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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #15 Tennessee

The Crimson Tide host the rival Vols in a big-time SEC showdown

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Crimson Tide Hoops-a-palooza roller coaster continues to chug along its crazy peaks and valleys as the 15th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers (18-5, 8-3 SEC) make the perilous decision to climb aboard Saturday evening. The Vols opened up as 2.5 point favorites for tonight, which is, of course, exactly where the incredibly inconsistent Tide want them. The one thing that can be counted on when Avery Johnson's team takes the court is that they will play to the level of their opponents. The good news for Alabama tonight is that Tennessee has been excellent this season, so expect the Tide to come out inspired as they look to protect home court in Coleman Coliseum.

Rick Barnes has completely blown his initial expectations out of the water with this Tennessee team. Chased out of Austin for being "past his time", the veteran coach has taken a young, overlooked group of guys and made them legit contenders in the SEC. The Vols are currently alone in 2nd place in the conference, only a game back from the Auburn Tigers (man, it's a weird year). If there is any justice in this world, Barnes will easily win SEC Coach of the Year over former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who has done a fantastic job himself leading his Tigers to the top of the conference, despite having the NCAA show up and suspend two of his best players for the season.

Tennessee is a scrappy, efficient, and extremely well-coached unit that is defying expectations and looking to make a run at a possible conference crown and 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama will need to bring its best effort if the Tide want to continue their erratic ways and get back on track.

The Roster

Starting Five

  • POINT 6'1 Jordan Bone (7.4 PPG, 3.5 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.1 SPG)
  • GUARD 6'3 Jordan Bowden (9.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.1 SPG)
  • WING 6'5 Admiral Schofield (12.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.1 SPG)
  • POST 6'5 Grant Williams (15.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.3 BPG)
  • POST 6'9 Kyle Alexander (6.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.0 BPG)

The Vols are easily one of the most balanced teams in the country, which is odd considering their unusual rotation. The back-court isn't anything out of the norm, as the Jordon Bs hold things down from the guard positions. Bone is a prototypical drive-to-dish point guard (28.5% AST%, 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), as his size limits his ability to finish around the rim himself (37.6% 2P%), but he is a solid shooter (36.7% 3P%, 83.3% FT%), so he can certainly make teams pay even without having to pass. Bowden is the deep threat on the team (44.9%/45.7%/72.7%), so Alabama will not want to let him get any space from beyond the arc. Both are average defenders.

The front-court is where things get fun. Schofield has gone from scrappy, undersized 4 to a legitimately dangerous wing. His shooting has increased tremendously (43.6%/41.2%/76.5%), but he can still bang in the post for rebounds (13.5% REB%) and defend on every level (94.6 DRtg). Schofield's ability to play out more on the wing has allowed fellow undersized post, Williams, to take the majority of the minutes at the 4, where he has been an all-conference type of player. A 48.0% scorer, Williams has a knack for getting the ball in the basket, despite not having much range (14.3% 3P%) or size. He's a 74.5% free throw shooter and his defense (97.3 DRtg. 5.2% BLK%) and rebounding (12.0%) are both strong for such an undersized post. Finally, Alexander rounds out the starting group. A true post player, his 15.6% REB% and 93.5 DRtg both lead the team, as he's been a true force on the interior in both areas. And while he's no offensive juggernaut, he does still manage to score at a 74.0% clip, so he's incredibly efficient with his attempts, which are mostly all around the rim on either put-backs or dumps.

The Bench

  • GUARD 5'10 James Daniel (6.7 PPG, 3.6 APG, 1.5 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
  • GUARD 6'1 Lamonte Turner (11.0 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.7 SPG)
  • GUARD 6'1 Chris Darrington (3.2 PPG, 0.9 APG, 0.7 RPG)
  • POST 6'7 John Fulkerson (2.0 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.7 APG)
  • POST 6'8 Derrick Walker (1.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG)

The Tennessee bench is limited but effective. Darrington, Fulkerson, and Walker all play less than 10 MPG, but they all play solid ball when they are in the game. Daniel and Turner are the note-worthy players to look out for though. Daniel is a near-replica of Bone (39.0%/38.6%/69.4%; 29.3% AST%; 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), so not much changes when Bone has to sub out. Turner is a scoring sixth man who has been incredible from the free throw line this season (40.2%/37.9%/91.2%).

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Efficiency. Yes, efficiency is kind of an obvious key for winning a basketball game, but when you are playing Tennessee, it is an absolute must just to stay competitive. The Vols are a machine that grinds their opponents down by playing an incredibly efficient brand of basketball. They eat teams like Alabama that rely on erratic, yet effective (at times, at least) scoring for breakfast. They are 27th in the country in Adjusted Offense and 4th in Adjusted Defense. They rarely turn the ball over (60th in the country), knock down threes (39.1%, 28th in the country), pass the ball well (66th in the country), get after it on the offensive glass, and make their free ones count (75.9%, 38th in the country). If any team is capable of withstanding Alabama's crazy roller coaster ride style, it's Tennessee. The Tide have to be more efficient today or they will get run out of the gym.
  2. Rebounding. This is the one area where the Vols are a bit lacking. It makes sense considering their lack of size across the roster. Alabama needs a strong performance on the glass if they want to upset Tennessee. The Tide have much greater size at pretty much every position, they need to deny the Vols extra possessions while getting a few of their own in order to make up for any lack of efficiency on a per-possession basis.
  3. Braxton Key. Key's really starting to come along as an overall quality player for Alabama. While John Petty, Dazon Ingram, and Herbert Jones have struggled with consistency issues in the last few weeks, Key has been playing pretty steady, solid basketball. He's turning the ball over less, attacking the basket, making some heady plays on both ends, hitting the glass, and playing strong defense. He's still struggling to knock down jumpers from distance, but his shots almost always look good, they just aren't dropping. In a game where the opponent will be relying on a couple of undersized wings and posts, Key has the potential to come up big today.

Alabama's got a great opportunity to add to their strong collection of big wins this evening. However, Tennessee's hyper-efficient style of basketball doesn't allow much room for up-and-down teams like the Tide to make much headway. A loss in Tuscaloosa tonight would be a tough pill for Alabama to swallow, as the Tide need a few more wins to feel good about their NCAA Tournament chances, and the schedule doesn't let up the rest of the way. Every game presents a major opportunity for Alabama, but there won't be a better opponent that visits Coleman Coliseum the rest of the season. Tennessee has been really, really good, and they still have a legitimate path to both the SEC title and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Right where Alabama wants them.

The game tips-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.