There is a very good chance that the 24th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (6-1) will be analyzed and debated among the members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee come March, and if that proves to be true, strength of schedule will be a major positive in the Tide’s favor. After handing one of the top teams in Conference-USA (Louisiana Tech) their first loss of the season Wednesday night, Alabama will now welcome in one of the best the American Athletic Conference has to offer. The UCF Golden Knights (4-3) came into this season hot off of an appearance in the NIT Final Four in Madison Square Garden last spring, and were considered legitimate NCAA Tournament contenders coming into the fall. Unfortunately, injuries to some of their star players, including starting point guard B.J. Taylor in the opener, have prevented them from making any waves in non-conference play. But this is still a team that should be considered in the second tier of the American.
Head Coach Johnny Dawkins enters his second year with UCF looking to make some more noise in the postseason. The former Duke star was at Stanford from 2008-2016 prior to his time in Orlando, where he twice won the NIT and made a Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2014. He has a wealth of knowledge regarding the game of basketball, so the coaching battle between him and Avery Johnson should be a good one Sunday afternoon. Can he lead UCF to their first big win of the season?
- POINT 6’2 Terrell Allen (5.7 PPG, 2.0 APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
- GUARD 6’3 Ceasar DeJesus (9.4 PPG, 1.9 APG, 2.1 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
- GUARD 6’4 Chance McSpadden (7.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- WING 6’9 A.J. Davis (10.9 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
- POST 7’6 Tacko Fall (11.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.0 BPG)
No, that is not a typo. Tacko Fall is a 7'6 behemoth of a player. He's missed some time as well this year due to a hip injury, but he was able to log 12 points and 6 rebounds in 27 minutes in their loss to Missouri the other night. I mentioned how it seems like all smaller conference schools seem to have a seven-footer on their teams, well Fall is basically the best version of that guy. He's shot 71.9% from the floor this year.
Davis pairs with Fall in the front-court. The 6'9 senior has had to shoulder the load most of the year so far with Taylor and Fall dealing with their respective injuries, and he's performed well, averaging a double-double, the most APG on the team, and an average of a steal and a block per game. His shooting splits aren't great though (36.8%/17.6%/67.6%), suggesting that a lot of his production has come from neccessity and volume.
Shooting has been a major problem for the Knights so far. They are shooting 40.9% from the field (308th in the country), 23.8% from the perimeter (350th), and 64.2% from the line (311th). They are missing Taylor badly. Allen, DeJesus, and McSpadden are decent players, but they don't inspire a ton of confidence with the ball in their hands.
- GUARD 6’5 Dayon Griffin (9.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.0 APG)
- GUARD 6’2 Djordjije Mumin (2.0 PPG, 1.2 RPG)
- POST 6’9 Chad Brown (6.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.9 BPG)
- POST 6’8 Myles Douglas (3.0 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
- POST 6’11 Rokas Ulvydas (1.8 PPG, 1.8 RPG)
UCF has a decent bench. They are built quite differently than most of the mid-major teams Alabama has played so far this season: they don't have a couple of dynamic guards without much depth. Brown has played a bunch this year in the post filling in for Fall, and he's done a solid job (52.2% FG%, 71.4% FT%, 10.9% BLK%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Deny the Post. As mentioned, UCF has struggled to shoot the ball. The one area they've been decent from the floor is in the post, especially when Fall is on the court. Alabama will want to force the Knights to take jump-shots as far away from the basket as possible.
- Free Throws. The Crimson Tide had been struggling from the free throw line themselves for most of the year, but the charity stripe came up big for 'Bama in their win over Louisiana Tech earlier this week. If the Tide can shoot as well as they did from the line again on Sunday, they should have a large margin in that area as UCF is really bad at converting the free ones.
- Pressure the Ball-Handlers. The Knights have had their issues handling the ball without Taylor running things at the point. They've got nearly twice as many turnovers as they do assists this season. Alabama likes to play fast, so this could turn into a relatively easy win if the Tide can turn the Knights over and get down the floor quickly.
This year’s schedule offers Alabama very little margin for error, as has been witnessed in the Tide’s previous two outings in Tuscaloosa. Sunday afternoon should be no exception. Avery Johnson’s group will likely need to see more from John Petty this weekend than they did last time out, when Petty spent most of the second half on the bench. Johnson said Petty’s absence was due to match-ups and chemistry with the line-ups on the floor, so hopefully his ankle isn’t limiting him.
Speaking of injuries, Braxton Key participated in non-contact aspects of practice on Friday, so he appears to be on-track to return to the team soon. This team has been very impressive in a number of different ways early on this season, but the exciting thing is that the Crimson Tide still have a long way to go to reach their ceiling.
Before they can reach that peak though, the challenge at hand is defeating the Golden Knights. UCF has some interesting players even without Taylor being able to go, and Dawkins is a very solid coach. They will be looking to grab their first big win of the year.
The game will tip-off at 1:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPNU.