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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Jacksonville State and Norfolk State

The Crimson Tide look to close out non-conference play without much drama

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

After the tough loss to the Oregon Ducks last Monday, the Alabama Crimson Tide basketball team took a few days off for some much-needed rest for the holidays. While the football team will draw the overwhelming majority of the attention this week, the basketball team will look to position itself for a legitimate run at the NCAA Tournament in 2016 by rounding out non-conference play with a pair of wins. The Tide will host both the Jacksonville State Gamecocks (4-10) and the Norfolk State Spartans (5-8) in Tuscaloosa this week. Obviously, both of these opponents should be over-matched by the superior Crimson Tide, but as Alabama fans have learned the hard way, these games are far from guaranteed, especially around this time of the year.

The Gamecocks are currently rated 325th in Ken Pomeroy's latest rankings, and Norfolk State slots in at 225. Clearly, Alabama should be heavy favorites at home in both games. The Spartans should present a bit more of a challenge, particularly on the offensive end of the court, but Alabama's biggest task this week will be maintaining their focus and avoiding what could be a season-damaging loss.

The Rosters

Jacksonville State Starting Lineup

  • PG 6'3 JaQuail Townser (8.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)
  • OG 6'3 Malcolm Drumwright (16.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.7 APG, 0.9 SPG)
  • 3G 6'2 Greg Tucker (5.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.6 APG)
  • SF 6'4 Jared Hamilton (8.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.5 SPG)
  • PF 6'7 Jeremy Watson (8.5 PPG, 5.2 RPG)
The Gamecocks have been down two of their regular starters, with both Erik Durham and Cameron Biedscheid having missed the last few games. Their status for Tuesday's game is still uncertain. Because of this, the Gamecocks have had to run a very short starting lineup, with three guards, a slashing small forward, and only one true post player in Watson, who, at 6'7 and 200 pounds, is relatively small himself. Drumwright is by far the most talented player on the roster, and he has become the high-volume shooter for Jacksonville State (42.7% FG%, 32.8% 3P%, 78.7% FT%). He's also the leader in assists, which is really a product of how often he touches the ball when the 'Cocks are on offense. As with many talented players on lesser teams, he puts most of his focus on the offensive end of the court, and his defense is spotty at best (110.3 DRtg).

Joining Drumwright in the back-court is Townser, who is really the best distributor and ball-handler. He has over a 2-to-1 assist to turnover ratio, and is also the most efficient three-point shooter of the guys expected to play (38.3%). Tucker is really a true role player having to take on a much larger load than he's likely capable of. He's a 26.5% scorer and doesn't really contribute much in the way of play-making. Even his defense is one of the worst on the team (110.7 DRtg). Hamilton has done well trying to play bigger than he is, as his 10.5% RB% (rebound percentage, an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor) is third on the team behind the two true post players. Hamilton's not much of a shooter, as he is shooting just 64.7% from the free throw line and has yet to make a three-pointer all year, so whoever is defending him needs to prevent him from getting any dribble-penetration or any good looks around the basket. Watson is a lanky post player who can rebound and score at a decent clip in the post (49.0% 2P%).

Jacksonville State Bench
  • 5'9 G DelFincko Bogan (2.9 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.6 SPG)
  • 6'6 F Christian Cunningham (6.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG)
  • 6'6 F Andre Statum (2.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
As a result of the injuries to Durham and Biedscheid, the Gamecocks have a really shallow bench. Bogan is a decent, yet small, guard who can run the point pretty well. Cunningham is the only other true post player on the roster, and he is only 6'6. His rebounding and shot-blocking are invaluable to Jacksonville State though. Statum is another slashing wing forward, though he doesn't make a huge impact on the game.

Norfolk State Starters
  • PG 5'11 Zaynah Robinson (6.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.4 SPG)
  • OG 6'3 Charles Oliver (12.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.5 SPG)
  • 3G 6'4 Jeffrey Short ( 17.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.5 SPG)
  • SF 6'5 D'Shon Taylor (12.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.8 SPG)
  • PF 6'6 Jordan Butler (5.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 0.8 APG, 2.1 BPG)
Switching gears over to Norfolk State reveals that, well, they are a very similar team as JSU as far as the make-up of the roster is concerned. The Spartans are one of the smallest teams in college basketball, though that's by more of a design than the Gamecocks, as head coach Robert Jones likes to utilize their quickness to exploit the opposing defense. The Spartans like to run a lot of isolation to free up space for perimeter shots, which they are very good at. Every starter outside of Butler shoots above 40.0% from beyond the arc. Short is the main contributor to the offense, as he averages over twelve shots per game. He is shooting 41.5% from the floor, 40.4% from three, and 84.4% from the line. He has to command attention from the Tide's defenders on Saturday.

Robinson and Oliver are both very good shooters as well (Robinson: 40.6% 3P%, 88.9% FT%; Oliver: 40.9% 3P%, 84.5% FT%), though the smaller Robinson has been atrocious from inside the arc (24.5% FG%), likely due to his diminutive size. Clearly, Alabama wants to deny any open looks from the perimeter with this group. The Spartans aren't particularly adept in the passing game, which has led to their offense being a bit less efficient than their other wise gaudy shooting numbers would suggest. However, Robinson's assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 4-to-1, and his ability to take the ball away is also very dangerous. Taylor is actually the best scorer on the team statistically (46.6% FG%, 42.1% 3P%, 83.0% FT%), and his ability to stretch the defense outside creates real problems.

Norfolk's issue is that, despite the kind of damage they can do outside, their front-court production is almost non-existent. They don't rebound well and they are really bad on defense (297th in DRtg at 108.3). Butler does his best to try and hold things down in the post, but he's not nearly talented enough to make up for his lack in size.

Norfolk State Bench
  • G 6'4 Jonathan Wade (5.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.5 SPG)
  • G 5'10 Brian Kelley (1.5 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 1.1 APG)
  • F 6'6 Preston Bungei (6.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
  • F 6'8 Alex Long (3.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.6 BPG)
Another one of the Spartans' main issues is that there is a serious drop-off after the starting five. Wade and Bungei have both been decent whenever they come into the game, but neither makes a huge impact individually. Long is the only true big man on the team, but he's only a freshman, so he's got a lot of developing left to do before he can consistently contribute at both ends of the court.

What to Watch For

  • Alabama's Focus. As referenced earlier in the article, the major thing to keep an eye on is how focused the Crimson Tide come out for these two games against seemingly overwhelmed opponents. Alabama still isn't really in a place where they can come out flat against anybody really, as revealed in the Southern Miss game earlier this month. The last time Alabama played, they lost a tough, hard fought battle in a showcase game, in front of a large crowd in Birmingham, against a really good team. And then they took a few days off. How will this young team respond?
  • Injuries. The status of a few players will make a major difference this week, especially in the Jacksonville State game. If Durham and Biedscheid can play that obviously gives the Gamecocks a much better chance of pulling off the upset on Tuesday. But more importantly for Tide fans, the possible return of Shannon Hale is something to look out for. As of this writing, Hale's status for this week is still up in the air. If Hale can play, Alabama's margin for error in these two games increases a decent amount, as Hale is the kind of guy who can get hot and help bury an over-matched opponent.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Knock Down Shots. The best way to prevent an inferior opponent from pulling off the upset is by making sure to shoot the basketball at least decently well. Poor shooting is the number one way to let an underdog grab momentum. If a team isn't shooting well, it could be playing well in every other facet of the game and still be clinging to a close lead. If you let a team hang around, they will soon get confidence. Meanwhile, your own team will only become increasingly frustrated. Alabama needs to make their shots count this week, because the Tide simply doesn't have a huge margin for error.
  2. Big Boy Them. Both the Gamecocks and the Spartans are really small teams. The disparity in size between their rosters and Alabama's is quite large. The Crimson Tide need to use this to their advantage. There is simply no reason the Tide shouldn't win the rebounding margin in both games by comfortable margins. They can also take away high percentage shots around the basket by forcing the opposing offenses to rely on contested jump shots.
  3. Preventing Open Shots. This last key has more to do with Norfolk, whose starting group of guards are some of the most potent shooters in college basketball. The Spartans don't do a ton well, but Short, Taylor, Oliver, and Robinson can knock down shots. Norfolk State is 32nd in the country in 3P% (39.3%) and 6th in the country from the charity stripe (78.4%). Alabama has to deny open looks from the perimeter, force the ball inside, and prevent from bailing the Spartans out with fouls.
The Crimson Tide have passed a plethora of tests in Avery Johnson's first season at Alabama. The final task of the 2015-16 non-conference slate will be avoiding an ugly home upset in consecutive games this week. If the Tide can successfully navigate these two landmines, they will be sitting at 9-3 with one of the better RPIs in the country going into conference play. As long as the same team shows up that has consistently surprised 'Bama fans everywhere so far this season, the Tide should roll into SEC play with some real momentum.

Alabama tips-off with Jacksonville State Tuesday night at 7:00 PM CST on the SEC Network+. The Tide will then play host to Norfolk State at 1:00 PM CST Saturday. That game will be televised by the regular SEC Network channel.