Alabama’s 80-73 win over the 12th-ranked Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday may have been the best win this program has achieved in a long time. Sure, the win over #11 Auburn was arguably a bigger win, but considering how the Oklahoma game played out, the dispatching of the Sooners may end up being the game everyone points to as the turning point of the season. Unlike in the Auburn game, Collin Sexton and Donta Hall played their usual number of minutes. The win over Auburn could be seen as an outlier where the Tide caught the Tigers by surprise with the irregular rotation that was deployed that night. That was not the case on Saturday. The rotation that Alabama rolled with against Oklahoma is the kind of rotation Tide fans should expect to see the rest of the season.
Not only should the rotation remain the same, so too, hopefully, will the roles everybody played in the big win. Sexton’s play-making was much more mature and within the flow of the system, allowing the offense to move like it did when he was out, except at a much higher level because he was involved. Hall was a force on the interior, scoring at a high clip, banging on the boards, and swatting shot after shot. Daniel Giddens seemed much more comfortable working as Hall’s relief. With three big men providing quality minutes in the post, Alex Reece is now able to stretch the defense by getting open looks from the perimeter, and he’s starting to become a reliable spot-up shooter. Dazon Ingram was able to go back to being a secondary ball-handler who can attack the rim from the wing and close out games from the line. Avery Johnson Jr. wasn’t asked to do more than he’s able to, allowing him to more comfortably get open looks at the basket. John Petty was much more mature with his shot selection, making him an efficient scorer and not just a streaky one.
But the biggest developments on Saturday came from Alabama’s two long wings: Herbert Jones and Braxton Key. Jones had the coming out party that many Tide fans have been waiting for. He simply can do it all: score, defend, rebound, pass, force turnovers, etc. He will be playing in the NBA one day. And there wasn’t a louder, more exciting moment than when Key knocked down those two treys in the 2nd half after Oklahoma had made their run. His shots have looked good, they just haven’t been falling. They fell in a big way on Saturday.
That was Alabama at it’s best the other day. That team can compete with anybody in college basketball. The question is, can this young, inconsistent team put it all together and do so each time out the rest of the way? The first test to prove that they can will be the Missouri Tigers (13-8, 3-5 SEC), who come to Tuscaloosa Wednesday night riding a three-game losing streak.
- POINT 6’2 Jordan Geist (7.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- GUARD 6’3 Kassius Robertson (15.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- WING 6’6 Jordan Barnett (14.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
- POST 6’11 Jontay Porter (7.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.9 BPG)
- POST 6’10 Jeremiah Tilmon (8.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
For most of the season, Missouri has been considered an NCAA Tournament team. However, things seem to be slipping away from them pretty quickly. The main reason people thought this team would go from worst in the SEC to contenders in the conference was because of the top-5 recruiting class they signed last year. Problem is, 3 of the 5 blue-chip guys they signed aren’t playing basketball for them right now. Their do-it-all superstar 5-star, Michael Porter Jr., underwent back surgery after playing only 2 minutes in the opener, and 4-star guards Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts have both already elected to transfer away. To make matters worse, one of the few quality players Kim Anderson left new coach Cuonzo Martin, point guard Terrence Phillips, has been indefinitely suspended from the team while the school is conducting a Title IX investigation on him.
Just like that, Mizzou is now left with a shell of the team they thought they would have this season. They have lost three straight games and are now being projected as one of the first teams left out of the Tournament.
The season is far from over though, and the Tigers can still field a pretty solid starting five. Geist has been a pleasant surprise for Mizzou fans this season. For all of the instability they’ve had at the point guard position, Geist has continued to put up solid and steady numbers (46.8%/36.2%/72.9%; 22.9% AST%; 2.7:1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio). Robertson, the graduate transfer from Canisius, has been a reliable shooter that has the tendency to get red hot (41.4%/41.2%/82.8%), but his defense (105.1 DRtg) and ball-handling (1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio) could use some work.
Barnett’s probably been Missouri’s MVP this season. He’s really developed as a scorer (46.9%/41.1%/91.1%), and if the Tigers are playing well, it’s usually because he is. His size makes him a well rounded player on both ends, especially on the glass (10.6% REB%). He does have a tendency to turn the ball over though, as he’s been asked to handle the ball more often than he should. In the low post, the two remaining pieces of that vaunted recruiting class have had to bear the brunt of the work in the paint. Porter reclassified up a class to play with his older brother, Michael Jr., and while he has obvious talent and upside (40.3%/31.3%/82.4%; 91.3 DRtg; 16.2% REB%; 16.4% AST%; 8.6% BLK%), Mizzou has had to put a lot of weight on the shoulders of a kid who recently turned 18 years old and isn’t exactly a one-and-done type of player. Tilmon’s had even bigger issues trying to man the 5 against much more developed and mature players. He’s scoring at a solid 59.4% rate, but his free throw shooting (48.7%), turnover issues (nearly 1:4 assist-to-turnover ratio), and inability to stay on the court (3.5 fouls per game) have really hurt a Missouri team that severely lacks true post players.
- GUARD 6’4 Cullen Van Leer (2.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- WING 6’7 Kevin Puryear (9.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.6 APG)
- POST 6’10 Reed Nikko (2.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG)
This is Missouri’s biggest problem though. The Tigers are now down to 8 scholarship players. There is no back-up point guard, Nikko basically only plays because Tilmon can’t stay out of foul trouble, and ultimately, Mizzou is having to play a bunch of guys who were part of the worst-in-the-league team that went 8-24 against a bad schedule last season. Maybe it’s a bit unfair to group Puryear into this group, as he’s been a decent player his whole career for Missouri, but when he’s the only guy off of the bench that significantly impacts the game in a positive way, you’ve got issues.
Three Keys to Victory
- Shut Down Barnett. As mentioned, Mizzou’s offense kind of goes as Barnett does. He can be a streaky scorer, and when he is off, Missouri doesn’t have many other options of guys who can create their own shot. Expect to see a lot of Jones on him, as Herbert has the perfect combination of length and quickness to prevent Barnett from doing a whole lot of anything on the offensive end.
- Free Throws. One thing that Missouri does well is knock down free throws. The Tigers are shooting 75.2% from the line as a team, good enough for 50th in the country. Robertson, Barnett, Puryear, and Porter all shoot better than 80% from the charity stripe. Mizzou plays defense well enough that if they can get to the line often they can hang around with Alabama long enough to steal a win in Coleman Coliseum. Be disciplined on defense, keep the free throw rate close, and keep Missouri at least an arm’s length away.
- Run the Tigers into the Ground. Cuonzo Martin’s club has been dependent on pace all season. They are not built to run the floor with conference teams on the road, especially not teams as athletic and long as Alabama is. They’ve got only one point guard, who, while he’s played well this year, isn’t exactly Trae Young with the rock in his hands. They’ve had turnover issues all season, depending on true freshmen and the remains of Kim Anderson’s turnover-prone teams to shoulder the load. And, as mentioned, they severely lack depth. Missouri’s path to a win in Tuscaloosa is taking the air out of the ball, bringing the game to a dragging pace, getting to the free throw line, and making just enough shots that their solid defense bails them out. The best way to completely blow-up that game plan is to speed the game way up and run them out of the gym.
This game will be a good test to see if this young Alabama team can start to consistently play at the high level they are capable of playing. Missouri is a solid team, but they’ve got glaring weaknesses that should make this a game Alabama can’t afford to lose at home. If the Tide can play like they did against Oklahoma on Saturday, there shouldn’t be much drama to this game Wednesday night. Whether or not they can repeat that performance remains to be seen.
The game tips-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.