As the end of the regular season approaches, the mercurial Alabama Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7 SEC) are approaching the station low on fuel. The Tide's ugly 90-71 loss to in-state rival Auburn Wednesday night was one of the worst performances the team has put on this year. Considering how low the Tide's valleys have dipped this season, that's saying something. However, we all know that Alabama's peaks are as high as just about anybody's, and the 'Bama basketball team is much like the weather in this state: if you don't like it, just wait a minute, because it can change in an instant.
It also helps that the Tide is returing home for the next two contests, because they won't be easy. First up is the Arkansas Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7 SEC) on Saturday evening. This veteran bunch is in a very similar position as Alabama right now, as both are being projected anywhere from a 7-seed to an 11-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and both are smack-dab in the middle of a crazy six-way tie for third place in the SEC right now. Yes, there are six teams at 8-7 (the others: Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, and Mississippi State), with LSU only a game back at 7-8. In case you've been living under a rock (or are just a Football-Only Gump), the SEC is ridiculously deep this season. This is a massive game for both teams, as each of them ends the regular season with quite a guantlet (Alabama: Florida, at Texas A&M; Arkansas: Auburn, at Missouri). One could make the argument that the post-season almost essentially begins now for these two teams, as every game left will be huge regarding the post-season futures of each. Take two out of three and make some noise with a favorable seeding in Saint Louis (which is where the SEC Tournament will be this year for some dumb reason), and either one of these teams could end up with a 6-seed in the Big Dance.
Go winless the rest of the way though, and, well, things might not look so great. It has been a long and crazy season so far, but there isn't any rest for the March dreamers, and Alabama happens to be one of them this season. The Tide need to win tonight.
- POINT 6'0 Anton Beard (9.6 PPG, 3.0 APG, 2.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
- GUARD 6'3 Daryl Macon (17.4 PPG, 3.9 APG, 2.8 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
- GUARD 6'3 Jaylen Barford (18.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.1 SPG)
- WING 6'7 Dustin Thomas (5.0 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- POST 6'11 Daniel Gafford (11.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.0 BPG)
Unlike most teams in college basketball, Arkansas is incredibly experienced. Gafford is the only non-senior in the starting line-up, as the Razorbacks start a group that has experience playing, and winning, NCAA Tournament games in March. It starts in the back-court with their trio of senior guards. Macon and Barford have been two of the most underrated players in the country the last few seasons for Mike Anderson. Both are fantastic scorers (Barford: 48.0%/43.6%/68.6%; Macon: 45.8%/43.4%/87.7%), and they combine for over 25 shots per game (25.5 FGA per game, to be exact). If Barford and Macon are both on, it is usually a long night for the opponent. Both are pretty non-existent on the glass (Barford: 6.8% REB%; Macon: 5.1%) and they both have their issues defensively (Barford: 107.6 DRtg; Macon: 108.5), but they can fill up on the offensive end of the court. Beard is a better ball-handler than either of them, but he has the same issues (4.8% REB%, 109.5 DRtg - seriously, these are bad numbers) without the game changing scoring ability (39.4%/32.0%/76.2%).
Thomas is a solid, if unspectacular, wing. His 12.7% REB% and 103.3 DRtg are some of the best on the team, and he's scoring at a 50.6% rate. Gafford is a true freshman that bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger Donta Hall. He's great in pick-and-roll situations and is best with his back away from the basket attacking the rim (61.5% FG%) and glass (15.4% REB%), and his shot-swatting ability is very strong, rejecting just over one out of every ten of his opponents' 2PAs when he's on the floor (10.7% BLK%).
- GUARD 6'5 C.J. Jones (6.7 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.5 APG)
- WING 6'6 Darious Hall (5.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.5 APG)
- WING 6'6 Adrio Bailey (4.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.6 APG)
- WING 6'8 Arlando Cook (1.6 PPG, 1.8 RPG)
- POST 6'9 Trey Thompson (3.5 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.9 BPG)
Arkansas also has a rare, full-blown ten man rotation. Their bench is deep and athletic. Hall has been quite the scorer himself (52.1%/42.3%), but he's terrible from the free throw line (53.6%). Jones is the typical sixth man though, utilizing his 42.2%/35.4%/81.0% scoring ability to impact the game in a significant way off of the bench. Bailey and Cook are two of the better defenders on the team, as low as a bar as that may seem, and Thompson is a senior with an all-around game in the post, as he is second on the team with both a 13.0% REB% and a 100.6 DRtg. His balanced approach has been critical for a Razorback team that can sometimes lose track of some areas of the game.
Three Keys to Victory
- Contain Barford and Macon. As mentioned previously, these two guards combine for over 25 shots a game for the Razorbacks. That's about 40% of the field goals attempted by the team as a whole. Arkansas truly does go as these two go, mostly because they are really the only two who can consistently create. Gafford's a good offensive weapon, but he can only be utilized really if someone opens up space for him. The Hogs really struggle if even one of these two guys are off. However, containing them is a lot easier said than done. They are explosive off the dribble and very good at creating space for open jumpers. One of Avery Johnson's strengths is drawing up game-plans to shut down teams that are overly reliant on a single player. Let's see how he does with a team reliant on two.
- Move the Ball. Arkansas's defense struggles away from home. The Razorbacks are 1-5 on the road in SEC play, mostly because the defense has been down-right bad away from Fayetteville. They are giving up 78.3 PPG in conference action, easily the worst in the SEC. While none of them are renowed one-on-one defenders, things really break down for Arkansas defensively when teams move the ball well. Watching them play, it almost feels like all it takes to score on a possession against them is to successfully pass the ball two or three times. Alabama needs to take advantage of this Saturday evening. The Hogs are slow to close out on shooters after a couple of passes, and they break down pretty regularly in the lane. The Tide could have a big night tonight offensively, especially if home-Petty makes an appearance.
- Rebounding. There really is no way of sugar-coating this: Alabama's ghastly performance on the glass the last two games was utterly pathetic and straight-up embarrassing. Kentucky got 20 offensive rebounds. Auburn's tiny team got 14! 14! That is unacceptable. Auburn out-rebounded Alabama on Wednesday, easily the worst performance Alabama has displayed this season in any area, and maybe even in any sport. Arkansas is another small-guard driven team, except unlike Auburn, they actually are bad at rebounding. There is no excuse for not out-rebounding this team by double-figures tonight. Get it corrected, Tide.
Of course, the elephant in the room (well besides, Big Al) in Coleman Coliseum Saturday will be Collin Sexton's eligibillity following Yahoo's latest report covering the FBI's investigation of college basketball. I, for one, am not that concerned. The only thing the report tied Sexton to was a free meal that was paid for by an agent, which is something Alabama was already made aware of and dealt with in November. I fully anticipate Sexton to play tonight.
Alabama will need him, and everyone else, to bring their 'A'-game. Arkansas is a veteran team that is in a similar "need to start winning" mode as Alabama. They've been here before, and they know how to succeed in this environment. Barford and Macon are studs that can take over any game. With only three games left in the regular season, all against quality teams that have post-season dreams on their minds, things are about to get really tight for Alabama. The Tide aren't too many losses away from the 2018 season being over.
The game will tip-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.