If the win over a now top-ten Kentucky team was the biggest win of the season for the Alabama Crimson Tide (12-6, 3-3 SEC), the 74-53 beat-down of 20th-ranked Ole Miss this past Tuesday was the Tide’s most impressive. Honestly, calling it a beat-down may be a bit generous. Alabama absolutely dominated the Rebels in a game that felt similar to last season’s performance against Tennessee. At one point in the second half, the Tide had more offensive rebounds than Ole Miss had defensive rebounds, which is honestly an incredible stat, one that underscores just how out-classed the Rebels were.
Of course, as mentioned, Alabama has had big-time wins like this before under Avery Johnson, and they almost always follow it up with a poor performance. The Tide followed up that huge win against Kentucky with a pair of losses, including an inexcusable home loss to one of the worst teams in the SEC, Texas A&M. Since then, Alabama won handily in Missouri, took #1 Tennessee to the brink in Knoxville, and then embarrassed Ole Miss. Can the Tide keep it rolling this time?
They need to, because the schedule doesn’t get any easier. Alabama next heads to Waco, Texas to participate in the annual SEC-Big 12 Challenge against a Baylor Bear (12-6, 4-2 Big 12) team that has similarly started playing their best ball of the season. After an unimpressive non-conference slate, Baylor wasn’t looking like much of a contender for the NCAA Tournament. Now, after winning four of their last five games, including ‘W’s over the likes of Texas Tech and Iowa State, two of the best teams in the Big 12, the Bears find themselves right next to Alabama: smack-dab on the bubble for the tournament.
This is a big game for both teams, and really, both conferences. Last year, Alabama’s big home win over Oklahoma helped jump-start the SEC to the conference’s first ever win against the Big 12 since the challenge started back in the 2012-13 season (the Big 12 leads the series 3-1-1). Take a look at this year’s slate. With Georgia, A&M, and Vanderbilt all taking on likely NCAA Tournament teams, the Big 12 should have three wins before the games even tip. Tennessee will crush bottom-feeding West Virginia at home, but besides that, there isn’t another obvious win for the SEC.
In other words, this is going to be a big game for multiple reasons. Alabama’s ability to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament and the SEC’s ability to repeat in the challenge both weigh heavily in this match-up.
POINT 6’1 Makai Mason (15.7 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.7 RPG)
GUARD 5’10 Jared Butler (8.2 PPG, 2.3 APG, 2.2 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 King McClure (10.7 PPG, 2.4 APG, 5.7 RPG, 1.7 SPG)
WING 6’5 Mark Vital (5.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.2 SPG)
WING 6’7 Mario Kegler (8.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
Yes, you read that correctly, Baylor has no post players. This team is an exaggerated version of Ole Miss. Maybe that’s a bit unfair; they have some big guys that usually come off of the bench, but yes, since starting center Tristan Clark went down for the year with a knee injury, Baylor has been basically playing nothing but guards. The crazy thing is, that’s exactly when the Bears started playing well.
The other crazy thing is just how this roster was assembled. Mason was first introduced to Scott Drew’s Bears three years ago when he dropped 31 points on them as Yale stunned Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Now as a graduate transfer, he’s been the guy for Baylor this season on the offensive end (43.6%/35.2%/83.1%, 18.5% AST%),. If he’s playing well, the Bears are tough to beat.
Next to him in the back-court is true freshman Jared Butler, whose name should sound familiar to Crimson Tide fans. Butler was expected to fill the void left by Collin Sexton as the starting point guard for Alabama this season. However, team doctors wouldn’t clear him to play due to a medical condition, so Butler left for Baylor after receiving confirmation that their medical staff would clear him. It was an odd situation that popped up in August, right before the season started. Avery Johnson and staff scrambled to find a replacement for him, and ended up getting Kira Lewis to reclassify to the 2018 class in the 11th hour.
Hopefully everything is ok medically for Butler, as he’s been a solid player for them this season (38.5%/31.0%/84.2%, team-best 19.4% AST%), and is clearly Drew’s long-term solution at point guard. He was bumped up into the starting line-up after Clark’s injury, and, regardless of how things went down in his short time in Tuscaloosa, he will be extra motivated for this game. Especially if he ends up going against Lewis.
