With the 2017 regular season now officially in the books, the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-13, 10-8 SEC) will try to make one last run at making something out of Avery Johnson’s second season in Tuscaloosa, as the 2017 SEC Tournament tips off in Nashville. This year was a very up-and-down one, as Alabama once again made a run at the NCAA Tournament before falling apart in the last few weeks of the season. Much like last year, the Tide dropped three out of the last four games after getting serious NCAA Tournament attention, and are once again limping into Nashville for the conference tournament.
However, unlike last season, the Tide find themselves in a much better spot in the actual tournament. Whereas last season’s team had to begin their attempt at a miracle run as the 10-seed, this year’s unit will be sitting pretty in the 5-spot. Alabama will play 12th-seeded Mississippi State (16-15, 6-12 SEC) on Thursday afternoon, with a potential match-up with 4th-seeded South Carolina (22-9, 12-6 SEC) on Friday. The Tide are a combined 3-0 against those two teams this season, as opposed to last year when Alabama was win-less against 7th-seeded Ole Miss and 2nd-seeded Kentucky going into the tournament.
If Alabama can make a run into the weekend, they will likely encounter those dastardly Wildcats in a potential semifinal match-up, but that’s a bridge that can be crossed if/when ‘Bama gets to it. For now, let’s focus on the task at hand: making it to Saturday.
From the first meeting:
Three Keys to Victory
Rebounding. As with most young teams, Mississippi State has really struggled on the glass. Not that Alabama has been much better, but this is an area that Alabama needs to come out on top. Defense and rebounding travels, and while one would expect the Tide to play strong defense, it will be their ability (or lack thereof) to grab boards, especially of the offensive variety, that will make the difference in this slow-pace, ugly offensive game.
Shot Selection. Young teams can get frustrated easily, and when players get frustrated, they force bad shots. Alabama’s edge in experience should make a big difference in this game in that the Tide should be more patient and less willing to chunk up low-percentage shots.
Pressure. It may be hard to believe, but Alabama is the best team State has faced this season. The Tide are by far the best defensive team Ben Howland’s group has had to address, coming in at 33rd in the most recent Kenpom rankings. Both of these teams play at a slow pace, but it may be a good idea to try to speed the Bulldogs up and make them uncomfortable tonight. It can not be over-stated how inexperienced they are, and Alabama has an excellent opportunity to welcome a number of their players to major college basketball with some tough defense.
Following their 79-52 blowout win over the LSU Tigers on Wednesday evening, Mississippi State advanced through to meet the Tide on Thursday afternoon. The game is scheduled to tip-off about thirty minutes after the conclusion of the Tennessee-Georgia game, which begins at noon CST. Each game will be televised on the SEC Network.
Alabama and Mississippi State have had a pair of competitive games this season, both eventually won by the Tide. It will be difficult for ‘Bama to come out on top again. State a very talented young team, and beating an opponent three times in a single season is no small task to begin with. Lamar Peters has developed nicely at the point, Quinndary Weatherspoon was named 2nd Team All-SEC this past week, and Xavian Stapleton has gotten more and more playing time over the course of the season as he has started to emerge as another weapon.
Also, it must be noted that Alabama had two of their best performances of the year from the free throw line against the Bulldogs. The Tide shot 77% from the stripe in Starkville, and then followed that up with a 31/36 outing in the second meeting. So even though the Crimson Tide have gotten the better of the Bulldogs each time, they did so by shooting way above their typical 64.4% from the line. Assuming a regression to the mean in this week’s match-up, the Tide will need to make up for that difference in other areas.
The Bulldogs are more than capable of defeating the Tide in Nashville.
From last meeting:
Three Keys to Victory
Contain Thornwell and Dozier. Frank Martin’s club beats their opponents by bludgeoning them on the glass, suffocating their half-court offense, and getting enough from their two main scorers to win the game. In a way, this year’s Alabama team is basically a poor man’s version of South Carolina. So let’s ask Alabama fans: what is the best way to keep the Tide under 62 points? Take away Dazon Ingram and Braxton Key. Same concept, except Thornwell and Dozier have made an even bigger impact for USC.
Defend the Perimeter. Apparently, the Crimson Tide decided to put on a clinic on how not to guard the three-point line last week. Arkansas and Auburn shot a combined 26/50 from downtown as both teams had numerous wide-open looks that they cashed in on. That’s 78 points in two games from beyond the arc. That’s completely unacceptable. South Carolina isn’t an amazing three-point shooting team (36.9%), but they’ve got a couple of different guys who can light it up when they are on. Additionally, the Gamecocks get next-to-nothing in the post offensively, and they are shooting an abysmal 45.5% from inside of the arc.
Hustle Points. South Carolina’s defense has completely shut down nearly every opponent on their schedule, so it stands to reason that Alabama’s mediocre offense will have a tough time generating enough points to win this game if they rely solely on their half-court offense. Points in transition and second chance efforts will be crucial to the Tide tonight.
If Alabama can take care of business on Thursday, they will once again play 30 minutes after the conclusion of the first game of the day at approximately 2:30 PM CST. If the Tide do indeed get to the quarterfinals, they will be looking to sweep the NCAA Tournament-bound South Carolina Gamecocks. The first meeting between the two was one of the most memorable games of the SEC season, as Alabama outlasted the Gamecocks in a grueling 90-86 4OT slugfest. That win began the Tide’s last run at the NCAA Tournament bubble, while simultaneously launching South Carolina into a bit of a slump that they have yet to truly recover from. The Gamecocks were alone atop of the SEC standings going into that night; they have since dropped four of their last seven games.
The game itself was especially brutal. The two best defenses in the conference flexed their muscles in a match-up only Frank Martin or Anthony Grant could love, as Alabama’s 42.6% FG% was made respectable only by South Carolina’s anemic 26.1% night of shooting. The Tide actually led 32-16 at halftime, but much like in their most recent game against Tennessee, they couldn’t buy a bucket in the 2nd half. South Carolina mounted a huge second-half comeback, led by SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell and his 33(!!!) free throw attempts.
The Tide appeared to be doomed when South Carolina took a 7-point lead in the second overtime period with All-SEC Freshman Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram both on the bench with five fouls each. But Alabama’s role players stepped up in an epic way, as Riley Norris, Avery Johnson Jr., and Ar’Mond Davis led ‘Bama to a massive comeback of their own before finally salting the game away in 4OT.
Alabama’s defense did an incredible job across the board that night. If not for the offense disappearing in the 2nd half, the Tide would have left Columbia with an easy win. ‘Bama will need to bring it defensively again on Friday, with the key point of emphasis on containing Thornwell, who has seemingly become the Gamecocks’ whole offense in recent weeks (his Player of the Year award was well deserved, let’s just put it that way). Avery Johnson’s done a fantastic job of shutting down opposing offenses that rely on a single guy, so if the Tide can get to this match-up, they’ve got a good chance of capitalizing and moving on to Friday.
Alabama’s tenacious defense (ranked 12th in the country according to Kenpom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency) gives them a chance every time they take the court, no matter the opponent. With the Tide landing a very favorable spot in the tournament bracket, a potential deep run is not out of the realm of possibilities. The only question is whether or not this team can score enough points to cash in on this opportunity. The Crimson Tide will need an SEC Tournament title in order to make a surprising return to the NCAA Tournament. Can Avery Johnson etch his name in Alabama history with a stunning run?