Playing a difficult schedule is almost always a good idea in college basketball. The NCAA Selection Committee has shown time and again that they reward teams heavily for scheduling well and playing in tough conferences. So, consider it a positive for Alabama (11-6, 2-3 SEC) as the Tide follow up their road game with the newly-minted top-ranked Tennessee Volunteers with a home match-up with the surprise of the year in the SEC: 20th-ranked Ole Miss (14-3, 4-1 SEC). The Rebels have done a complete 180 after finishing dead-last in the conference a year ago, as new head coach Kermit Davis has this team playing with some serious fire.
What’s amazing about what Davis has done is that this is essentially the same team from last season. It’s not like he brought in a couple of star recruits and veteran transfers. No, Davis simply turned this team completely around with some stellar coaching. The race for SEC Coach of the Year is really already down to him and Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, and there is still 2⁄3 of the conference schedule left to be played. It’s been a remarkable turn-around.
For Alabama, that only means it’s another opportunity to score a win against what seems to be a surefire NCAA Tournament team. As frustrating as it has been at times this season, the Tide are seriously three plays away from being 14-3 and ranked in the top 20 themselves. Yes, throwing away a potentially massive win on Saturday due to horrifyingly terrible free throw shooting is heart-wrenching, but Alabama has an opportunity to make some amends tonight in Tuscaloosa.
POINT 6’2 Devontae Shuler (9.9 PPG, 3.2 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.6 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Breein Tyree (17.5 PPG, 3.1 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Terence Davis (16.2 PPG, 3.7 APG, 6.1 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
WING 6’7 Blake Hinson (9.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.6 APG)
POST 7’0 Dominik Olejniczak (6.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.1 BPG)
Four of the Rebels’ five starters are returning members from last season’s 12-20 team. Only Hinson, the true freshman, is a new face in the line-up. Davis has done much schematically to shake things up either, as the Rebels play through their deep set of guards and just try to hold their own in the post. This is essentially the same team.
Except they are executing at a tremendously higher level. Davis (49.8%/42.2%/73.9%), Tyree (49.7%/38.2%/83.1%), and Shuler (44.4%/38.6%/82.9%) are tearing it up on the offensive end. Kermit has done a wonderful job of getting these guys good looks by utilizing the rest of the team with off-ball screens and movement that free up the three guards to bombard opposing defenses. They are also buying-in much more on the defensive end of the floor, with Davis actually leading the team with a strong 94.6 DRtg. Each has an AST% of at least 16.7%, and each has been quite careful with the ball as well, very rarely allowing turnovers.
The Rebels typically play four guards/wings around one big man in the post, although that could change against a much bigger team like Alabama. The seven-footer from Poland, Olejniczak, typically gets the start. Despite his solid 67.1% FG%, he’s really not an incredibly skilled player, but someone’s got to do the dirty work in the post. With a REB% of 10.8%, he doesn’t typically enforce his will on the glass. But he does play solid defense (6.7% BLK%, 97.1 DRtg).
- GUARD 5’11 D.C. Davis (2.9 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- WING 6’7 K.J. Buffen (6.4 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.0 SPG)
- POST 6’8 Bruce Stevens (8.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.8 APG)
Here is where Ole Miss’s issues really start to appear. The Rebels utilize an eight-man rotation, and not because they really want to. Buffen is the only other freshman who gets regular playing time. Coincidentally, he is a very similar player to Hinson, though he’s much more of a slasher (Buffen: 46.8%/20.0%/64.3%; Hinson: 43.6%/36.4%/70.0%). Stevens will likely see a lot of playing time tonight. An undersized post player, he has issues rebounding the ball against bigger teams (14.1% REB%), but he’s solid on the defensive end (97.2 DRtg) and his 250-pound body really allows him to throw his weight in the middle of the court.
Three Keys to Victory
- Keep Up with the Guards. Ole Miss’s back-court is not one you want to lose track of on the offensive end. They can score from all over the court, and they move around a lot. Alabama had some issues with off-ball screens against Tennessee, albeit most of those were in the low-block looking to free up Grant Williams in the paint. Regardless, the concepts are similar and base-line screens can be particularly effective in freeing up shooters as well. Avery Johnson needs to have a plan in place to keep the guards contained, because if the trio of starting guards aren’t being productive, Ole Miss isn’t being productive.
- Dominate the Glass. By far the biggest weakness for the Rebels is their presence on the boards. That typically is the case when five of the eight guys that play are guards, especially if the only true post players on the team aren’t strong in rebounding. Alabama needs to dominate this category tonight. Donta Hall, in particular, will be a major factor in this game. The guy has once again been huge for Alabama this season, and he’s got a great opportunity to impact this critical game tonight.
- Free Throws. Make them.
Tough schedules lead to great opportunities, and Alabama has another one tonight at home. With a road trip to Baylor breaking up a stretch of four straight match-ups with ranked conference foes, the Crimson Tide are really in a make-it-or-break-it stretch of the season. They have got to come away with a few victories. Ole Miss has been the surprise of the season in the SEC, but this is still a team that encounters a number of match-up issues when they play against Alabama. The Tide need to take advantage of that.
The game tips-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPNU.