After barely surviving against the Mercer Bears on Tuesday, the Alabama Crimson Tide (8-3) take their traveling show from Huntsville to Birmingham to take on Shaka Smart’s Texas Longhorns (8-3) in the Vulcan Classic. Both teams are young groups that have played strong non-conference schedules and are looking to head into conference play with a win that should look great on the victor’s NCAA Tournament resume come March.
Texas, much like ‘Bama (but to a worse degree), had their own scare this week as they squeaked out an ugly 47-46 win over Tennessee State on Monday. Expect them to come out with some fire in this game. The Longhorns have been excellent on the defensive end of the court this year (5th in Kenpom’s AdjD), but they’ve had their issues on offense (141st), and all of their problems came to a head on Monday. It will be interesting to see how they bounce back from that performance.
- POINT 6’2 Matt Coleman (6.7 PPG, 4.1 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
- GUARD 6’3 Jacob Young (5.7 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 0.5 APG)
- GUARD 6’4 Kerwin Roach Jr. (11.1 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.4 SPG)
- POST 6’9 Dylan Osetkowski (15.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)
- POST 6’11 Mo Bamba (10.3 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 4.1 BPG)
Texas will likely be without one of their typical starting guards Andrew Jones (15.2 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.4 APG). The Longhorns have been struggling all year on offense but it became significantly worse when Jones fractured his wrist against VCU a few weeks ago. He had been Texas’s only consistent shooter. Young has gotten the nod to replace him because he’s one of the best remaining shooters on the team (46.2%/33.3%/85.7%), though the sophomore guard lacks in other areas of the game.
Also in the back-court are freshman phenom Matt Coleman and veteran guard Kerwin Roach. Coleman is a fantastic distributor of the ball and leader of the offense (8:3 assist-to-turnover ratio, 21.8% AST%), but he has struggled to put the ball in the basket himself (30.0%/23.5%/66.7%). He leads the team in minutes, so he needs to find a way to score without having to dish it. Roach is a true slasher, as evidenced by his shooting line (58.0%/29.6%/57.1%). There is really no reason to let him into the paint without making him earn it. However, he’s got good basketball I.Q. and really brings it on defense (thus leading to a few breakaways), so he often finds ways to get to the rim uninterrupted.
In the post, a pair of new-comers have logged the overwhelming majority of minutes. Osetkowski is a transfer from Tulane that Alabama pursued, and there’s a good reason for that. The team’s leading scorer, he’s about as capable as anyone else at stepping back and knocking down a jumper, but he’s definitely a post scorer (47.0%/26.3%/73.8%). He’s got good hands defensively, great court vision for a big, and he can rebound well. The one knock on him is that he isn’t exactly a beast in the post on either end. He can be bullied by bigger players. Bamba is a lottery pick one-and-done. With a BLK% of 16.8% and a REB% of 19.4%, he is a beast in the post. His scoring abilities aren’t great, but with the kind of frame he has it’s hard not to be a factor in the offense.
- GUARD 6’2 Eric Davis Jr (5.4 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
- GUARD 6’5 Jase Febres (2.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG)
- POST 6’9 Jericho Sims (4.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.7 BPG)
- POST 6’10 James Banks (2.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
Depth for the Horns obviously took a hit when Young had to replace Jones in the line-up. Neither back-up guard is really capable of providing a scoring spark off of the bench, which is partly why Texas has been getting into such funks offensively. The post is pretty deep though, as both Sims and Banks have played well in more limited roles. Banks has a 14.3% REB% and a 13.7% BLK%, but he’s logging less than 10.0 MPG. With Texas running Smart’s patented “Havoc Defense”, Banks just hasn’t been a great fit, despite his efficiency.
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Basketball. This is key #1 anytime you play a Shaka Smart-led team. The 1-2-1-1 full court press that they run is deadly when executed properly, and with a group of mostly young guards that have been prone to turning it over, this is a major concern for Avery Johnson. I mean, you saw how John Petty reacted to the end-of-game press the other night, right? Dazon Ingram and Riley Norris could be huge tonight in this regard. Collin Sexton can break presses by himself, but he needs to keep his head up with the Longhorns. This key alone could decide this game.
- Three Pointers. Clearly, this game is going to be incredibly fast-paced. Alabama likes to get out and run and that’s exactly what Texas wants teams to try to do. This will create a lot of opportunities for three-pointers. ‘Bama just about shot itself out of the game against Mercer going 1/16 from beyond the arc in the first half, but they are capable of getting hot and stroking from downtown. Texas, meanwhile, is not. If Alabama is trading threes with twos most of the game they will roll. Of course, I’ve written this kind of thing before, only to have the 313th-ranked team by 3P% go 9/14 from three so it may not matter. Another reason three-pointers will be big in this game is that Texas can really defend in the paint. Alabama needs to shoot well.
Free Throws. Both teams have been bad from the free throw line this season, although Alabama has been trending in the right direction. In a
college basketball game played in 2017game that could see quite a bit of fouls called, the charity stripe will loom large. Getting Sexton, Ingram, and Donta Hall to the line could be the winning formula for Alabama on offense. As bad as Alabama’s FT% has been, the Tide have actually been routinely beating their opponents in this area because of how high their free throw rate has been.
Alabama has a big week against Texas’s two largest schools this upcoming week. Before the looming showdown in Tuscaloosa for the conference opener against a top-ten Texas A&M team, the Tide will look to end non-conference play on a high note in Birmingham. Alabama has yet to win the Vulcan Classic, but the Tide has yet to send the kind of fire-power they will be sending tonight.
With Andrew Jones out for Texas and Braxton Key back for Alabama, things are looking good for the Tide (despite Key’s rusty play on Tuesday). This is a big game that Alabama really needs to win. A win tonight guarantees the Tide a 9-4 non-conference slate at worst (Alabama hosts a greatly improved Oklahoma team in the Big 12-SEC Challenge in January), which would probably be the minimum that prevents Alabama from having to win 12+ in conference play to go dancing in March.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.