With the midway point of the conference schedule approaching, Alabama finds itself in a situation most observers would never have imagined a month ago. With a win on Wednesday night against the Arkansas Razorbacks (16-5, 5-3 SEC), the Crimson Tide would firmly place themselves in the upper-third of the SEC standings, with the 5th place team multiple games behind them. After the uninspiring 7-5 start in non-conference play, Avery Johnson would certainly place himself in the SEC Coach of the Year conversation again. On top of that, a road win in Fayetteville against a top-50 RPI team would finally give Alabama a marquee victory to hang it’s hat on.
The Razorbacks are currently projected in the NCAA Tournament according to most; however, they are coming off of a brutal loss against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys dropped 99 points on the Hogs in a blowout win, as the Razorbacks had arguably the worst performance of any team that participated in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge this past Saturday (which the two conferences split, 5-5). Mike Anderson’s team will be looking for a bounce-back at home in Bud Walton Arena, which has historically been a tough place to get a road win.
- PG 6’0 Anton Beard (9.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- OG 6’3 Daryl Macon (13.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- 3G 6’3 Jaylen Barford (11.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- PF 6’8 Arlando Cook (3.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.5 SPG)
- C 6’10 Moses Kingsley (12.1 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.7 SPG, 2.6 BPG)
Alabama has faced a number of incredibly young teams this season (Texas, Auburn, Mississippi State, etc.), but they have yet to face a team with a full rotation of upperclassmen. That will change when they battle the Hogs in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, as Arkansas runs a 9-man rotation with nothing but juniors and seniors, a rare sight in today’s college game.
As is the case with any Mike Anderson coached team, the Razorbacks will try to disrupt opposing offenses and attack opposing defenses with quick guards and long forwards, and they’ve got quite a few quick guards to start with. Beard, despite averaging less than 10.0 PPG, has been a great scorer for Arkansas at the point (45.5% FG%, 41.1% 3P%, 74.6% FT%), and he is also the team leader in assist percentage at 17.4%. Macon has been putting up a strong amount of points every game, mostly because of his ability to get to the line and knock down free throws (89.1% FT%), but he isn’t too shabby from the field himself (43.2% FG%, 35.9% 3P%). Barford is a pure slasher (51.7% 2P%, 29.4% 3P%), so Alabama’s defense needs to ensure they know who to pick up in each situation on the perimeter. Both Macon (16.9% A%) and Barford (16.1% A%) know how to distribute the basketball as well.
In the post, Arkansas has a legitimate 1st Round draft prospect in Kingsley. The lanky Nigerian has improved significantly every year since he arrived in Arkansas, and he seems to be a lock for 1st Team All-SEC. Kingsley is a dominant player, capable of scoring from all over the court (46.2% FG%, 50.0% 3P%, 71.1% FT%), rebounding (15.7% RB%), and protecting the paint (team-high 98.8 DRtg, 10.2% B%). Cook has been getting the final starting spot in recent weeks, but he’s only logging 13.0 MPG this year and doesn’t make a major impact in any way.
- G 6’3 Dusty Hannahs (14.0 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.3 APG)
- G 6’3 Manuale Watkins (5.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.3 SPG)
- F 6’7 Dustin Thomas (5.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- F 6’9 Trey Thompson (2.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.9 BPG)
Hannahs may be coming off of the bench, but he is the team leader in PPG for a reason. He is the classic scoring sixth man (42.7% FG%, 34.3% 3P%, 88.8% FT%), as he attempts 10.5 shots per game. He doesn’t start because he is a massive liability on defense (111.7 DRtg) and really can’t be bothered to rebound the basketball (4.2% RB%, seriously, this is an incredibly sad stat), but he is one of those guys who can heat up and take over a game.
Hannahs is the high-volume shooter off of the bench, but Watkins (54.3% FG%, 50.0% 3P%) and Thomas (46.7% FG%, 50.0% 3P%) are actually more efficient. Clearly, ‘Bama will need to find these guys on the perimeter whenever they check into the game. In the post, Thompson provides quality minutes when he’s in (63.3% FG%, second best 99.5 DRtg, 13.6% RB%), but he’s only averaging 12.1 MPG this season.
Player To Watch
Braxton Key. Who else could it be? The freshman forward is blossoming into a legitimate star for the Crimson Tide. His ability to see the court and attack the rim is as well polished as Alabama’s seen out of a first year player since Trevor Releford showed up in 2010. On top of that, Key is starting to rebound at a high level as well, coming up one board short of a double-double in each of the last two games. The Razorback defense hasn’t exactly been stout this season, so Key should have plenty of opportunities to eclipse the 20-point mark again Wednesday night.
Three Keys to Victory
- Defend the Perimeter. Arkansas is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the SEC, and they also have probably the best group of shooters Alabama has seen this season outside of Oregon and Vanderbilt. The Commodores finished 10/26 from beyond the arc in their recent meeting, which is pretty solid, but they also finished with only 56 points, as Alabama made the ‘Dores work for their opportunities. Alabama will need to bring an even better effort to Fayetteville, as the Hogs have a really balanced attack from downtown. Barford and Thompson are the only two guys in the rotation who can’t hurt their opponents from deep. Alabama’s not likely going to win a shootout with the Hogs, so they really need to stretch the defense out.
- Control the Pace. Mike Anderson’s squad likes to turn up the tempo and get up and down the court as quickly as possible. While Avery Johnson certainly isn’t opposed to this idea, he knows that this Alabama team has a much better chance of winning by putting the clamps down on Arkansas’ transition game and forcing this match-up into a half-court meeting. Many of the Razorbacks’ made-threes come from getting open looks in transition, so the Tide need to get back on defense, especially after a missed shot or turnover. The Hogs are also one of the worst defenses in the SEC, even when factoring in tempo. Only two players have an above average grade according to DRtg, and they are both in the post. These guards are very susceptible to hard drives to the rim. With Key and guard Dazon Ingram attacking the basket the way they have lately, this could be a bad match-up for Arkansas.
- Limit Kingsley. As mentioned earlier in the post, Mike Anderson typically likes to utilize a quantity of long forwards and post players, but this year’s Arkansas team seems to be quite thin in this area. As such, Kingsley has become immensely important for their offense, especially in the halfcourt. With ‘Bama most likely putting an emphasis on expanding the defense out and putting the clamps down on Arkansas’ shooters, Kingsley will likely have a number of one-on-one situations in the post. Donta Hall (86.5 DRtg, 9.9% B%) and Jimmie Taylor (89.2 DRtg, 10.2% B%) have been playing some phenomenal defense lately, and they will be counted on to replicate that kind of defensive success if Alabama wants to come away with a win.
This game will be a huge opportunity for Alabama to really cement itself as a top-tier SEC team in 2017. The Tide have improved tremendously over the course of the season, and Avery Johnson has them playing their best ball right now. Arkansas is pretty much the exact inverse of what Alabama likes to do on the court, so this should be an interesting match-up schematically.
The game tips-off at 6:00 PM CST on Wednesday, and it will be televised on the SEC Network.