When Alabama (11-5, 2-2 SEC) knocked off Kentucky in Tuscaloosa a couple of weeks back, I proclaimed it one of the biggest wins of Avery Johnson’s tenure at the Capstone. Well, that win wouldn’t even hold a candle to a potential win this weekend in Knoxville, as the Crimson Tide take on the machine that is Rick Barnes’ Tennessee Volunteers (15-1, 4-0 SEC). The third ranked Vols are undefeated in regulation this season, with their only loss coming in overtime against perennial power Kansas. They are, without a doubt, the best team in the SEC this season, and they may just be the best team in all of college basketball.
And they are a machine. Efficient as hell on both sides of the ball, Tennessee is currently tops in the SEC in FG%, FT%, APG, and Offensive Efficiency, while also sporting the third highest rating in Defensive Efficiency (behind only Florida and Kentucky). These guys are legitimate National Championship contenders. With the exception of last year’s Villanova team, Avery Johnson hasn’t faced a team of this caliber in his time in Tuscaloosa.
With all of that being said, Alabama crushed these same guys in Coleman Coliseum last season 78-50. It was a complete blowout. As elite as this team has been playing this season, they aren’t unbeatable. The best part is that Alabama has nothing to lose in this game. No one is going to knock the Tide if they take an ‘L’ in Knoxville Saturday afternoon.
But if Alabama can pull off the upset...
POINT 6’1 Jordan Bone (13.4 PPG, 6.3 APG, 2.7 RPG, 0.8 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Jordan Bowden (10.7 PPG, 2.6 APG, 3.7 RPG)
WING 6’5 Admiral Schofield (17.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.9 SPG)
POST 6’5 Grant Williams (18.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.6 BPG)\
POST 6’9 Kyle Alexander (10.2 PPg, 7.7 RPG, 1.7 BPG)
If these names sound familiar, it’s because they should be. Rick Barnes has basically been starting these same five guys since he arrived in Knoxville in 2015. The Volunteers are the rare top-tier team that is chock-full of veterans and upperclassmen.
Bone runs the point and has just been stupid with his efficiency. He’s not a great shooter, but he’s certainly not a bad one (43.6%, 26.2%/86.0%), and his assist numbers are off of the charts (3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, 32.1% AST%). His fellow Jordan, Bowden, is much more natural of a scorer (45.2%/36.2%/92.0%), as evidenced by his SEC-best 92% FT%.
The front-court is where Tennessee does most of their damage offensively though. Schofield is the definition of a ‘tweener. The four year starter began his career playing in the post, where he was very effective despite his size limitation. As he’s gotten older, he’s really developed his offensive skills, and plays out on the wing a lot more now. His shooting is night and day from where it was as a freshman, and since he already knew how to bang in the post and get the ball to the rim, he’s been an electric scorer for the Vols (52.6%/46.2%/71.9%). Schofield is the four-year player version of Duke’s Zion Williamson. Their skill sets are very similar.
But Schofield isn’t even the biggest threat on this Tennessee team. That honor belongs to Williams, who is well on his way to repeating as SEC Player of the Year. Another undersized post player, Williams makes up for his lack of size with his incredible skill with the basketball. He can truly do it all. His post moves are as good as I’ve seen at the college level, and he can step outside to knock down shots as well (57.1%/40.9%/82.4%). He’s strong on the glass (14.1% REB%), a fantastic passer (22.2% AST!), and is disruptive on defense (5.7% BLK%, 1.9% STL%). The man can flat-out ball.
Rounding out the starting line-up is Alexander, who plays a pivotal role as one of the only players on the team with legit post size. He makes it count too, leading the team with a 15.9% REB% and a 7.1% BLK%. Oh, yeah, and he can shoot the ball as well (68.5%,/40.0%/67.3%), although he mostly plays around the basket.
GUARD Lamonte Turner (11.1 PPG, 2.6, APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Yves Pons (3.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.0 APG)
GUARD 6’5 Jalen Johnson (2.4 PPG, 1.3 RPG)
WING 6’7 John Fulkerson (4.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.0 BPG)
POST 6’8 Derrick Walker (1.2 PPG, 1.5 RPG)
Tennessee doesn’t lack in depth, either. Turner wouldn’t just start for most teams in the SEC, he’d be one of the better players on just about any other roster. A true scorer (40.0%/31.0%/81.0%), Turner provides serious noise off of the bench for Tennessee. Pons was actually the highest-rated player on the roster coming out of high school. He’s an athletic slasher who simply has yet to find his jumper at this level (53.2%/28.6%/30.8%). As bad as he is at free throws, fouling him is probably the best course of action when he puts the ball in the paint. Fulkerson is the most vital piece of the bench. At 6’7, he gives the Vols some size (and production, unlike Walker) in the front-court that they lack.
Three Keys to Victory
- Play to Your Strengths. There is a reason why Alabama dominated Tennessee a year ago with a lot of the same cast of characters. The Tide dominated around the basket. Tennessee's biggest weakness is their lack of size, which the lengthy Tide exploited constantly last season. Alabama needs to play this game around the rim and clean up on the boards if they want to come out of Knoxville with a victory.
- Force Tennessee to Play Left-Handed. The Vols are a shining example of offensive efficiency. They simply don’t have many weaknesses. The good news is that they can be contained by a defense that matches-up well with them. Herbert Jones’s defensive presence will loom large in this game. If Herb can limit Grant Williams, and the Tide can find a way to prevent Bone from getting dribble penetration and kicking out to his shooters, Tennessee will be forced to play through secondary options, which could slow them down enough to let the Tide hang around.
- The Three-Point Line. The ultimate equalizer. Tennessee is a much better three-point shooting team than Alabama is. But, if you want to pull off an upset, getting a guy or two hot from outside and preventing the other team from doing so typically leads to good things. Alabama will need to do a better job of chasing Tennessee off of the three-point line than they did in the first half against Missouri the other night.
All in all, Alabama’s got a puncher’s chance against the top team in the conference on Saturday. Again, the beautiful thing about it is that the game is essentially a win-win for the Tide. And if Avery Johnson’s team is hitting their shots, the Tide can play with anyone.
But Tennessee is really, really good. It will take Alabama’s best to beat the Volunteers in Knoxville, probably with an assist in the form of a poor performance from the home team.
The game will tip-off at 1:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.