With two weeks remaining, the Crimson Tide (16-11, 7-7 SEC) are about to embark on the home stretch of the regular season. It won’t be easy, but a second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament is in sight, as the Crimson Tide are currently projected in the NCAA Tournament field by most bracketologists. Which makes, sense, as Alabama has played one of the more difficult schedules in the country and have been able to draw even in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball. It certainly hasn’t been pretty, but the Tide would likely be in the tournament if it started this week.
However, the tournament doesn’t start this week. The bad news is that Alabama faces four tough opponents to end the season (at South Carolina, LSU, Auburn, at Arkansas). The good news is that a single loss to any of them isn’t going to significantly damage the Tide’s resume, whereas a win against any of them will be a nice addition, especially if Avery Johnson’s club can beat LSU this Saturday.
Obviously, Alabama can't lose out or even go 1-3 in these last four games, as that would probably be simply too many losses to overcome, barring a miraculous run in Nashville. But a 2-2 split probably does the trick, even if the Tide goes one-and-done in the SEC Tournament. The Tide’s first opportunity to get a game closer to the NCAA Tournament comes Tuesday night, as they head to Columbia to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks (14-13, 9-4 SEC).
Frank Martin’s always-well-coached team had a rough go of it during non-conference play, finishing 5-8 with losses to the likes of Stony Brook, Providence, Oklahoma State. and a terrible Wyoming team. But, like clockwork, Martin’s had his guys playing great ball since the calendar flipped to 2019, as the Gamecocks now find themselves tied for 4th place with the tiebreaker over Ole Miss, which would grant them a double-bye in the SEC Tournament.
These guys aren’t super talented or athletic, but they play as hard as any Frank Martin-led group. Alabama has a tough test in Columbia tonight.
POINT 6’6 A.J. Lawson (14.0 PPG, 2.9 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’0 Tre Campbell (7.0 PPG, 2.4 APG, 1.7 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
WING 6’6 Keyshawn Bryant (8.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.4 APG)
POST 6’9 Chris Silva (14.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 2.1 BPG)
POST 6’11 Maik Kotsar (7.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
This is such a classic, well-balanced Frank Martin team. They are big and long with a nice mix of seasoned veterans and young-gunning true freshmen. Kira Lewis and Ashton Hagans have gotten all of the headlines as true freshmen point guards this season, but one could argue that Lawson, the 6’6 frosh for South Carolina, has had the biggest impact in the league. A slashing point with a solid jumper (41.7%/36.4%/65.8%), Lawson plays very similarly to Lewis, just not as smoothly.
Joining Lawson in the back-court is senior guard Tre Campbell. Campbell is the one guy in the rotation that you won’t find attacking the basket much (28.2% 2P%) or banging it out on the glass (3.8% REB%), but he handles the rock well (17.5% AST%, 2.5:1 assist-to-turnover) and he can knock down threes (38.3% 3P%). Out on the wing, another slashing freshman, Bryant, can be found attacking the glass often. He struggles a bit defensively (105.3 DRtg) and has not yet found his jumper (45.1%/19.2%/54.1%), but he’s a big body with a lot of potential.
The meat and potatoes of the team is in the post, where both remaining members of the regular rotation of the 2017 Final Four team reside. Silva and Kotsar are prototypical Frank Martin players. They are efficient scorers (Silva: 50.3%/43.8%/76.0%; Kotsar: 46.7%/50.0%/45.0%) who use their big frames to create havoc on defense (Silva: 97.6 DRtg, 9.0% BLK%; Kotsar: 97.1 DRtg, 4.4% STL%, 4.5% BLK%) and rebound the hell out of the basketball (Silva: 15.4% REB%; Kotsar: 12.1% REB%). These two guys know what it takes to win in Frank Martin’s system, and they are very good at doing what needs to be done, which is often ugly, blue-collar work.
GUARD 6’2 Hassani Gravett (11.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.1 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Evan Hinson (1.3 PPG, 1.1 RPG)
WING 6’6 Alonzo Frink (2.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG)
POST 6’9 Felipe Haase (6.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.1 APG)
Early season injuries to Justin Manaya and T.J. Moss really hurt the depth of this team. Hinson is a junior guard that really shouldn’t be seeing almost 10 MPG in a major conference and Frink is a true freshman that was supposed to be more of the Galin Smith variety than the John Petty kind. Neither was expected to contribute this season, but the physical style that Martin requires necessitates a rotation bigger than just seven guys, which would really be the optimal depth for this team.
Gravett and Haase are both good players though. Gravett isn’t a starter in name alone, as he’s actually second on the team in minutes played. A true shooter (43.9%/42.5%/79.0%), Gravett is utilized off of the bench as a scoring sixth man that provides a spark, similar to how Avery Johnson was utilizing Petty most of the season. Haase is the one ture back-up option in the post, an important role when Frank Martin is your coach and physical battles around the rim lead to quick fouls for both teams. But Haase can also knock down threes (41.8% 3P%), which adds an extra element to his game whenever he checks in for Silva or Kotsar.
Three Keys to Victory
- Frustrate Silva. South Carolina’s game-plan is as follows: play hard-nosed, physical defense on one end, crash the glass for every rebound, feed Silva in the paint, and knock down enough shots to win the game. The easiest (and honestly, most important) of the four areas to disrupt is Silva on the offensive end and get him away from the rim on the defensive end. As good of a player as he is, he gets into foul trouble quite easily (averaging 3.6 fouls per game), which takes away the one consistent area of production on offense and makes getting to the rim a whole lot easier. I’d expect Avery to double Silva in the post and try to get Silva to foul on extra passes in the paint.
- Box Out. Alabama’s length and athleticism are some of the best in the country. That’s why the Tide usually out-rebound opponents by a significant margin. However, there have been a few times since conference play started where the Tide have given up a ton of offensive rebounds, which has cost them multiple times (Baylor and Mississippi State immediately come to mind). Well, South Carolina’s game revolves around getting more shots than the other team due to offensive boards, it’s kind of their thing. If Alabama lets the Gamecocks get a bunch of second chance points tonight, they aren’t coming out victorious.
- Free Throws. As is always the case when two physical teams do battle, there are likely going to be a lot of free throws tonight. Neither team is very good at knocking them down, but I’d venture to guess that whichever one makes the most out of their opportunities will come away with a win.
This is obviously a huge game for the Tide. Alabama needs to split these last four games if they want to make the NCAA Tournament, and starting off with a win in the first match-up would be massive. South Carolina’s got quite a bit to play for as well though, and they’ve been really tough to beat at home since the calendar flipped to 2019. Only Tennessee has been able to do it.
Avery Johnson will need his team to bring their ‘A’-game tonight. The shortened rotation he debuted this past Saturday really seemed to pay off, as Lewis and Dazon Ingram both had one of their better performances of the season. Hopefully, we will see more of that tonight.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.