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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Tennessee

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Alabama hosts their rivals from Rocky Top

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

After a tough week full of hard-fought losses to long-time rivals, the Crimson Tide will look to reverse that trend against the Tennessee Volunteers (10-9, 3-4 SEC) on Tuesday night. The Tennessee basketball program is in a similar situation as Alabama, as they are also a team in transition trying to adjust to their new, heralded head coach, Rick Barnes. It's been a roller coaster ride for the Tennessee basketball program ever since Bruce Pearl was forced out. The Vols were constant under-achievers under Cuonzo Martin until they finally put it together in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when they made a surprising run to the Sweet Sixteen. Martin then left abruptly himself, and Tennessee took a risk in hiring the up-and-comer Donnie Tyndall. Tyndall was then fired after only one season in Knoxville, as NCAA violations from his time in Hattiesburg with Southern Miss came to light. With so much instability around the program, the Vols really hit a home-run with Barnes. He will be able to stabilize this program for years to come, and his first team is really starting to find their stride.

The Roster

Starting Line-Up

  • PG 6'4 Kevin Punter (23.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.5 SPG)
  • OG 6'5 Devin Baulkman (9.8 PG, 3.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 0.7 SPG)
  • SF 6'6 Robert Hubbs (12.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.6 SPG)
  • WF 6'5 Armani Moore (12.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.9 BPG)
  • PF 6'5 Admiral Schofield (6.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.8 APG)
The first thing that stands out about Tennessee is that, while every guy in the starting line-up has height, none of them are tall enough to bang all game long in the post. That's why Schofield, a true freshmen, has been such an important addition to this team. He's the only true post player of the group, though, strangely enough, he averages the least amount of rebounds per game. However, his 10.6% RB% is actually one of the best on the team (which shows how misleading per game stats can be without the right context), and his 240 pound frame has been crucial as a physical presence in the post. Schofield's not going to blow anybody away, but he's a key cog in Tennessee's team.

The rest of the line-up makes up for their lack of post presence by combining a number of interesting pieces together. Moore has been one of the more intriguing players in the SEC over the last few years, as the senior forward is one of the few players in college basketball who can play adequately in the post and on the boards as well as handle the ball at the point. He's kind of like a poor man's Ben Simmons, as he leads the team in both assists and rebounds. He's also the best defender (100.3 DRtg) on an otherwise mediocre defensive team, mostly because of his ability to really impact that end of the court with steals and blocks.

Hubbs is listed as a member of the back-court, but he's more of an inside player. While he's not a post player by any stretch, his rebounding (8.1% RB%) has been big for the Vols off of the wing. He's shooting 50.0% from inside of the arc, but he's an awful three-point shooter (18.8%). He's also a 78.6% FT%, so clearly Alabama wants to deny him from getting any sort of penetration. Baulkman is a solid two-guard who shoots just 37.5% from the field, but an impressive 83.9% from the line. His defense has been shaky though (110.5 DRtg).

Kevin Punter is arguably the most underrated player in college basketball. The guy has absolutely brought it for the Vols, and Alabama will have to be in his face the whole night if they don't want to get lit up (49.1% FG%, 40.2% 3P%, 82.4% FT%). A point guard by necessity this year, Punter is actually more comfortable playing off, which is why Moore's versatility as a point-forward has been so crucial for Tennessee this year. Punter isn't the best defender (106.6 DRtg), and his work on the glass isn't renowned (5.4% RB%), but the guy can light it up from the field. He's a true scorer in every sense of the word.

The Bench
  • G 6'3 Detrick Mostella (8.5 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.2 APG)
  • G 6'2 Shembari Phillips (3.0 PPG 0.8 RPG, 0.5 APG)
  • F 6'9 Kyle Alexander (1.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
  • F 6'8 Derek Reese (3.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
With all of the instability surrounding the program, this year's Tennessee team has really struggled with depth. Phillips and Alexander are both true freshmen who have had a minimal impact on the team thus far. They have both appeared in 18 games and play about ten minutes per, but they are both still developing. Mostella is the sixth man for the Vols, and he's been counted on quite a bit. His scoring numbers are solid (39.4% FG%, 34.1% 3P%, 71.4% FT%), but, much like the rest of the team, his defense (110.1 DRtg) and rebounding (5.6% RB%) are lacking. At 6'8, Reese, the lone senior off the bench, has actually logged the fifth most minutes on the team. He's pretty much a non-factor on offense, but his team-leading 14.3% RB% has been huge for the Vols. He's also one of the better defenders on the team.

What to Watch For

  • The Schedule. Alabama has played one of the toughest schedules in the country this season, and that hasn't eased up in SEC play. The Tide have played the 2nd toughest conference schedule among the league's teams, and that has set this young team up for some frustrating losses. With that being said, this next stretch could make or break the Tide's postseason chances. The NCAA Tournament's obviously a long-shot, but the Tide are very much in play for the NIT. However, Alabama will need to go at least 8-10 to get there. The next four games (Tennessee, at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, Missouri) provide the Tide a great opportunity to get back to around .500 in conference play. Alabama needs to take advantage.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. FREE THROWS. Alabama's been a scrappy team that has punched above it's weight class in a lot of games this season. It has really been an impressive run, considering the lack of raw talent on the roster. Which also makes it amazing to realize that this team is really bad from the free throw line. Usually underdog teams make up a lot of their ground from the line. That has not been so for the 318th ranked Crimson Tide, who are shooting a horrid 64.4%. Tennessee, meanwhile, is shooting 73.9%, good for 35th in the country. If Alabama gets totally outclassed from the charity stripe again then they aren't going to win this game either, plain and simple.
  2. Feed the Post. The Vols have had a really strong offense this season, especially since 2016 began. Their 78.9 PPG in SEC play is tops in the league. However, they have also given up 79.6 PPG in conference play; dead last in the league. The reason why is because of their lack of a post presence. They are really bad defending around the rim. That's what happens when your starting post players are 6'5 forwards Moore and Schofield. Alabama hasn't relied on generating many points from the post, mostly because Jimmie Taylor, Michael Kessens, and Donta Hall haven't been very productive offensively. But these three guys need to use their size advantage to take the ball to the glass.
  3. Crash the Boards. Speaking of the big guys and the glass, Alabama has no reason not to win the rebounding margin by a significant amount in this game. Tennessee has good height in their back-court, so the Alabama guards will need to do a good job of finding a man and boxing out when the ball goes up, but the aforementioned post players for the Tide should be gobbling up boards. If Reese, Schofield, and Moore can stalemate the Tide's bigs, it won't be a good sign for Alabama.

The Crimson Tide have gotten off to a rough start in SEC play, which climaxed last week in back-to-back tough losses to Auburn and LSU. Alabama will need to regroup and focus on the task at hand, which is beating the Tennessee Vols and continuing to improve as a team. The NCAA Tournament is a pipe dream, but the NIT was the realistic goal at the beginning of the year and it should be now as well. Any extra reps for this team with Avery Johnson will be an invaluable experience. Tennessee presents an interesting challenge, but the Tide have some obvious advantages in key areas. They will need to capitalize.

The game tips-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised by the SEC Network.