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Bama Basketball Breakdown: USC Upstate

The Tide return home after a pair of road losses

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina Upstate at Clemson Dawson Powers-USA TODAY Sports

Two-thirds of the way through the non-conference schedule and the Alabama Crimson Tide (4-4) are still looking for answers. With tough road trips to Austin and Eugene now in the rearview mirror, Alabama looks to create some momentum going into conference play in January. The Tide will likely need to win these last four games if they want to enter 2017 with a decent non-conference resume.

Fortunately for Avery Johnson’s group, all four remaining out-of-conference games will be played within the Alabama state border, beginning with a home tune-up against the South Carolina-Upstate Spartans (7-5). The Spartans, ranked 231st in the country according to Ken Pomeroy, are one of the worst defensive units in all of college basketball. If the Tide can’t put some points up on the board at home against this team, it’s hard to see them putting up many points against much of anyone the rest of the way.

The Roster

Starting Line-Up

  • PG 6’1 Mike Cunningham (13.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.0 SPG)
  • OG 6’5 Josh Cuthbertson (9.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4.6 APG)
  • WF 6’6 Malik Moore (10.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG)
  • SF 6’6 Ramel Thompkins (10.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.2 SPG)
  • C 6’11 Michael Buchanan (14.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 BPG)

The Spartans like to get up and down the court, and there is good reason for that. With three guys like Cuthbertson, Moore, and Thompkins all around 6’6 with good athleticism, it makes sense that USC-Upstate likes to get their guys moving to take advantage of that size-speed combination. Cuthbertson is the do-it-all, senior “glue guy”. He leads the team in assists and shoots 45.7% from the field. Moore and Thompkins are very similar players, both able to score (Moore: 52.4% FG%, 39.5% 3P%; Thompkins: 45.6% FG%, 39.7% 3P%) and rebound (Moore: 12.3% RB%, Thompkins: 9.8%) well.

Cunningham leads the offense from the point with an assist-to-turnover ratio just over 2.0 and an average of nearly 11 field goal attempts per game, the most on the team. He’s shooting 40.3% from the field and 37.8% from downtown, but it’s his 86.7% FT% that makes him stand out among his otherwise mediocre free-throw shooting teammates. Buchanan is a legitimate post player, averaging a double-double on 64.2% shooting and an astounding 22.9% RB%. Really, Buchanan needs to see more time on the floor, as he is currently 6th on the team in minutes played per game, despite his obvious efficiency. A lot of this has to do with the Spartans’ up-tempo style, but they’ve got to get this guy on the floor more.

The Bench

  • G 6’3 Deion Holmes (11.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.7 SPG)
  • G 6’4 Jure Span (3.2 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 2.8 APG)
  • F 6’8 Philip Whittington (6.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.4 BPG)

Holmes is a classic scoring sixth-man off of the bench (44.4% FG%, 32.1% 3P%, 77.8% FT%). He doesn’t do anything spectacularly, but he’s able to provide a spark offensively when he gets in the game. Span isn’t much of a scorer at all (31.1% FG%, 23.5% 3P%, 33.3% FT%), but he gives Upstate some good minutes, especially as a passer (2.8 APG to only 0.9 TOPG, best on the team). Whittington represents the only other true post player besides Buchanan, so he is vitally important to the team despite being a poor scorer (37.2% FG%). He’s the best defender on the team, though at exactly a 100.0 DRtg, that’s not really saying a whole lot. Still, the guy can rebound and play average defense in the post, so he’s going to get plenty of minutes every night.

What To Watch For

  • Nick King’s Health. Avery Johnson confirmed earlier this week that King will be out indefinitely as he recovers from some sort of infection in his lungs that caused him to lose fifteen pounds in just over a week. The junior forward will likely return home for the holidays and try to get healthy enough to rejoin the team in January when SEC play begins.
  • Donta Hall’s Emergence? The sophomore big man led the charge in a near-comeback victory over the now-22nd ranked Oregon Ducks last Sunday night, accounting for 14 points, 7 rebounds, and a pair of assists to go along with a block and a steal on the defensive end. He also did a much better job of preventing offensive rebounds, an issue he’s had since he’s been on campus, as he showed marked improvement keeping his feet on the floor and not chasing shot blocks all night. Has Hall started to truly emerge in the low block for Alabama? It’s been a long time since Alabama has consistently gotten solid play out of the five position, and it would be a huge boost for this team if Hall can continue to improve as a player.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Control the Tempo. USC Upstate likes to get up and down the court as quickly as possible; it’s their way of creating some sort of advantage when playing against deeper, more talented teams. Alabama has done a tremendous job in recent years of dictating tempo, especially in Tuscaloosa. If the Tide can keep the pace slow and force the Spartans to come up with some offense in the halfcourt, they should have an easy time of this game. The last thing Alabama wants to do is to get in a shootout with this team, as the Auburn Tigers did earlier in the season when they gave up 83 points in a seven-point victory.
  2. Share the Rock. The Tide’s lack of assists this season is alarming. Dazon Ingram is averaging 4.0 APG, but no one else is averaging more than 1.9 APG, with most coming around 1.0 or fewer. It’s obvious in the way the team attacks a defense as well, as the ball barely threatens opposing teams when they choose to run zone. There are pressure points to every defense, and the Tide simply have to do a better job of exposing them.
  3. Free Throws. Both of these teams are really bad from the charity stripe, as Alabama comes into this contest shooting 64.8% from the free throw line, which is actually better than USC-Upstate’s 63.6% clip. If either team can get it going from the line, that could make up the difference in what will likely be a sluggish game in Coleman Coliseum on Thursday.

Alabama is still looking to improve in a number of key areas this season, especially on the offensive end of the court. The team is clearly missing a go-to scorer like they’ve had in years past, and the lack of adequate passing is really starting to take a toll on this young group. USC-Upstate is one of the worst defensive teams in America, so the Spartans could be the perfect team for Alabama to sharpen up the offense.

The game will tip-off at 7:00 PM CST and will be featured on ESPN3.