With only one game remaining before the calendar flips to March, the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-12, 8-8 SEC) have found themselves in quite a bit of a funk.
Avery Johnson’s group enters the final week of the regular season mired in a season-worst three-game losing streak, falling most recently at home 76-73 on Saturday against Arkansas. Further, this team hasn’t played this poorly all season with the exception of a four-game stretch around the turn of the year, when they lost three out of four against Texas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Georgia — with the Texas and Georgia games being particularly brutal.
Many of the same issues continue to cost the Tide, most notably the high amount of turnovers and complete inability to take advantage of free throw opportunities. But probably the worst issue right now is just how far Alabama’s rebounding ability has cratered. ‘Bama has now lost the battle on the glass in three straight games, getting dominated by Kentucky before somehow getting out-rebounded by small, guard-oriented teams Auburn and Arkansas. During this stretch, Alabama is giving up just under 16 offensive rebounds a game. Sixteen! Those are free extra possessions for the opponent. Considering the length and athleticism this team possesses, that is absolutely unacceptable.
Things plainly aren’t trending the right direction for Alabama right now. With Selection Sunday now under three weeks away, the Tide are still clinging to an NCAA Tournament bid according to most bracketologists, but they sure aren’t inspiring any confidence that they will be able to make any noise if they still get there. Alabama has got to get things turned around quickly. With only two games remaining in the regular season, Alabama finds itself currently 8th in the SEC at 8-8. The good news is that 3rd place is only 9-7. The bad news is that 11th place is 7-9. The SEC has seen an incredible amount of parity this season, so there is still a ton left to be determined before the SEC Tournament gets started in Saint Louis next week (Ed. Note: March 8-12).
Alabama has a lot to play for. Win these last two games and the Tide are looking at a potential double-bye in the SEC Tournament and probably a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Lose these last two games and Alabama will be a double-digit seed in Saint Louis next week, praying that they are still somehow on the right side of the bubble. The encouraging thing is that we all know that Alabama is capable of doing a complete 180-degree turnaround and making something out of this season. Just ask their upcoming opponent, the Florida Gators, who the Tide destroyed 41-17 in the second half of their first meeting in Gainesville.
The Last Meeting
Three Keys to Victory
Defend the Three Point Line. While Alabama’s inconsistencies stem from just how young this team is, Florida’s inconsistent play is a product of whether or not they are hitting their shots. The Gators live or die by the three-pointer more than anybody else in the conference, with maybe the exception of Vanderbilt. Mike White’s squad has 5 different guys who can all shoot the ball well (Chiozza, Allen, Koulechov, Hudson, and Stone), and when they are on, might as well just tip your caps to them and call it a day. However, if they aren’t getting production from deep, they struggle to get much going on offense. Alabama has been terrible at defending the perimeter on the road. If they continue to leave shooters wide open, it will likely be a long day in Gainesville.
Attack the Glass. The Gators may live or die with the three-ball, but the main reason why they haven’t been able to replicate last season’s success is because they are weak in the post. John Egbunu, the 6’11 center who tore his ACL late last season, still has yet to return to action, and it’s killing the Gators defensively and on the boards. Hayes could be an all-SEC player at the four, but he’s being asked to do too much manning the five, especially with only one true back-up post player who is still in need of development. Likewise, Koulechov and Stone are both having to play their own versions of stretch four, even though they both prefer to play out on the wing and away from the basket. Alabama needs to play this game within a few feet from the rim. Donta Hall needs to reassert himself around the glass. Daniel Giddens needs a bounce-back performance after struggling mightily against Missouri’s size.
Get Petty Going. It’s not a coincidence that Alabama’s chances of success increase greatly whenever John Petty is making shots. When he is on, he is the only player on the team that can consistently knock down three-point shots effectively. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason as to why he’s on or off, other than his awkward jump-shot, but Alabama needs to figure out a better way of getting him going. A couple of open looks from the corner in transition may be the trigger.
Petty didn’t end up doing much of anything in Gainesville, but Alabama absolutely checked off the first two keys to the game last time. Florida couldn’t buy a shot in the second half, and ended up finishing 19/57 from the field and an atrocious 5/24 from deep. Meanwhile, Alabama flexed its muscles and played to their strengths, destroying the Gators on the glass 43-25 (yes, rebounding used to be a major strength of this team) and finished 25/39 from inside of the arc, as the Tide attacked the basket with reckless abandon.
The Tide had some major turnover issues in the first half of this game as well, but they tightened up the ball security in the second half and it allowed them to roll their way to an easy victory in the O-Dome, which is not something this program is used to doing.
Fortunately for the Tide, Tuesday night’s game will be played in the friendly confines of Coleman Coliseum. However, the Gators will certainly come into Tuscaloosa looking to avenge their ugly home loss from the beginning of the month. They will be ready to come out firing. Florida’s got just as much at stake right now as Alabama does, as the Gators find themselves in a very similar post-season position as Alabama. The difference is, Florida’s coming off of arguably their best performance of the season, a home victory over #14 Auburn Saturday night.
What to Watch For This Time
To be completely honest: who really knows? These have been two incredibly streaky and inconsistent teams. At their best, Alabama and Florida are both legit SEC contenders and second weekend NCAA Tournament teams. At their worst, they are both one-and-done NIT squads. Once again, Alabama has an opportunity to dominate the interior and establish themselves on the glass early and often, like they did in Gainesville not too long ago. But we’ve seen how that has turned out for the Tide lately. Getting out-rebounded by Auburn and Arkansas casts quite a large shadow of doubt on this team’s ability to out-work their opponents on the glass.
Also, Florida is almost guaranteed to shoot much better than they did in the last meeting. Chiozza, Allen, and Koulechov are all very good shooters, and they can each get red-hot when they are on. Alabama has to do a better job defensively than they have the last few games as well. There have been way too many open shots from the perimeter recently, mostly coming off of simple draw-and-dish passes from guards. That’s bad defense, and it’s the kind of defense that the Gators make their living on.
Alabama is absolutely capable of turning things around and ending the season on a high note. They’ve been riding a crazy roller-coaster of highs and lows all year, so what’s to say that they don’t start peaking now at the right time? Another blow-out win over Florida seems incredibly unlikely, but the Tide will have the home-court advantage, and they do match-up well with the smaller Gators. There isn’t a single outcome to this game that would surprise me.
Of course, for Alabama, it better be a positive one. The Tide is running out of time to get things figured out. The next loss could end Alabama’s season.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.