It’s Thanksgiving week again, which means it’s time for family bonding, delicious food, Iron Bowl build-up, and holiday basketball tournaments. The Crimson Tide will be doing it big this year, traveling out to Las Vegas, Nevada to participate in the MGM Grand Main Event. Joining the Tide out in the desert this year will the BYU Cougars, the Saint Louis Billikens, and Alabama’s opening opponent, the Valparaiso Crusaders (3-1). The Crusaders won a school-record 30 games last season and finished as runners-up in the 2016 NIT. Really, this was an NCAA Tournament team that got snubbed because of the conference that they play in, the Horizon League.
Despite the Crusaders recent success on the hardwood, it should be noted that the man responsible for most of it, Bryce Drew, is now coaching the Vanderbilt Commodores, who Alabama will of course see later on in the season. On top of that, Valpo also graduated four seniors and lost their starting power forward, David Skara, who transferred to Clemson. This is definitely a rebuilding job for new coach Matt Lotich, who was promoted from assistant coach after Drew’s departure.
- PG 6’0 Lexus Williams (4.8 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.3 SPG)
- OG 6’1 Max Joseph (8.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.5 BPG)
- WF 6’7 Shane Hammink (16.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.5 BPG)
- SF 6’9 Alec Peters (25.8 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
- PF 6’7 Jubril Adekoya (6.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
The Crusaders lost a lot of production from last season, but the one guy they did not lose happens to have been the best of the bunch in Peters. The 6’9 senior can play out on the wing, in the post, or even at the point. He is both the high-volume scorer (42.0% FG% on 20.3 FGA per game) and the best rebounder (team-best 12.7% RB%). He is also shooting an incredible 93.5% from the free throw line. Peters has been the face of this team for a few seasons now, and that will not change in 2016-17. All five starters are upperclassmen for Valparaiso, so they are not an inexperienced bunch despite the large amount of attrition they’ve gone through.
However, as will be revealed below, this is a thin group. Because of this, their per-game averages will be a bit inflated. So even though they may all be averaging about a steal per game or more, know that a lot of it has to do with how much these guys play. There are six guys who average over 25.0 MPG, and only two others have logged double-digit minute averages this season, even though they’ve rolled over a few teams.
With that in mind, think about how little of a threat Williams is as a scorer. He’s shooting 33.3% from the floor this year on only about four attempts per game. However, he is a decent passer and has done a great job of turning opponents over this season. Hammink has stepped up in a big way in his senior year, shooting 50.0% from the floor on his way to a 16.0 PPG line. However, he is not a threat from the perimeter at all (7.7% 3P%), so it would be best for Alabama to limit his dribble-penetration.
Joseph has been the only guy knocking down shots from outside of the arc with any consistency this season (37.5%), so Alabama will only really need to keep an eye on him from that range. Adekoya is a strong, yet undersized post player. He provides some good help defensively, but he is not a scorer by any stretch (33.3% FG%), and his rebounding (10.3% RB%) leaves a bit to be desired considering he’s one of the only true post players on the team.
- G 6’1 Tevonn Walker (8.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 0.5 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- G 6’2 Micah Bradford (6.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.0 APG)
- C 6’11 Jaume Sorolla (1.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
As mentioned, this is a thin basketball team right now. Walker is basically a starter, averaging 27.0 MPG in the two games he’s played this season, but after that the only other two guys who have played significant minutes are true freshman. Walker is a shooter only, and he’s even struggled in that area so far in the early goings of this season (31.3% FG%). He is third on the team with a 10.6% RB%. Bradford is exactly what one would expect out of a freshman guard: inconsistent. Sorolla has only played about ten minutes a game, but he may be called upon in a larger manner for this game considering the size that Alabama boasts in the post.
What To Watch For
- Consistency. Alabama has shown an ability to beat opponents with a number of different contributors. Shannon Hale, Ar’Mond Davis, and Avery Johnson Jr. did most of the heavy lifting for the Tide off of the bench in their easy win over Ball State last Friday, after being mostly non-factors in the previous two games. Dazon Ingram, Corban Collins, Riley Norris, and Braxton Key had been the main hubs of production prior to the game with the Cardinals. This is a good sign, as it shows that Avery Johnson has a wide range of guys who can beat an opponent on any given night. However, it would be nice to see some of the Tide’s best players really start to even out their performances.
- Time Changes. The Crimson Tide are moving west by two time zones and then playing at 11:00 PM CST. This kind of travel can really affect players’ body clocks, so keep an eye on this while you are watching this group of 18-22 years old men try to adapt quickly enough to win what should be a stout challenge on the Strip.
Three Keys to Victory
- Fouls and Free Throws. Alabama has a massive advantage when it comes to overall team depth. It would suit the Tide to make this a physical game on the offensive end of the court, because Valparaiso really can’t afford to get into foul trouble. If Ingram fouls out, the Tide have Collins and Avery Jr. both ready to man the point. If Key fouls out, Alabama still has stretch fowards like Hale and Nick King available. The Crusaders don’t have much of a back-up plan if Peters has to sit, for example. However, the Tide don’t need to bail Valpo out, either. Every player on this team can hit their free throws, as they are currently 6th in the country at 82.7%. Alabama’s struggles from the line are well documented at this point.
- Force Jumpers. For a team that is as good as they are from the charity stripe, one would think they are pretty decent jump-shooters. That simply hasn’t been the case for Valparaiso. The Crusaders are currently shooting 39.7% from the field, 300th in the country. And it gets worse the further back they are from the basket, as they are an atrocious 19.8% from the three point line. There is really no reason to let Valpo get the ball around the rim in this game. Protect the paint, prevent dribble-penetration, and make the Crusaders beat you with outside jumpers.
- Contain Peters. This really goes hand-in-hand with key #2. Peters is far and away the best player on this Valparaiso team. If Alabama can limit his looks and force others on this thin, shooting-challenged team to try to beat them, they should walk away with an easy win in the Vegas opener. Avery Johnson drew up a great game-plan for both Tayler Persons and Franko House last Friday, holding both to their lowest scoring outputs of the season. Ball State never had a chance because of that, and Valpo won’t either if Peters can’t get his.
This game should be a good test for the Crimson Tide. It is the first game away from the comfort of home (on the Strip in Las Vegas, no less), they are playing a proud program with a star senior leader, and the Crusaders will undoubtedly make Alabama try to grind out this win. They play solid, sound defense, so Alabama better be ready to scrap.
The game will tip-off at 11:00 PM CST but will not be televised, which means Tide fans will need to get nice and cozy in bed and turn the radio on for tonight’s match-up.