Well, this isn’t how this was supposed to play out. With only one game left before post-season play begins, the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-13, 8-9 SEC) head out to College Station, Texas to take on the Texas A&M Aggies (19-11, 8-9 SEC) looking to avoid ending the season on a miserable five game losing streak. Prior to this horrific streak, the Crimson Tide were in a position where just one more win would likely be enough to lock up ‘Bama’s spot in the NCAA Tournament. Four games later, we are still looking for that last victory.
The Crimson Tide have been incredibly inconsistent all season, following up blow-out wins over top-ranked teams with ugly losses to much lesser ones. However, the Tide have taken it to a higher level of ugliness at the worst possible time. They were dominated on the glass in Lexington. They were run out of the gym in the second half by Auburn. They threw away a home tilt with Arkansas by turning the ball over and missing free throws like a JV squad. Finally, the pièce de résistance of this turd-sundae: a shooting display so graphically vile that anybody watching immediately determined it would be irresponsible to the youth basketball players of this country to allow this team to participate in the NCAA Tournament and spend any more time on national television.
If Alabama finishes out this year by losing the rematch with Texas A&M and then going one-and-done in the SEC Tournament, it will easily become one of the most disappointing seasons in the history of the University of Alabama’s athletics program. The 2000 football team is probably the only team in the 21st century that would exceed it. This team was expected to be contending for an SEC crown and jockeying for a top four or five seed when the selection committee convened on Selection Sunday. Instead, they may not be selected at all.
From the Last Meeting
Three Keys to Victory
Get Sexton Some Help. Alabama really needs someone other than Sexton to step-up and become a consistent scorer on the offensive end. The Tide has gotten into a funk where if they miss some open shots they get gun-shy (John Petty not included) and end up defaulting to Sexton. Dazon Ingram needs to attack off of the wing, Avery Johnson Jr.needs to drive when he gets in the game, Braxton Key needs to figure out what the hell is wrong with himself and start playing basketball the way he knows how, Riley Norris needs to crash the glass or get some open corner threes, and for the love of all things holy get the ball to Donta Hall around the rim. Alabama scrapped for points by doing these kinds of things last season. Now it seems like most of the supporting players just wait for Sexton to do his thing or Petty to throw up some crazy contested shot that goes in every once in a while. They need to get back to grinding on the offensive end.
Box-Out. If Alabama can’t find those big bodies of A&Ms when a shot goes up, this could get ugly. The Aggies have dominated most opponents on the glass this season and they make a living on second-chance points via offensive put-backs. Davis and Williams are beasts in the post in this regard.
Defend the Paint. Defensively, the Tide need to force A&M to beat them with jumpers. Hall and Daniel Giddens need to work overtime on the defensive end to deny Davis in the post. Whoever is manning the four spot needs to make sure they don’t lose track of Williams, who is basically a more talented version of Hall on the offensive end. The guards and wings need to prevent A&Ms back-court from getting dribble-penetration. The Aggies are going to drive to the basket to draw the slide and make the dump into the post. The best way to prevent that is to avoid needing the post defender to slide to the driving guard by never letting him get into the paint. If Gilder does not play, this becomes even more crucial, because the Ags don’t have a whole lot of reliable shooters.
Most of these keys remain relevant even now, an entire conference schedule later. Alabama’s offense obviously needs serious work, but they actually performed quite well against a stout A&M defense back in late December. The Tide shot 44.8% from the field, despite Sexton going just 3/12 himself. Petty’s 5/9 from downtown obviously made a difference, and it would be nice to see him get hot again, but the main difference between the first match-up with A&M and more recent outings is that the Tide played with confidence and got the ball to the rim. A&M is a slow team. Alabama needs to push the pace, just like they did the first time.
A&M’s front-court is fantastic. Tyler Davis and Robert Williams are big-time post players. However, because of a lack of guards, Alabama was able to crowd the paint on defense and crashed the glass with reckless abandon, both of which allowed the Tide to cruise to a 79-57 victory, as A&M couldn’t get anything out of their back-court. This needs to be the case again on Saturday if the Tide want to put an end to this epic collapse.
What to Watch For This Time
By far the biggest difference between this game and the previous meeting is that A&M’s rotation will look totally different. In Tuscaloosa, starting wing D.J. Hogg was still serving a suspension and starting two-guard Admon Gilder was side-lined with an injury. Gilder’s absence in particular really hurt the Aggies, as Alabama simply swarmed Davis and Williams and begged A&M to take jump-shots from outside of the paint, particularly from beyond the arc. The Ags really struggled early on in conference play without those two guys. When they came back, Billy Kennedy’s group got on a bit of a roll. Then, in an oddly similar turn of events, starting point guard Duane Wilson tore his ACL and his back-up, J.J. Caldwell, got kicked off of the team.
Just like that, A&M is now down to only one scholarship point guard, true freshman T.J. Starks. To be fair, he’s a heck of a third-string point guard, averaging 9.3 PPG on 39.5% shooting and 34.9% from three. But he’s not been a great distributor of the basketball, averaging only 1.8 APG to 2.2 TOPG.
Thus, Alabama likely won’t want to pack the paint in this game to the same extent as they did the first time, with both Gilder and Hogg back in the line-up. Instead, Alabama needs to extend the defense and ramp up the full-court pressure. With the kind of length and athleticism that the Tide has, it only makes sense that they would want to speed up a slow team without a true point guard. Alabama didn’t employ this strategy much against a similar Missouri team earlier this season, and it cost them dearly. Further, a team as dejected as this young Alabama team must be right now needs something to get them going. Picking up the pace and letting these guys go all-out could be the spark that gets them out of this funk and ignites some new life.
The season isn’t entirely lost just yet. But Avery Johnson’s got a hell of a job ahead of him trying to get this young group to move past recent results and come out of College Station with a win over an experienced, NCAA Tournament-quality A&M team that will be looking to avenge their loss in Tuscaloosa from earlier this season. Win or lose, there’s a really good chance Alabama and A&M end up playing again in Saint Louis for their opening game of the SEC Tournament next week, so Avery needs to earn his $2.9 million a year salary by figuring out how to beat the Aggies again and get his team into the NCAA Tournament.
The game tips-off at 1:00 PM CST Saturday and will be televised on ESPN2.