The Alabama Crimson Tide (5-1) will try to continue their current roll in the non-conference slate as they head south to Orlando, Florida for a meeting with the UCF Knights (5-1). The Tide will be looking to exact a little revenge on the Knights after Johnny Dawkins’ team came into Tuscaloosa and upset the home team 65-62 last season. Alabama really blew that game, as a patented Anthony Grant-like 5 minute scoreless stretch early in the second half allowed UCF to take an outright lead after trailing by 6 at the intermission.
It was the first of many head-scratching performances for the Tide last December, something Avery Johnson is hoping his now seasoned group of veterans can avoid this year . With a not-so-great loss to Northeastern already on the resume, Alabama really can’t afford many more disappointing losses in non-conference play. Not with so many more quality opponents left on the out-of-conference schedule, and with a number of injuries to some quality SEC players hurting the conference’s overall strength. The Tide may need to rely on their non-conference performances more this year than last, so it would be best to avoid picking up a pair of losses before the calendar flips to December, when Alabama has to face the likes of Arizona, Penn State, and Stephen F. Austin.
On top of all of that, UCF is a really good basketball team. They return the majority of last season’s squad that defeated the Tide, and they were picked to finish first in the AAC this year. This game represents Alabama’s biggest test of the early season schedule, so the Tide will need to be playing at a high level in order to avoid a second straight loss to the Knights.
POINT 6’2 Terrell Allen (10.5 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.2 ROG, 1.5 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 B.J. Taylor (15.5 PPG, 2.5 APG, 2.3 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
WING 6’6 Aubrey Dawkins (15.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 SPG)
POST 6’10 Collin Smith (6.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.5 APG)
POST 7’6 Tacko Fall (11.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 2.5 BPG)
If any of these names seem familiar, it’s because they were huge contributors to the upset win in Tuscaloosa last season. Allen balled out (16 points on 6/10 shooting, 8 assists, 4 steals, 5 boards), and Fall caused issues on the interior with his massive size all game. That likely won’t change much in this match-up. Allen is averaging over five assists per game with a 29.1% AST% and has the highest ORtg on the team at a sensational 140.9 (in other words, he produces 140.9 points every 100 possessions). Fall is still the same behemoth he has always been, with a ridiculous DRtg of 80.5, and a BLK% or 12.3% (which means he blocks 12 out of every 100 2-point shot attempts when he’s on the court).
Taylor, on the other hand, was not available for the Knights last season, as he battled injuries all year long. If he remains healthy, UCF will be tough to beat this season. He’s the main engine on the offensive end (36.9%/40.9%/75.0%, 115.7 ORtg, 13.1% AST%), and his absence for most of last year was the primary reason why the Knights ended up missing postseason play altogether. Dawkins is a long player who has been getting to the basket at will (46.7%/30.0%/75.0%), albeit against mostly-over matched opponents. His frame has also given the Knights a boost, as they now have three starters capable of competing on the glass consistently for rebounds. Smith is another massive individual that gobbles up rebounds (15.4%) and has the ability to stretch the floor with a decent jumper.
GUARD 6’3 Ceasar DeJesus (4.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.6 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Chance McSpadden (1.4 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
GUARD 6’5 Dayon Griffin (4.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 1.5 APG)
WING 6’6 Frank Bertz (4.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
POST 6’9 Chad Brown (5.0 PPG 4.7 RPG)
The Knights have a solid bench that goes five-deep. The only issue is that they lack size, so if Fall or Smith get into foul trouble they end up either having to play Dawkins out of position or they play with four guards. Of course, Northeastern killed Alabama with those kinds of looks a few weeks back, so that may not be a terrible thing for UCF.
Three Keys to Victory
- Jump Shots. Alabama is certainly not a very good jump-shooting team. However, with the way UCF defends the paint (19th in ADJ Defensive Efficiency, 21st in 2P% allowed at 41.1%), the Crimson Tide are likely going to need some shots to fall. With this being the first true road game of the season, we’ve yet to see how John Petty’s shot looks in enemy territory this year. The results were, well, less than stellar his freshman season. The Tide need him (or someone else) to get going if they want to win this game, because otherwise the Knights will pack it in and let Avery Johnson’s club fire up bricks.
- Rebounding. Both Alabama and UCF have out-rebounded every opponent they’ve played this season. It’s been a key ingredient to each team’s success. The Tide have been particularly adept on the offensive glass, which has created numerous “hidden” possessions and helped put away teams late in games. Alabama has more size and athleticism across the board, but UCF is massive in the post. My prediction is that the rebounding margin will correlate strongly to the margin of victory tonight.
- Keep Knocking Down the Free Ones. After yet another terrible start to the season from the line, Alabama has totally turned it around. The Tide is now up to 73.4% from the free throw line, good enough to rank in the top 75 in all of college basketball. Petty (78.3%), Kira Lewis (87.5%), Dazon Ingram (84.0%), and Alex Reese (85.7%) are all shooting the ball really well from the charity stripe, and it’s played a major factor in the Tide’s last two games against Wichita State and Murray State. As I mentioned in the previous write-up, if Alabama can continue to shoot the ball well from the foul line, they are going to be really tough to beat when they get a decent lead. This is not the kind of team you want to trail by multiple possessions with under 10 to play if they are knocking down free throws. Ask Ja Morant. That guy did everything he possibly could to lead his team to a come-from-behind victory on Monday night, but Alabama wouldn’t relinquish the lead.
This is legitimately a big-time game for Alabama. If the Tide can head into December at 6-1, they will be exactly where they needed to be and on pace to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament in March. With a few more big tests on the schedule before conference play, the Tide need to continue playing at a high-level, as they have since the loss to Northeastern in Charleston.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPNU.