With exams and the fall semester that preceded it now in the rear-view mirror, the Crimson Tide (6-3) head to Huntsville, AL for their annual tilt in the Rocket City Classic. This year’s opponent will be the Liberty Flames (9-2), who, stop me if you have heard this before, are a quality mid-major team. Their only two losses of the season were on the road against Vanderbilt and Georgetown. They even were able to, get this, beat Georgia State. By 26 points actually.
So, yeah, this team can play. Ken Pomeroy, noted college basketball stats guru, actually has Liberty (#84) only ten spots behind Alabama (#74), even with preseason ratings still weighing in slightly in his algorithm.
The good news for the Tide is that this team doesn’t lose in Huntsville. They don’t ever win in Birmingham (which was suspiciously missing from the schedule this year), but the Rocket City Classic has been kind to the Tide. The place is usually rocking, so hopefully that continues tonight.
POINT 6’1 Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz (7.1 PPG, 2.4 APG, 1.3 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 Lovell Cabbil (10.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.6 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Elijah Cuffee (10.1 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.2 SPG)
WING 6’5 Keenan Gumbs (8.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 2.0 APG)
POST 6’7 Scottie James (12.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.5 APG)
GUARD 5’9 Darius McGhee (11.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.5 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Caleb Homesley (9.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.2 APG)
GUARD 6’5 Keegan McDowell (3.6 PPG, 0.9 RPG, 0.8 APG)
WING 6’5 Myo Baxter-Bell (4.9 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 SPG)
I typically separate the starting five and bench with analysis for each, but it just doesn’t seem appropriate for this Liberty team. All nine of these guys log double-digits minutes per game, and everyone excluding McDowell plays between 17.7 and 28.0 MPG. They are deep, they rotate often, and it can be a nightmare on both ends of the court. With 4 different players averaging double-figures in scoring, the Flames can and will attack in a plethora of different ways. The team they most resemble thus far this season that Alabama has seen is Northeastern, which, if you remember that game, didn’t turn out too well for the Tide.
This is a well coached team, and they are going to run sets and traps all game. Alabama has to be ready for that on both ends of the court. The extra lay-off time should hopefully have given Avery Johnson plenty of time to break down film and get the team ready. Hopefully.
Liberty can shoot the basketball. Pacheco-Ortiz (50.9%/56.3%/100%), Cuffie (50.6%/51.1%/81.8%), James (75.0%/66.7%/75.0%), and McGhee (43.0%/35.4%/91.7%) all have been ridiculously efficient this season at putting the ball in the basket. Part of that is because they share the ball so well. Every single player listed above, save McDowell again, has an AST% of at least 12.0%. Any guy on the court is a quick pass away from setting up a teammate for a good look.
Three Keys to Victory
- Keep Doing Your Thing, Kira and Alex. Kira Lewis and Alex Reese have been Alabama’s best two players this season. Never thought I’d type that this year, but here we are. These two were the main sparks offensively for the Tide in their big bounce-back win over Arizona. While Lewis still struggles a bit at times on the defensive end (he is only 17), Reese has improved significantly on defense and on the glass. He’s been all over the place. On a team with returning guys like Dazon Ingram, John Petty, Herbert Jones, and Donta Hall, Alabama is relying heavily on a 17 year old and a second year ‘tweener.
- Get Petty Going. Speaking of which, John Petty needs to get his shot going again. Most players tend to become more consistent as they mature in college and develop their games. So, I guess that’s not technically wrong, because Petty has become consistent. Consistently off. It seemed early on in the season that Petty was pressing a bit trying to shoulder more of the load offensively. He was handling the ball more, trying to drive to the basket, create, etc. With Lewis and Reese playing the way they have, Petty needs to get back to running off screens and knocking down shots in rhythm. Maybe Petty can find his jumper again in his hometown, because Alabama needs it.
- Dominate the Boards. The Crimson Tide haven’t lost the rebound battle once this season. It’s the one thing Alabama does really well. That will be even more important tonight, as Liberty is going to make the most of every possession, similarly to how Northeastern did in Charleston. If the Tide are having issues defending Liberty’s large range of sets, they certainly can’t afford to give up extra possessions.
Dazon Ingram didn’t play at all in the second half of the game against Arizona due to a back issue. He practiced at about 80% this week, according to Avery Johnson, and is going to be a game-time decision for tonight.
This is yet another tough test for the Tide. Liberty has been crazy efficient on both ends of the court this season, which is not exactly Alabama’s forte. It should be a raucous crowd in the smaller Von Braun Center in Huntsville, and the Tide will need all the energy they can get. Until Petty and Jones can get going again offensively, the Tide are likely going to have to grind out games. That’s tough to do against a well-coached team.
The game tips-off at 7:00 PM CST and will only be televised on the SEC Network +.