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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Mercer

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Braxton Key returns as the Crimson Tide begin their in-state tour

NCAA Basketball: Mercer at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

With finals now in the rearview mirror for the Alabama Crimson Tide (7-3), Avery Johnson's group looks to end non-conference play with a pair of wins in their showcase games in Huntsville and Birmingham this week. Tuesday night brings the second installment of the Rocket City Classic, played in the Von Braun Center in Huntsville. The Tide's opponent will be the Mercer Bears (6-5), who will be looking to win their second straight over Alabama after taking the last meeting in 2012 66-59, a loss that helped keep the Crimson Tide out of the NCAA Tournament that season. Bob Hoffman's team can play, having gone down to the wire with both UCF and Memphis, a pair of teams Alabama had plenty of issues with itself.

Not that playing solid mid-majors is anything new for the Tide, but it bears repeating (this really wasn't an intended pun, I promise) that Alabama can't mess around in this game. Hopefully the team will pick right back up where they left off prior to exams, as the Tide more than held their own in impressive fashion on the road against an elite Arizona team. Reports are indicating that 2017 All-SEC Freshman and leading scorer Braxton Key will be making his long-awaited return to the line-up tonight, so that could be the boost needed to keep things rolling for the Tide.

The Roster

Starting Five

  • POINT 6'1 Jordan Strawberry (9.8 PPG, 4.3 APG, 4.0 RPG)
  • GUARD 6'0 Ria'n Holland (22.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.6 SPG)
  • WING 6'6 Stephon Jelks (10.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.8 APG)
  • WING 6'8 Demetre Rivers (8.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.4 APG)
  • POST 6'9 Desmond Ringer (7.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 0.5 BPG)

Any and all discussions regarding Mercer have to begin with Holland. The electrifying scorer is tied with Arizona's Alonzo Trier at 16th in the country in PPG, ahead of Alabama's own Collin Sexton. The scary thing is Holland has been way more efficient than Trier this season, shooting at a ridiculous 56.4%/61.1%/92.9% rate. Yes, the six-foot-nothing guard makes more baskets than he misses, and is hitting 61.1% of three-pointers and nearly 93% of his free throw attempts. He has been ridiculous so far this year, posting an incredible ORtg of 154.1, which means he averages 154 points per 100 possessions. That's crazy good. The Bears dropped two out of three games earlier this year when he was out of the line-up.

Joining Holland in the back-court is Strawberry, the senior point guard who is very much a traditional passing-point. He's shooting only 33.0% from the field, but he has a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and a 27.3% AST%. He's the unquestioned conductor of the offense.

Unlike most mid-major groups, the Bears have a good amount of size across the board in the front-court. Jelks is a heck of a player out on the wing for Hoffman's squad. He doesn't shoot the ball as much as he probably should, but when he does, it is deadly. His numbers are even better than Hollands: 61.5%/62.1%/90.0%! It's remarkable that both Jelks and Holland are scoring like this for a small school like Mercer. These guys can ball. Rivers and Ringer certainly don't set fire to the net like those two do, but Rivers is no slouch (47.0%/31.6%/88.5%), and both provide some good size.

The Bench

  • GUARD 6'5 Ethan Stair (8.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)
  • GUARD 6'4 Marcus Cohen (5.1 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
  • GUARD 6'2 Jaylen Stowe (3.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.5 APG)
  • WING 6'6 Ryan Johnson (2.3 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.5 APG)
  • WING 6'7 Cory Kilby (4.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.7 APG)

Another characteristic of Mercer that differentiates them from so many other mid-major schools is that this team has legitimate depth. Stair is the consummate sixth man, able to come off of the bench and knock down shots to spark his team (54.7%/47.6%/69.6%). Cohen is the heir apparent at the point guard position, churning out a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in his first season playing college ball. Kilby is a dangerous stretch four type of player, as he's shooting 41.7% from both the field and the perimeter. This team rotates deep into their bench, and they get a lot of good production from them.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Control the Pace. The senior-laden Bears like to play at a slow pace, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what Alabama prefers to do. The Tide have had issues playing lesser teams this year when they are forced to play slow games in the half-court. It is imperative that Alabama get off to a quick start and keep things moving on both ends. Depth or not, Mercer simply isn't built or coached to succeed in games that feature a lot of possessions, so Alabama needs to enforce their style of play.
  2. Feed the Post. When Alabama does have to settle for some half-court basketball, they need to go right at Mercer's defensive weaknesses in the post. With Key making his debut and Donta Hall continuing to dominate around the rim, Alabama should be more than well equipped to do consistent damage in the paint all night. Mercer will play a lot of zone, so the Tide's guards will need to keep them working on defense by knocking down some perimeter shots, but the majority of the damage will need to be delivered inside.
  3. Contest Jumpers. Defensively, Alabama simply needs to contest the jump-shot. Mercer is 5th in the country in 3P%, shooting an incredible 44.0% from deep. The Bears aren't going to bang in the post with Hall and Daniel Giddens all night; they are going to look to move the ball and find open jumpers. The Tide will want to speed things up, but they cannot lose focus on the defense end while doing so. Mercer, much like Rhode Island earlier this month, is ruthlessly efficient. They will exploit laziness on defense. 'Bama needs to stay in the Bears' faces.

With only two games left before conference play begins on the 30th against a top-ten Texas A&M squad, Alabama is looking to close out a rather tough non-conference slate with two showcase games away from Tuscaloosa. The Rocket City classic had a great turn-out last season, so if you are in North Alabama and don't usually get to see the Tide play, get there early. This team is special and will be a ton of fun to watch. Sexton will be playing in the NBA for a long time starting next season, so this could be a lot of people's only chance to see him live. Come on out and pull the Tide through as Key makes his debut.

The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.