Alabama's 2017-18 basketball season is at a crossroads right now. It's weird to type that out, considering the Tide is sitting at an 8-4 mark against a very tough SOS, but it is the truth. If the NCAA Tournament started today, this incredibly talented Crimson Tide team would likely be just outside the cut-line looking at a top-seed in the NIT. Maybe the high RPI and schedule metrics would get the Tide in the tournament as one of the last few in, but considering the incredible and palpable hype surrounding the program coming into the season, barely making the tournament would be a massive disappointment. This team is way too good to not make a legitimate run at the SEC crown and make some real noise in March.
But the bigger problem right now is this: Alabama just doesn't look like a very good basketball team. The SEC is going to be brutal this season, as it's got a good claim at being as high as the 2nd best conference in college basketball this year (well behind the behemoth that is ACC basketball), and the Tide still have a meeting with a ranked Oklahoma team that is red-hot and led by arguably the front-runner for National Player of the Year, Trae Young. If the Tide thought their schedule has been tough so far, they haven't seen anything yet. Alabama will finish the season somewhere around 17-14 (9-9 SEC) if they play like they did against Texas last Friday night in Birmingham.
That's a problem. If Avery Johnson can't compete with this team, with Collin Sexton at point guard, it doesn't reflect well on him. That's not to say he's on any kind of hot seat; Avery has been everything the Tide hoops fan-base has been starving for. But this team is way too good to scrape by strong mid-majors and lose to every power conference team on the schedule, as they've done so far.
With all of that being said, Alabama will play host Saturday to the best team they will play in Tuscaloosa all year: the #5 Texas A&M Aggies (11-1). While the Aggies probably aren't a legitimate top-5 team in all of college basketball, they have emerged as the favorites in the SEC. Billy Kennedy's group is even better than the Co-SEC Champs and Sweet Sixteen squad they fielded two years ago. They have the best combination of talent and experience in the conference, and they've got easily one of the best pairs of post players in the country. They are really good. I couldn't think of a better time for Alabama to break-out.
- POINT 6'2 Duane Wilson (12.3 PPG, 4.6 APG, 2.4 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
- GUARD 6'3 Admon Gilder (12.7 PPG, 3.7 APG, 5.3 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
- WING 6'8 DJ Hogg (14.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
- POST 6'9 Robert Williams (7.2 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, 2.5 BPG)
- POST 6'10 Tyler Davis (13.9 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.6 BPG)
Texas A&M probably has the best, most well-rounded starting five in the conference. However, Hogg has been suspended for this game, and Gilder may not have yet recovered from his knee injury. That could be huge for Alabama. If Gilder does play, Alabama can’t allow him to get good looks at the basket, as he’s become a heck of a scorer in his junior season (48.9%/43.6%/85.7%).
In the back-court, the graduate transfer from Marquette, Wilson, helped fill a large void A&M had in their roster a year ago: the lack of a true point guard. With Wilson now in the mix rocking a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and 29.0% AST%, the Aggies offense moves much more smoothly. Wilson's a solid scorer in his own right (45.9%/31.7%/85.4%), especially when he gets to the line.
But the post is where A&M really separates itself. Williams is a total monster in the low-block. A projected lottery pick, his style of play is incredibly similar to Texas's Mo Bamba, who ate Alabama's lunch last weekend. Williams is a rebounding and swat-shotting machine (20.8% REB%, 10.7% BLK%), and he can score too (60.0% FG%). Most of that scoring comes from around the rim though. He isn't much of a shooter, as is evidenced by his 36.4% FT%. Davis is another guy that feels like he's been around forever now, as he is in his third year as a starter. For good reason too, as he's the definition of a stud college post player. He's well-rounded and technically sound. He can score (61.9%/40.0%/65.8%), rebound (15.3% REB%), and defend (88.2 DRtg, 6.0% BLK%). This is a dynamic duo.
- GUARD 6’1 JJ Caldwell (3.6 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.1 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
- GUARD 6’2 TJ Starks (6.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.5 APG)
- GUARD 6’4 Jay Jay Chandler (4.2 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.7 APG)
- WING Savion Flagg (8.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG)
- POST 6’10 Tonny Trocha-Morelos (8.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.7 BPG)
The Aggies also have some good pieces off of the bench, even though two of them will likely be moving into the starting rotation Saturday. Caldwell has been a fantastic back-up at point for Wilson. Again, A&M really struggled without a true point guard a year ago, but they’ve got two good options now. He isn’t much of a shooter, but Caldwell does boast a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio to go along with a 24.6% AST%. Starks and Chandler are decent players with good potential as well, though both have had their struggles adjusting to the college game in their freshmen season. Another freshman, Flagg, had a breakout performance in A&M’s last game as he dropped 21 points filling in for Hogg. Trocha-Morelos is one of the most unique players in college basketball in that he is a true stretch five. His shooting is down a bit this season, but at 29.6% 3P%, he causes match-up issues with his ability to step out on the wing for treys. He also boasts a 6.9% BLK% on the defensive end.
Three Keys to Victory
- Get Sexton Some Help. Alabama really needs someone other than Sexton to step-up and become a consistent scorer on the offensive end. The Tide has gotten into a funk where if they miss some open shots they get gun-shy (John Petty not included) and end up defaulting to Sexton. Dazon Ingram needs to attack off of the wing, Avery Johnson Jr. needs to drive when he gets in the game, Braxton Key needs to figure out what the hell is wrong with himself and start playing basketball the way he knows how, Riley Norris needs to crash the glass or get some open corner threes, and for the love of all things holy get the ball to Donta Hall around the rim. Alabama scrapped for points by doing these kinds of things last season. Now it seems like most of the supporting players just wait for Sexton to do his thing or Petty to throw up some crazy contested shot that goes in every once in a while. They need to get back to grinding on the offensive end.
- Box-Out. If Alabama can’t find those big bodies of A&Ms when a shot goes up, this could get ugly. The Aggies have dominated most opponents on the glass this season and they make a living on second-chance points via offensive put-backs. Davis and Williams are beasts in the post in this regard.
- Defend the Paint. Defensively, the Tide need to force A&M to beat them with jumpers. Hall and Daniel Giddens need to work overtime on the defensive end to deny Davis in the post. Whoever is manning the four spot needs to make sure they don’t lose track of Williams, who is basically a more talented version of Hall on the offensive end. The guards and wings need to prevent A&Ms back-court from getting dribble-penetration. The Aggies are going to drive to the basket to draw the slide and make the dump into the post. The best way to prevent that is to avoid needing the post defender to slide to the driving guard by never letting him get into the paint. If Gilder does not play, this becomes even more crucial, because the Ags don’t have a whole lot of reliable shooters.
This is a massive game for the Crimson Tide. With it still being Winter Break for students and the weekend of the College Football Playoff, the team needs anybody and everybody that is able to make it to Coleman Coliseum on Saturday evening to come out. After putting up a stinker in Birmingham, this young team needs a big-time bounce-back, and a jolt of energy from the crowd could do the trick.
Texas A&M has emerged as the favorite to win the SEC for a reason. They’ve got the best combination of talent and experience in the league. But they are hurting a bit right now. The Tide are capable of not only winning this game, but using it as a spring-board to make a run at the SEC title. There are a lot of good teams in the SEC this year, but none of them have Collin Sexton. Few of them have the kind of supporting pieces around Sexton that Alabama has. With New Year’s Eve on Sunday night, I couldn’t think of a better time for this team to get up off of the mat and make 2018 a special one.
The game will tip-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.