Before this season tipped-off about a month ago, many looked to this Saturday's match-up with the Arizona Wildcats (6-3) as a potential top 25 battle. Most assumed the Crimson Tide (7-2) would be the most likely of the two to be unranked going into this game, however, Alabama actually received more votes than the pre-season #3 Wildcats did in the latest AP Poll. The reason for that is because Arizona had a miserable experience at the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving weekend, dropping all three of their games and finishing dead last in a pretty-stacked field.
However, that trip was almost assuredly the low-point of the season for Arizona, as they have since rebounded to win three straight, including a big 67-64 win over SEC contenders and previously unbeaten #7 Texas A&M on Tuesday night. It seems 'Zona has begun to correct their issues and has gotten back on track towards being the elite national championship contender most thought them to be heading into the season. Make no mistake about it, this will be arguably Alabama's toughest test of the year. Arizona has maintained a steady presence among the nation's elite for years now, and this year's squad had as much hype as any under coach Sean Miller.
- POINT 5'8 Parker Jackson-Cartwright (8.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 2.1 RPG, 1.8 SPG)
- GUARD 6'4 Allonzo Trier (22.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
- GUARD 6'5 Dylan Smith (5.9 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.8 APG)
- POST 7'1 DeAndre Ayton (19.6 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.3 BPG)
- POST 7'0 Dusan Ristic (9.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.8 BPG)
There is a reason many pundits had this team as a favorite to win the national championship. They are loaded. Jackson-Cartwright is the quintessential college point guard. He can shoot (46.3%/52.2%/76.5%), take care of the ball (5:2 assist-to-turnover ratio), distribute to his scorers (25.7% AST%), and he's an average defender statistically, which says something considering his 5'8 size. Trier is a legitimate contender for national Player of the Year. He could have been taken in the 1st round of the NBA Draft in June, but chose to return for his junior season. He's shooting 55.5% from the field on the year, including a 36.7% 3P%. He's a well-rounded player overall, but scoring baskets is his bread-and-butter. He just has a knack for it. Trier could be the best guard Alabama plays all season.
The front-court doesn't get much easier, as a pair of seven-footers await Alabama in Tucson. Ayton is a true freshman who may be one of the best post players of the decade. Seriously, this guy is that talented. A 60.0% scorer, Ayton is converting on 72.2% of his free throw attempts and can also show off some range (26.3% 3P%). His advanced stats are ridiculous: 21.6% REB%, 10.7% AST% (as a post player), and a 4.3% BLK%. He's smooth with the ball in his hands and can score from anywhere in the paint. He's an incredible player and he has a very good chance of being selected #1 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft. Oh, yeah, and then there's a 7'0 senior that's shooting 61.1% from the field and 86.4% from the line on the other side of the paint.
- GUARD 6'5 Rawle Alkins (10.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.9 SPG)**
- GUARD 6'2 Alex Barcello (4.1 PPG, 2.1 APG, 2.0 RPG)
- GUARD 6'6 Brandon Randolph (6.8 PPG, 0.9 APG, 0.8 RPG)
- WING 6'7 Emmanuel Akot (2.1 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- WING 6'7 Ira Lee (4.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG)
- POST 6'9 Keanu Pinder (2.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
** 2016-17 Season
This will also be the most talented bench Alabama has faced this season. Alkins will likely be a regular starter for most of this year, but he will be making his season debut off of the bench while still recovering from a broken foot. The Wildcats have missed Alkins thus far this season, as he's a consistent scorer for them (46.3%/37.0%/73.3%) that will help relieve some pressure from Trier in the back-court. Barcello, Randolph, Akot, and Lee are all talented freshmen who helped make up the consensus 3rd-ranked recruiting class in 2017. They are all capable of scoring, dishing, rebounding, etc. Pinder provides relief off of the bench for Ayton and Ristic.
Three Keys to Victory
- Move the Ball and Push the Pace. Now, there is a reason why the Wildcats have lost three games early with this loaded roster: they aren't very good on defense right now. They rank 213th in the country in defensive efficiency. Starting two seven-footers has left them susceptible to small-ball line-ups, and stretch fours have been giving the talented freshman Ayton serious headaches. Alabama has the line-up to take advantage of Arizona's defensive issues, but the team needs to do a better job of moving the ball around in the half-court. The Tide has settled for way too many isolation and pick-and-rolls so far this year, which is what the Wildcats will be hoping to see Satuday night. The best way to attack this team, and have any chance of out-scoring their star-studded line-up, is to move the ball around. A lot. And quickly. An effective motion offense would give them fits.
- Stop the Dribble-Drive. The Wildcats are at their best offensively when they are attacking the basket. Trier and Jackson-Cartwright have been the only two consistent shooters on the team that play a lot of minutes (although Alkins' return could give them a critical third option), and even considering them, Jackson-Cartwright is a 5'8 point mostly looking to dish and Trier doesn't have the greatest range in the world. A&M slowed their offense down the other night by forcing Arizona's back-court to pick up their dribble. 'Bama will need to do likewise.
- Contain Ayton. As mentioned, Ayton is a stud. Stopping the dribble-drive will only help so much if Ayton is getting buckets in the paint. If Alabama does go small against the Wildcats, and they should, they will need to trap and double on Ayton when he gets the ball. Because even if Braxton Key is available, which is a possibility, nobody on this team is guarding that guy one-on-one with much success. However, if the Tide do decide to trap Ayton in the paint, they've got to be in position to clog passing lanes. There is a reason why Ayton has a 10.7% AST%.
Arizona may have had some early-season struggles, but this team is still the favorite to win the PAC-12 and will almost certainly contend for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. They are incredibly talented. Alabama has pretty much nothing to lose in this game, so they need to go out there and let it all out. A win in Tucson would do wonders for Alabama's resume come March. Winner will be back in the top 25 next week.
The game tips-off Saturday at 9:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.