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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Vanderbilt

Revenge Week continues as Alabama heads to the desolate world known as Memorial Gymnasium.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in two weeks, Alabama will look to get back to .500 in SEC play as they take on the Vanderbilt Commodores (16-12, 6-9 SEC) on Saturday night. Unfortunately, the Tide will have to go to the abomination that is Memorial Gymnasium, one of the craziest home courts in all of college basketball.

Weird things happen on that court, and Alabama has seen its fair share of unlikely losses there. Of course, considering the current state of the Crimson Tide program, maybe that strange voodoo will not be in effect Saturday night. Regardless, Alabama will likely be without Shannon Hale, as well as Ricky Tarrant (Ed. note: Tarrant will miss the rest of the season.) It will be a tough task to go on the road and beat an improving (and somewhat hot) Vanderbilt squad at their place. However, a victory will put Alabama in really good position to claim the 7th seed in the SEC Tournament, as well as a host seed in the NIT (for whatever that's worth).

The Starting Five

  • PG Wade Baldwin (8.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.6 SPG)
  • SG Riley LaChance (12.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.5 APG)
  • 3G Matthew Fisher-Davis (6.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.2 APG)
  • PF James Siakam (8.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.2 BPG)
  • C Damian Jones (14.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.0 BPG)

From last time:

At the point, Baldwin has been sensational. He shoots the ball pretty well (41.8% FG%, 37.9% 3P%, 78.0% FT%), runs the offense like a veteran (over 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), is disruptive with his hands on defense, and even hits the glass pretty well for point guard. LaChance has been the most valuable freshman in the league (yes, even including Kentucky), because he's been such a great scorer for the 'Dores (44.4% FG%, 38.2% 3P%, 85.7% FT%). His one big weakness right now is his defense, as his small 6'2 stature and mediocre lateral quickness has been exploited at times. Fisher-Davis has been a strange case this season, as he's an overall 33.9% shooting from the floor: 13.3% from inside of the perimeter and 40.2% from outside. Clearly, Alabama needs to extend the defense on him and force him to go inside.

Siakam, the lone upperclassman in the regular rotation, has given Vanderbilt some much-needed experience from his spot in the post. He's a strong scorer around the basket (65.0% FG%) and can knock down his free shots (75.5%). He rebounds at a decent rate, but where he really makes the biggest impact is defensively. With a team-best defensive rating of 93.5, he has really led by example on that side of the court. Being able to average a steal and a block per game shows that he is a versatile defensive player. Jones, the 6'10 center, is both the leading scorer and rebounder for Vandy. Kevin Stallings really likes to get the ball in the hands of the big guy, who scores at a strong 54.0% rate. Defensively, his nearly two swats a game make him one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball.

The 'Dores have only improved since Alabama's last meeting with them on Valentine's Day, a stark contrast to the rematch earlier this week with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Vandy used that road win in Tuscaloosa as a bit of a spring board, as they are coming off a blowout win against Missouri and a road win at Tennessee. One of the adjustments coach Kevin Stallings made was to insert yet another freshman into the starting lineup, Matthew Fisher-Davis. His three point shooting, now at 40.0%, has taken on a higher volume and opened up the floor for the rest of the guys. Baldwin and LaChance have continued to ball out in the backcourt. Jones, who obliterated the Tide in Tuscaloosa, has really been playing well lately, including a 16-point, 7 rebound, 6 block outing against Mizzou.

The Bench
  • G Shelton Mitchell (4.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.7 APG)
  • F Jeff Roberson (4.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.1 APG)
  • C  Luke Kornet (8.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.0 BPG)
  • F Shelby Moats (1.1 PPG, 1.0 RPG)
  • C Josh Henderson (2.5 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
From last time:

Mitchell has not quite adjusted to being able to consistently score at this level (34.7% FG%, 21.7% 3P%, 70.7% FT%), but he runs the offense well whenever Baldwin or LaChance need some rest. Roberson is a 48.8% shooter, which includes a 40.0% clip from beyond the perimeter. He has struggled from the free throw line (63.3%), but he's been a very solid forward for the 'Dores. His 6'6 size gives Vandy some nice length as well. Kornet, the seven-footer, has been a strong option off of the bench in the low post. He plays well around the basket, but he can also step outside and knock down jumpers. He's even been solid from three (35.7%), so the Tide's post players need to be ready for that. Moats and Henderson aren't really a part of the true rotation, and they usually only come in to grab some boards and play good defense.
Vandy is not a deep team, and they are extremely thin in the backcourt now that Fisher-Davis has been inserted into the starting line-up. Kornet has really turned it up from downtown, especially against Tennessee, where he made 5/6 from beyond the arc. If Kornet continues that hot streak against Alabama on Saturday, it could be a long day. He will be a tough match-up if Hale can't go, because the Tide doesn't really have anyone else on the roster with the right combination of length and quickness to stick with him when he peruses outside.

