After Anthony Grant was fired following the 2014-15 basketball season, many Alabama fans wanted the athletic department to double-dip into the VCU Rams program for the man who many believe really drove the bus during Grant’s successful tenure there, Shaka Smart. Instead, Smart made his move to Austin, Texas to take over the Texas Longhorns following the dismissal of Rick Barnes, and the Crimson Tide chose to go with the long-time basketball Renaissance man, Avery Johnson. While Johnson immediately had to get to work rebuilding the program in Tuscaloosa, Smart inherited a veteran roster led by studs like Isaiah Taylor and Cameron Ridley.
After making an NCAA Tournament run in year one of the Smart era, expectations were pretty high coming into this season. A 3-0 start had Texas ranked #22 in the country, according to the AP Poll. However, Texas lost a large chunk of their production from last season, and now this young Longhorn squad has hit their first skid of the year, dropping three straight coming into Friday night’s game. In fact, Smart’s squad is coming off of a terrible 72-61 loss to UT-Arlington on Tuesday night.
This is a very beatable team, but they will be motivated to turn their season around and put an end to this losing streak, so it won’t be easy. Smart is a very good basketball coach, and this young team has a ton of potential. Losing streak or not, this is a huge game for the Crimson Tide.
- PG 6’4 Andrew Jones (9.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- OG 6’3 Kendal Yancy (8.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.3 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- 3G 6’2 Eric Davis Jr. (8.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- PF 6’8 Shaquille Cleare (4.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
- C 6’11 Jarrett Allen (10.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.3 BPG)
To better understand just how young this Texas team is, just know that both the starting point guard and the go-to post player are both true freshmen. After losing their entire starting five from a year ago and signing a top-5 recruiting class, this kind of development was to be expected.
However, that kind of turnover has led to some poor offensive play as of late for this talented group. Take a look at the assists per game numbers, there are few and far between. Jones has been up-and-down at the point guard spot, shooting 45.0% from the floor and 25.0% from beyond the arc. Yancy, one of the lone seniors on the roster, has also had his issues (0.3/1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio), but has been a solid scoring option (48.5% FG%, 35.7% 3P%). Davis Jr. is an exciting sophomore, but his shooting has been dreadful in the early goings of this season (27.4% FG%, 16.7% 3P%, 64.3% FT%).
In the post, the Longhorns boast a nice mix of experience and youth. Cleare is the other senior on the roster, and he’s brought a strong veteran presence to the defensive end of the court (93.1 DRtg). He’s not much of a scorer (41.4% FG%) or rebounder (12.5%) for someone with a 6’8 frame though. Allen has looked every bit the part of a future star (52.2% FG%, 13.9% RB%), but he still is prone to plenty of freshman mistakes as well.
Overall, Texas has been playing pretty strong defense, giving up only 66.8 PPG, but they’ve had some real issues on the offensive end of the court.
- G 6’4 Kerwin Roach Jr. (12.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.2 APG)
- G 6’6 Tevin Mack (14.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.4 APG)
- G 6’2 Jacob Young (3.5 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 1.3 APG)
- C 6’10 James Banks (2.4 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.8 APG, 2.6 BPG)
Continuing the youth movement, the Longhorns’ bench is comprised of two sophomores and two freshmen. Roach Jr. and Mack are actually the leading scorers for Texas, and Young has one of the better assists percentages (14.6%) on the team. Banks has been a force as a rim protector (13.8% B%), and his large size allows him to rebound at a solid clip as well. With all of the Longhorns’ struggles on offense, Mack’s ability to knock down perimeter shots (43.3% 3P%) has been critical.
This is a young bench, but it is easily the most talented Alabama has seen this year.
What To Watch For
- Havoc. Shaka Smart’s trademark is his full-court press that he officially dubbed “Havoc”. It is the main reason for Smart’s success over the years and has helped guide both the Rams and the Longhorns to the top portion of most defensive ratings year after year. Burnt Orange Nation has a fantastic write-up on Smart’s havoc-styled full-court defense. It is, in essence, a combination of both man-to-man and zone presses, with Smart mixing up looks throughout the game. Alabama has been much better taking care of the basketball this year compared to last season, but they haven’t really had to deal with much full-court pressure. Can the Tide handle the Longhorn’s press?
- Can Ingram and Key Lead the Offense? Six games into the 2016-17 season and it is obvious who Alabama must turn to offensively: point guard Dazon Ingram and stretch forward Braxton Key. Ingram has a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio to go along with a 62.5% clip from the field. Key is shooting 61.5% both from the field and from beyond the arc. The two freshmen are clearly the best scorers on this team, and they will need to show up for Alabama in their first true road game of the season.
Three Keys to Victory
- Efficient Scoring. Both Alabama and Texas have had a propensity to settle for three-point shots this season, despite both being better at taking the ball to the rim. The difference is that Alabama has had some real success beyond the arc recently, as they have worked to get good looks from their best shooters such as the aforementioned Ingram (50.0% 3P%) and Key, as well as guys like Riley Norris (39.1%), Avery Johnson Jr. (38.5%), and Corban Collins (35.0%). Texas is shooting an anemic 26.4% from three-point land, one of the worst in college basketball. If the Tide can force Texas to take outside shots while working for good looks on their own end, Alabama has a really good chance of coming away with their first true road win of the season.
- Passing. Any time Shaka Smart is coaching the opposition, good passing is going to be a major key. Smart’s teams are at their best when they are creating pressure, filling lanes, and forcing bad passes that they can convert into easy baskets on the other end. Alabama’s shown a lot of improvement in this area of the game, but this is a young team playing in their first true road game environment. On the flip side, one of Texas’ major problems has been their lack of fluidity on offense. They are an incredibly young, raw team full of former high-school superstars who weren’t used to passing to score. Alabama has a great opportunity tonight to really force some turnovers that they can turn into easy transition points.
- Free Throws. Lastly, the Tide need to keep knocking down their free throws. Texas likes to play super-aggressive defense, but that has backfired on them a few times because they are a young group still learning Smart’s system, and they have fouled a bunch. Alabama has shown a little bit of improvement in this area the last few games. They will likely have plenty of opportunities to get free looks at the basket; they need to convert them into points.
This is a massive game for Alabama, as the Crimson Tide need to “get one back”, so to speak, after dropping a winnable game against Valparaiso last week. Texas is a young and struggling basketball team, but they are supremely talented and well-coached. They will be looking to right their own wrongs tonight in Austin, and they should have their havoc defense out and about in full force.
The game will tip-off at 8:30 PM CST and will be televised on ESPNU.