Another day, another erratic performance by the Alabama Crimson Tide (14-8, 5-4 SEC) this past Wednesday against the Missouri Tigers. It is really hard to figure this team out. Yes, they are one of the youngest teams in college basketball, but they’ve found a way to take inconsistent performances to another level. One could argue Alabama has the best trio of wins in the country (#11 Auburn, #12 Oklahoma, #22 Rhode Island) while simultaneously having some of the worst displays of basketball from any team still considered solidly in the NCAA Tournament picture. Yes, Alabama is still projected to make the big dance in March by nearly every legitimate bracketologist out there, so pump the brakes on some of the doom-and-gloom takes going on around here, Tide Hoops faithful.
All Alabama can do at this point is turn the page and move on. Playing like they did on Wednesday will get them beat by everyone else left on the schedule, but the good news is that playing like they have against the likes of Oklahoma and Auburn will give them a chance against anybody. As the calendar flips to February, the mid-way point of the SEC schedule is upon us. At 5-4 in conference play, the Tide sit alone in 5th in the SEC standings, just ahead of a massive car pile-up of teams at 4-5. Have I mentioned how brutal the SEC is this season? Sure, Alabama fans were hoping that this team would be near the top of the league standings at this point in the season, but it shouldn’t be overlooked that just finishing with a winning record in this league will be quite the achievement.
Next up for Avery Johnson’s team will be the 23rd-ranked Florida Gators (15-7, 6-3 SEC) in Gainesville. Alabama should recognize their Saturday afternoon opponents pretty well, because the Gators have been nearly as Jekyll-and-Hyde as the Tide has this season. Florida will be looking to snap a two game conference losing streak themselves, after they fell short in Athens on Tuesday night. For a team that came into the season with very high expectations following their Elite Eight appearance last year, having seven total losses already, including losses to Loyola-Chicago and Florida State in non-conference play and Ole Miss, Georgia, and South Carolina in conference action, has been pretty disappointing for Gator fans. Even so, they also have big time wins over teams like #8 Cincinnati, #14 Gonzaga, and #21 Kentucky. They clearly still have the potential to make another deep run in March. Sound familiar?
- POINT 6’0 Chris Chiozza (12.7 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.9 SPG)
- GUARD 6’2 KeVaughn Allen (11.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- WING 6’5 Egor Koulechov (14.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.7 SPG)
- WING 6’8 Keith Stone (8.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG)
- POST 6’9 Kevarrius Hayes (5.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.1 BPG)
Unlike Alabama, the Gators don’t have the excuse of youth to blame their inconsistent play on. Two seniors (Chiozza and Koulechov), two juniors (Allen and Hayes), and a sophomore (Stone) make up the starting five. Really, this is a strong starting group. Chiozza is the leader in APG in the SEC, rocking a nearly 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio and a 37.4% AST%. He’s the prototypical Florida point guard, as good as any of the many quality point guards they’ve had in Gainesville over the last decade or so. As good as he is dishing the ball, he’s a very good shooter as well (45.2%/40.0%/89.4%), and he can make any opponent pay dearly if he is on. Allen is a true shooting guard for the Gators, but he’s had some issues with consistency this season (36.0%/32.2%/90.3%) and his numbers from the field are way down from where they were a year ago (43.8%/37.0%/88.3%). With a DRtg of 107.2 and a some other weak numbers for a guard that plays 31 MPG (12.1% AST%, 4.0% REB%), Allen really needs to turn it back on because he has been a liability at times for the Gators.
Rice grad transfer, Koulechov, has essentially filled the Canyon Barry role from last season as a high-volume shot-maker on the wing and excellent free throw shooter (40.5%/40.4%/90.9%). He is not afraid to let it fly. He’s also a 12.8% rebounder, so he’s more than just a shooter. 'Always Smooth' Keith Stone is an interesting stretch four wing for the Gators. He's very similar to Braxton Key, but he's having a better season shooting (41.6%/44.4%/69.1%). Hayes is the lone true post player in the starting line-up for the Gators. He's been asked to play out of position at the five, as he's really more of a power forward, but he's held steady all season (57.3% FG%, 11.7% REB%, 9.1% BLK%, 98.3 DRtg) despite that
- GUARD 6'5 Jalen Hudson (16.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- GUARD 6'3 Mike Okauru (3.3 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.7 APG)
- WING 6'5 Deaundrae Ballard (4.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
- POST 6'11 Gorjok Gak (2.8 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 0.5 BPG)
Florida's bench is interesting because, while Hudson is a de facto starter averaging 25.9 MPG, the rest of the bench all averages between 8-12 MPG. In other words, the Gators don't like to rotate much after the top six guys. Hudson logs as many minutes as he does because he's a dynamic sixth man off of the bench that provides a spark every time he enters the game (46.0%/42.5%/69.1%). Ballard is long, slashing wing that has been somewhat of a poor man's Devin Robinson for this year's edition of the Gators. Florida would love to give the near-seven footer Gak more time, but the Austrailian just isn't ready for a high number of minutes yet. His 14.5% REB% leads the team.
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.
Alabama really needs to bounce-back from a pair of ugly conference losses. Unfortunately, so does Florida. The 23rd-ranked Gators were considered conference favorites for a reason, and they will be chomping at the bit to get back out in front of their home crowd and get things turned around. This is going to be a tall, tall test for the Tide. Alabama will need to do a complete 180 from Wednesday night. The good news is, they are more than capable of doing so.
The game tips-off at 3:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.