What to Watch For
  • Injuries. Alabama just can't get enough injury news recently, huh? Ricky Tarrant has now officially been ruled out for the season, as the team has confirmed that his legs are all but dead. Tarrant ruptured his plantar fascia and will also require surgery on his left knee. On top of that, Shannon Hale is listed as "doubtful" for the game Saturday night, after injuring the same foot that he broke last summer. Michael Kessens has also been dealing with a bunch of nagging injuries, and is currently considered "questionable" for the game. Kessens will probably play, but that's still a long list on the injury report for Alabama.
  • Memorial Magic. What else is there to say about this place? It's odd, out-dated, and just a nightmare to have to experience. The raised court and baseline benches make for an awkward encounter, and Vandy seems to love it. This is a tough place to play.

Three Keys to Victory

Last game:
  1. Home Court + Greater Experience = Advantage. One of the tried-and-true trends in college basketball is that young teams struggle to win conference games on the road, especially against veteran clubs. Vanderbilt is 1-6 on the road this season, and 0-5 on the road in SEC play. Alabama is 12-2 at home this season, with a 3-2 mark in SEC play. The odds play in Alabama's favor in this one.
  2. Good Help Defense. Vanderbilt doesn't blow teams away with an electrifying offense or anything like that, but the 'Dores are surprisingly efficient with the basketball. Vandy is 43rd in the country in FG% (46.9%) and 38th in the country in APG (15.1). They pass the ball really well, run effective sets, and don't settle for poor shots. High percentage looks are the norm for the Commodores, almost to a fault. Vandy doesn't have many guys who are going to create their own shot, which is why it is imperative that Alabama play good help defense. Vanderbilt is going to look to make the extra pass, so the Tide need to make sure that they get their hands up and rotate over on defense. Well coached defenses like Alabama's can be kryptonite to a team like Vanderbilt.
  3. Offensive Efficiency. Alabama isn't going to win many games by jacking up a bunch of shots, especially not against a team like Vanderbilt that is so good at deflecting them. The Commodores are 45th in the country with about five blocks per game. They make it difficult to score points in the paint. With the kind of struggles Alabama has had from the three point line, that makes for a bit of  a double-edged sword. The key is for Alabama to work for open looks. Anthony Grant loves to run the high pick-and-roll, which can help create good looks by making the inside defenders move a little bit; Alabama needs to run it effectively. Levi Randolph is very underrated for how good of a jump shooter he can be inside of the perimeter, and with the smaller Vanderbilt guards trying to defend him, he should get plenty of good shots off. Rodney Cooper and Riley Norris have both been shooting the three-ball relatively well lately; Alabama will need them to knock those shots down when they are there.

As has been addressed multiple times now, Alabama isn't playing at home, so that key now gets flipped right on its head. The home court/experience combo didn't seem to pay off well last time anyway, as Alabama was straight out-played down the stretch by the Commodores. Part of the reason why that happened was because Alabama was lousy in the other two factors: Vandy finished with 10 assists to 6 turnovers, shot 47.7%, turned Alabama over 7 times, blocked 5 of the Tide's shots, and held the good guys to 39.7% from the field. Vanderbilt just flat-out beat Alabama last time; now the Tide will have to go on the road, without Hale, to pull off the victory. It will take much better execution on both ends of the court. It would also help if Kessens and Jimmie Taylor can prevent Jones from muscling in 20 points on 11 shots again. Highlighting Key #2 in particular, it would do the Tide well to make sure they rotate over on defense, because Vandy has gotten hot from the three-point line recently. This has got to be a major talking point for Anthony Grant.

Alabama is trying to cap off Revenge Week with a rare win in Nashville. It won't be easy, but the rewards for pulling it off won't be insignificant. With Florida and Tennessee both losing this week, a win for Alabama against Vandy would put the Tide in a pretty comfortable spot alone in 7th place in the SEC. For seeding purposes, that would place Alabama on the opposite side of the SEC Tournament bracket as Kentucky. This is a good thing, even if it does just prolong the inevitable end to the season.

The game will tip-off at 3:00 PM CST and will be televised on Fox Sports Net.