Kegler, the “big man” in the starting line-up, should be familiar to Alabama fans as well, as he was a four-star freshman for Mississippi State two seasons ago. He was actually a guard coming out of high school, and his length was a major reason why he was considered a blue-chip prospect. Now, he finds himself in a strange situation where he’s playing the role of an undersized big man. It may be a better fit for him, as he’s really struggled to shoot the ball (38.6%/14.3%/62.5%), and his rebounding numbers are solid (12.8%).
They aren’t as strong as his fellow “big”, Mark Vital, though. Vital leads the team with a 16.1% REB%, despite being only 6’5. His 230 pound frame has a lot to do with that. He surely isn’t a shooter (42.7%/20.0%/41.8%), so he’s got to make up for it in other areas. McClure picks up the slack in the shooting department (41.3%/38.2%/72.7%), and they both play stout defense (Vital: 94.0 DRtg; McClure: 93.8 DRtg).
GUARD 6’3 Devonte Bandoo (7.1 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.3 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Darius Allen (3.0 PPG, 1.5 RPG)
WING 6’8 Mathew Mayer (5.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
POST 6’8 Freddie Gillespie (2.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG)
POST 6’10 Flo Thamba (2.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
Baylor rolls pretty deep in terms of guys who see significant enough minutes to be considered a part of the rotation. Bandoo is the guy to keep an eye on off of the bench. He’s the prototypical scoring sixth man (43.0%/38.6%/95.2%) with a ridiculously good free throw percentage. Mayer, Gillespie, and Thamba haven’t been super productive this season, but it should be expected that they have increased roles Saturday against the Tide simply because they are some of the biggest players Scott Drew has at his disposal. Thamba was a blue-chip recruit in the 2018 class, but he simply hasn’t transitioned well to the college level yet. Though, if I were a gambling man, I’d bet Drew will utilize Thamba in a big way against the Tide. This will likely be a “prove it” type of game for the freshman, and he may even get the start.
Three Keys to Victory
- Dominate the Glass. Alabama enforced their will over the smaller Ole Miss Rebels in a number of ways on Tuesday night, but by far the biggest factor in the Tide’s decimation of the Rebs was the utter domination on the glass. The Tide actually ended up with a worse FG% than Ole Miss in that game, but they attempted 15 more shots thanks in large part to the +12 rebounding margin they ended up with. As mentioned, Baylor is very similar to Ole Miss (with one exception, which I’ll get back to), so Alabama needs to flex their muscles and own the glass.
- Protect the Rim. The one major difference between the Rebels and the Bears is that Baylor can’t really shoot. Outside of Mason, McClure, and Bandoo, the Bears really struggle to get much of anything when they are forced to settle for jump-shots. With the size advantage that Alabama has, the Tide need to protect the paint and force Baylor to beat them form distance. Donta Hall should have another big game Saturday.
- Get Petty Going. John Petty has been an enigma pretty much his entire career at Alabama. When he is on, he is scorching hot. When he is off, Alabama really struggles to find consistent production on offense. However, Petty’s really played better basketball all year. His shots weren’t falling for most of the season, but he was starting to drive more, he’s become a much better passer and defender, and he has made an impact on the boards as well. Now that his shots appear to finally be falling, Petty’s looking a lot more like a former Mr. Basketball and future NBA player. Things really seem to be slowing down for him. If that is the case, and Alabama now has a consistently great John Petty to go to on offense, this team can go far.
With January rapidly coming to a close, it’s getting close to crunch time for the Tide. A road trip to a fellow bubble team is a great opportunity for Avery Johnson’s group. Really, this is a great match-up for Alabama, one that could lead to a similar result as the Tide’s previous outing against Ole Miss.
But we’ve seen this story before under Avery: a step forward followed by a step back. Can the Crimson Tide buck that trend and deliver a big road victory for the SEC?
The game will tip-off at 11:00 AM CST and will be televised on ESPNU.