee is a good place to start, as the Vols haven't been world-beaters this season. They have beaten both Kansas State and Butler at home though, so it won't be easy by any stretch.
- Rebounds. Alabama isn't the best rebounding team in the world, but Tennessee is worse. This makes sense of course, since the Vols are having to rely on wing players to play pivotal roles in the post. The Vols are 221st in the country in RPG, and are 321st in total defensive rebounds for the year. If Jimmie Taylor and Michael Kessens can use their size to dominate the glass, Alabama has a very good chance of winning this game. Offensive rebounds are a huge factor in winning tough road games.
- Physical Play in the Post. It can't be over-stated how weak Tennessee's play in the post has been, especially on the defensive side. The Crimson Tide need to shake that whole 'throw up tons of three-pointers' game-plan and look to get the ball inside. Whether they get the ball to Kessens and Taylor in the post, draw up screens for Levi Randolph to get easy jump shots around the basket, or let Ricky Tarrant drive hard to the rim, Alabama needs to take it to Tennessee.
- Swarm Richardson. Josh Richardson is the key to Tennessee having success on the court. It would make sense for Grant to have a defensive strategy drawn up to limit his abilities. Due to his length (6'6), it wouldn't surprise me to see Randolph try to lock him down with quick help defense from the post if Richardson is able to get past Levi. Obasohan would also be a good option. Regardless, Richardson needs to feel uncomfortable.