Alabama’s disheartening 67-54 loss to the Clemson Tigers (8-2) in Birmingham on Sunday confirmed what many fans have feared: this is not a very good basketball team right now. After last season’s pleasantly surprising debut under Avery Johnson, many expected the Tide to take a big step forward in 2016-17. That simply has not been the case. Alabama doesn’t shoot well, turnovers have been way too prevalent, Dazon Ingram seems to be the only guy on the team who knows how to make quality, threatening passes, free throw shooting and rebounding woes have continued, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a sense of urgency with this group. A number of the new additions to the roster have yet to pan out, and some of the veteran guys have shown little-to-no development at all.
With Christmas right around the corner, the Crimson Tide are stuck picking up the pieces of what was supposed to be a promising, fun season. In the last decade, only twice has Alabama been at or below the .500 mark going into the holiday weekend (2010-11 and 2013-14).
However, that doesn’t mean that this season is over, or even close to it. While the 2013-14 team continued its mediocre play all the way through March, the 2010-11 team figured out their rotation, developed their true freshman point guard (Trevor Releford), started playing fast and loose with athletes like Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green, and ended up challenging for the SEC Championship. That team barely missed the NCAA Tournament, due to their poisonous losses early on in the year, and ended up playing Wichita State in the NIT Championship Game.
There is a lot of basketball left to play, and that begins on Wednesday night against the Arkansas State Red Wolves (9-2). While a game with Arkansas State doesn’t seem like much on paper, this Red Wolves team is no joke. Ken Pomory considers them just outside of the top 100 in the country, on par with a few of the SEC’s lesser teams (and considerably ahead of Missouri). First year head coach Grant McCasland has already led his team to an upset win over the Georgetown Hoyas, so his group knows what it takes to stun a major conference opponent.
- PG 6’3 Donte Thomas (9.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 7.1 APG, 1.2 APG)
- OG 5’11 Rashad Lindsey (9.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.8 APG)
- SG 6’4 Devin Carter (17.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- WF 6’4 Devin Simms (13.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.4 APG, 0.6 BPG)
- PF 6’8 Nelson Nweke (2.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG)
Arkansas State is very much a guard heavy team. They play a lot of 4-Out, 1-In concepts, as they are looking to space out the defense and attack with the dribble-drive. Thomas is the trigger-man for this unit, and he is a good one. He has an absolutely outrageous, and in no way sustainable, 46.6% A% this season. In other words, when Thomas is on the floor, nearly every other made-shot has come off an assist from him. Truly an incredible stat.
The guy converting on most of those assists is Thomas’ fellow senior, Carter. He’s a true shooting guard whose primary role on the team is to stretch the defense with beautiful efficiency. Carter is averaging 8.8 3PA per game, and he is connecting on 44.3% of them. Lindsey is another three-point threat (42.9%), but his size limits him from making as much of an impact in other areas like Carter can.
Simms is the do-it-all “square peg in a round hole” on the wing. He’s really a guard, but the overall lack of size for the Red Wolves has forced him to play out of position. However, he’s done a good job of it. Sims is a 54.5% scorer, most of which comes in around the rim. He’s also one of the best defensive players on the team, combining a 91.9 DRtg with a combined 2.0 defensive impact plays a game. Nweke has come on strong as of late to take the starting spot in the post, as his RB% is up to 15.0% and his DRtg rounds out at 96.3.
- G 6’3 CJ Foster (7.8 PPG 2.7 RPG 1.3 APG, 0.5 SPG)
- G 6’4 Connor Kern (5.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.5 SPG)
- F 6’7 Tamas Bruce (7.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.5 BPG)
- F 6’8 Salif Boudie (3.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
Arkansas State gets a decent amount of production out of their bench, especially from the back-up post Bruce. He’s one of the better defenders Alabama has played against (87.7 DRtg), and his 16.5% RB% shows that he’s strong on the glass as well. Foster and Kern are both solid players. Both have been good scorers when they come out on the court (Foster: 50.0%, Kern: 47.4%), and Kern gives the Red Wolves another deep threat (48.3% 3P%). Boudie, who graduated from Central Park in Birmingham last May, adds depth in the front-court.
What To Watch For
- Corban Collins’ Injury. The senior leader for the Tide injured his groin in Sunday’s loss to Clemson and will take some time off to rest and let it heal. With Nick King still out with his illness, Alabama’s rotation will be much thinner than it has been. Expect to see a lot more of Avery Johnson Jr. running the point.
Three Keys to Victory
- Prevent Dribble-Penetration. The Red Wolves offense revolves around their ability to beat defenders one-on-one with dribble penetration. With only one post player on the court on most possessions, Arkansas State usually has a good amount of space in the lane for their guards to get to the rim after a good move. If the defense begins to collapse on the driving guard, they will simply kick it back out to one of their potent three-point shooters for the open look. Thomas is especially effective in this offense, and it is imperative that Alabama’s defenders stay in front of him.
- Stay Out on the Shooters. As was just mentioned above, Arkansas State has no issues driving, drawing a defender, and then kicking it out to an open shooter from downtown. The Red Wolves only have three real threats from outside (Carter, Lindsey, and Kern), but those three guys are all really good from long-range. Arkansas State is shooting 40.6% from three-point range, 25th best in the country. The Tide’s defense cannot lose any of those three players, no matter how well Thomas or anyone else may be getting to the rim. Expect to see Alabama cut off rotations from the back-court and rely on a single slide from the post.
- Attack the Basket. Offensively, Alabama needs to get to the rim themselves. Arkansas State has a severe shortage of both size and depth in the front-court. Whether that involves Ingram and Braxton Key asserting themselves on drives or feeding Donta Hall in the post, the Tide need to take advantage in the front-court Wednesday night.
At this point in the season, Alabama simply needs to work on improving as a team. The NCAA Tournament is a pipe dream, and even the NIT will require some major development in a number of areas. Arkansas State will provide a decent test for the Tide in Huntsville Wednesday night; it should be a great opportunity to try to figure some things out.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.