With the holiday season underway and students off-campus for the break, the Crimson Tide (7-3) will host their final non-conference game of the season in Coleman Coliseum tonight as the Penn State Nittany Lions (6-5) come to town. Since the collapse against Georgia State a few weeks back, Avery Johnson has turned things around a bit for the Tide, as Alabama has ripped off back-to-back wins heading into this match-up. Alabama needed both of them, though. Honestly, this game is a must-win as well if the Tide want to go into conference play feeling solid about a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
I said before the season that I thought a 10-3 mark in non-conference play against a schedule as strong as Alabama’s is would put the Tide in position to make it back to the Big Dance. With the SEC dropping off a bit in quality from last season, that number seems about right. A 9-4 mark would likely require a strong performance in conference play for Avery Johnson’s club. 20 regular season wins is probably the goal Alabama needs to reach. Considering the last two non-conference games will be on the road in Texas (at Stephen F. Austin, at Baylor), Alabama really needs to take care of business at home tonight.
The good news is that seems likely. Penn State’s another good team (they’ve played a tough schedule themselves and have a win over a ranked Virginia Tech team), but they aren’t any more impressive than UCF, Wichita State, Liberty, etc. The Power 5 membership provides them a little bit of a facade. They do have losses to both DePaul and Bradley this year.
But again, this team can really play. Though they no longer have superstar Tony Carr in the back-court, this is still the defending NIT Champions. Alabama will need another strong effort tonight to come out victorious.
POINT 6’4 Josh Reaves (10.2 PPG, 3.4 APG, 5.2 RPG, 2.9 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Rasir Bolton (14.8 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.5 APG)
GUARD Myles Dread (8.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.2 SPG)
POST 6’8 Lamar Stevens (19.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.7 APG)
POST 6’9 John Harrar (4.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
Senior leader Josh Reaves is the main engine that drives the team for coach Patrick Chambers. He’s a decent enough scorer (42.1%/35.0%/69.2%), but he really excels at almost every other aspect of the game. He’s a great distributor (20.5% AST%), rebounds well for a guard (10.1% REB%), and has great hands defensively that help make him a terror on that end of the court (5.1% STL%, 90.4 DRtg).
Alongside Reaves, Bolton has come in as a true freshman to be the volume shooter (41.0%/42.6%/89.1%) that the Nittany Lions desperately needed in the wake of Carr’s departure to the pros. Dread is all-around player that doesn’t do anything spectacularly, but he’s solid in all areas of his game.
In the post, Penn State’s go-to player is Stevens. He’s a 43.2% scorer averaging 16.6 shots per game. They like to feed the big man in the paint, but he’s also got the ability to step out and knock down shots as well. A plus defender (97.0 DRtg) with a strong rebounding ability (13.1% REB%), Stevens is a mainstay in the low post for this team. Harrar joins him in the front-court as the classic post with good size but not a ton of skill. Seems like every power five team has one.
GUARD 6’1 Jamari Wheeler (3.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.5 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 Myreon Jones (4.0 PPG, 0.9 RPG)
POST 6’8 Trent Buttrick (2.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
POST 6’9 Mike Watkins (6.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
The Nittany Lions have figured out a nice nine-man rotation that works for the. Wheeler is the back-up point guard, and he’s essentially a younger version of Reaves. He will certainly be the guy moving forward once Reaves exhausts his eligibility at the end of the year. Jones is another Birmingham product that’s making a bit of a homecoming in Tuscaloosa tonight (it sure seems like there have been a lot of former in-state players dressing out in opposing colors this season), so he will certainly be amped up for this game.
Watkins is the main contributor off of the bench. His offensive skill is lacking even more than Harrar’s does, but his team best 87.5 DRtg and 20.2% REB% are no joke. Those are the kind of numbers that land players on all-conference teams.
Three Keys to Victory
- Deny the Post. Penn State is not a jump-shooting team. Bolton is probably the only guy Chambers feels confident in consistently taking shots from mid-to-long range. The Nittany Lions like to slow things down, go towards the basket, and attack the offensive glass. They’ve got big bodies and not a ton of skill. In other words, they are the kind of team that Avery Johnson has built Alabama to be able to consistently defend well, much like the rest of the SEC. So, there shouldn’t be a ton of complexities to defending this team. Keep them in front of you and force them away from the basket.
- Win the Battle of the Boards. Again, Penn State’s not built like the Northeastern’s and the Liberty’s of the world. They are big, physical, and they get a significant percentage of their points around the rim. They rebound the ball very well, especially on the offensives side. Stevens is the best big Alabama has played this year outside of Arizona’s Chase Jeter. The good news is this is an area Alabama excels in. The Tide lost the rebounding battle for the first time this season the other night against Liberty, 33-32. Fortunately, the Flames couldn’t take advantage of that upset victory. Donta Hall and Galin Smith will be keys to the Tide’s success tonight, because Alabama needs to keep Penn State off of the glass.
- Free Throws. The Nittany Lions, much like Alabama, have had their fair share of issues from the free throw line. The margin of victory tonight could have a pretty strong correlation to the difference in baskets made from the charity stripe. Kira Lewis and Alex Reese need to attack the rim and get to the line.
A win tonight would be big for a number of reasons: it keeps Alabama where the Tide likely need to be to make the cut in March, it would be a quality win over a middle-of-the-road opponent from the Big Ten, and it would give the guys some serious confidence as they keep this win streak rolling. I feel more optimistic about this game than many of Alabama’s other match-ups this season, simply because this is the kind of team Alabama is built to beat, and it is at home.
If Alabama truly is a tournament team this year, then this game should be a ‘W’. With a pair of road games left in non-conference play and the full 18 game SEC slate, Alabama really can’t afford a loss. Avery Johnson’s got a great opportunity to head into the Christmas break with some legitimate momentum; hopefully he can take full advantage of it.
The game tips-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.