With a much-needed 70-55 win over Ole Miss now in the rear view mirror, Alabama will head to Knoxville for their final game of the regular season. In Rick Barnes’ second year, the Tennessee Volunteers (15-15, 7-10 SEC) made a run at the NCAA Tournament, thanks mostly to their top-10 strength of schedule, but they’ve totally fallen apart in the last few weeks. They’ve lost five out of their last six games, with the only win coming against bottom-feeder Missouri. This horrible streak culminated in the Vols’ worst performance of the season on Wednesday night, as they handed the hapless LSU Tigers their 2nd win in conference play, 92-82.
This has been an ugly regression to the mean for the young Vols, as they were overachieving quite a bit when they were on the bubble. Barnes was in-line to possibly land SEC Coach of the Year, and for good reason. Tennessee, picked to finish 13th in the conference standings before the season, is incredibly young this year, much like Auburn and Mississippi State. The Vols are on the up-and-up overall, but they are currently in a bad slump.
This meltdown is great for Alabama, of course, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the offensively challenged Tide will stroll into Knoxville and pull out an easy victory.
- PG 6’1 Jordan Bone (7.2 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.6 SPG)
- OG 6’3 Jordan Bowden (8.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG 1.1 APG, 0.9 SPG)
- WF 6’6 Robert Hubbs (14.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.7 SPG)
- WF 6’5 Grant Williams (12.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 1.9 BPG)
- PF 6’9 Kyle Alexander (3.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
The Vols’ roster isn’t just a young one, but also an odd one. Ever since freshman John Fulkerson was lost for the season due to injury, Alexander became one of only two players on the roster over 6’6. Because of this, he has become the defacto starter at the five, though he only plays 14.2 MPG. With a 48.2% FG% and 101.2 DRtg, it’s not hard to see why. He has been rebounding at a solid 15.7% clip, which is the best on the team. Joining Alexander in the front-court are the two true scorers: Hubbs and Williams. Hubbs, the senior leader on the roster, is shooting 48.0% from the field and 83.2% from the line, but he is not a threat at all from the perimeter (16.0% 3P%). Williams does have some range (36.7% 3P%), which has allowed him to shoot 50.8% from the field, but his 67.6% FT% could certainly improve. Williams also has a 12.5% RB% and 7.9% B%, so the true freshman can do it all for the Vols.
In the back-court, a pair of freshmen guards with the first name ‘Jordan’ get the starting nod. Both have had their fair share of struggles scoring the basketball (Bone: 35.9% FG%, 25.0% 3P%, 76.9% FT%; Bowden: 37.9% FG%, 32.4% 3P%,83.1% FT%), but they are both talented young guys with a lot of potential. Bone also has a 28.7% A%. Defensively, neither one of these guys will be confused with any of Alabama’s guards.
- G 6’1 Lamonte Turner (8.2 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.6 SPG)
- G 6’2 Shembari Phillips (6.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.7 APG)
- G 6’1 Kwe Parker (1.0 PPG, 0.8 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- F 6’5 Admiral Schofield (8.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 0.7 APG)
- F 6’8 Lew Evans (3.2 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.0 APG)
The Tennessee bench is more of the same really, when compared to the starting unit. They run a full five deep, with a trio of underclassmen guards and a pair of experienced power forwards. Turner is an almost exact carbon-copy of Bone at the point (35.4% FG%, 33.9% 3P%, 76.4% FT%, 26.3% A%), so the Vols don’t suffer any drop-off when he steps on the floor. Phillips and Schofield are the two best three-point shooters on the team (Phillips: 40.0%, Schofield: 40.9%), which is crazy because Schofield is an under-sized post player. He also has a RB% of 12.1%.
Besides that there isn’t anything that noteworthy on Tennessee’s bench. The Vols are a young, average team with good coaching and plenty of potential.
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Advantage of Height. Tennessee is long across the board, but they still come up quite short in the post. This is important because rebounding and swatting shots are two of the biggest strengths of the Volunteers. They play a physical brand of basketball, which a lot of their opponents haven’t been able to withstand for 40 minutes. Fortunately for Alabama, the Tide also have size across the roster, except they also have giants like Jimmie Taylor and Donta Hall on the low block, something that Tennessee lacks. If ‘Bama can do a better job of protecting the rim and crashing the glass than the Vols do, Tennessee’s going to have to rely on a weaker area of their game to win this one.
- Free Throws. This is the other main area of strength for the Volunteers. They have gotten to the free throw line 562 times this season, 11th most in the country. When they are at the stripe, they make it count (72.8% FT%), which could give them a massive margin of “free” points, since Alabama is atrocious in that regard. Just look at the Texas A&M box score. Alabama came out on top of nearly every category with the exception of free throws, where they were outscored by nineteen in a three point loss. If the Tide can at least keep the free throw margin close, it would be considered a win.
- Defend the Lane. Tennessee isn’t a great shooting team. They play around the rim, draw fouls, make free throws, score on put-backs, etc. If Alabama can keep the Vols out of the lane and force them to take jump-shots, Tennessee will be very uncomfortable offensively.
The 2017 season is nearly over, and Avery Johnson has Alabama in position to return to the NIT. With the 5th seed in the SEC Tournament next week already locked up, this game won’t have a major effect on Alabama’s postseason plans. However, losing to Tennessee is pretty much a sin if you are donning the crimson and white on your chest. The Vols have fallen on some tough times lately, but they are capable and desperate for a win. Another loss could cause Tennessee to go from NCAA Tournament hopeful to being on the outside looking in at the NIT in less than a month.
The game will tip-off right at noon PM CST on Saturday, and it will be televised by the SEC Network.