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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Arkansas

Alabama heads to Fayetteville for the regular season finale, still clinging to an NCAA Tournament bid

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

With only one game remaining in the 2019 regular season, the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-13, 8-9 SEC) head to Fayetteville to take on a rebuilding, but talented, Arkansas Razorback squad (16-14, 7-10 SEC). Despite the Tide’s best efforts, because of how soft the bubble is this season, Alabama is still projected in the NCAA Tournament field by the majority of bracketologists. Now, the margin for error is completely gone, as most of them project the Tide to be among the final few spots in, but Avery Johnson’s boys may just be able to fall ass-backwards into the Big Dance.

Of course, that requires a win on Saturday, which is far from a given. Much has been made about Alabama’s curse in Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium, but Bud Walton Arena has been a house of horrors for the Tide as well over the years. Alabama hasn’t won in Fayetteville since 2012, which is also the only time in the last ten meetings there that the Crimson Tide came away victorious. Arkansas has won four straight in the series, and the always-rowdy Hog fans are going to show up and get loud.

This is a tall task for Avery, especially with the current trajectory of the team. When I made the claim that a 2-2 split in the final four games would be enough to punch the Tide’s ticket to the tourney a few games back, I assumed we’d be able to snag a win or two at home. This was the game I felt the least confident in Alabama’s chances. Arkansas is able, and especially willing, to deliver the final dagger to Alabama’s 2019 season.

Can the Tide finally get up off of the mat and save this season?

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’2 Jalen Harris (8.0 PPG, 5.4 APG, 2.8 RPG, 0.9 SPG)

GUARD 6’5 Mason Jones (14.0 PPG, 2.9 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

GUARD 6’5 Isaiah Joe (14.0 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.5 SPG)

WING 6’6 Adrio Bailey (5.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)

POST 6’11 Daniel Gafford (16.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 2.0 BPG)

The Hogs are, as usual, an athletic bunch that likes to get up and down the court and really control the pace of the game. Harris is a prototypical pass-first point guard. With an AST% of 30.8%, he’s one of the best in the conference at getting his team good looks and putting them in good positions on offense. He struggles to score himself (34.6%/12.5%/68.8%), but the guy handles the rock as well as anyone the Tide had faced to date (5.4:1.7 assist-to-turnover). Alabama will definitely need to keep him from getting dribble penetration, and should probably be late with their rotations if he does get by the front-line defender.

Joining Harris in the back-court are Arkansas’ two true scorers, Jones and Joe. Jones is more effective as a slasher, electing to attack the basket looking to score (40.5%/36.0%/79.3%) or set-up his teammates (18.6% AST%). Joe is more inclined to take shots from the perimeter (42.8%/43.0%/76.2%), which is why his other stats are a bit lacking. But if Joe gets hot, Arkansas is really tough to beat. He can get hot in a hurry.

Gafford is the guy for Arkansas, though. A potential lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Gafford is a game-changer on both sides of the ball. He scores at a 66.1% clip, and, unlike many post players in today’s game, can actually play well with his back to the basket. Defensively, he protects the rim with the best of them (95.7 DRtg, 8.5% BLK%), and is a strong rebounder (16.5% REB%). The undersized Bailey rounds out the starting as a high-effort player.

The Bench

GUARD 6’2 Desi Sills (4.6 PPG, 1.6 APG, 1.2 RPG)

GUARD 6’3 Keyshawn Embry (4.2 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 0.9 SPG)

POST 6’8 Reggie Chaney (5.4 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.1 BPG)

POST 6’8 Gabe Osabuohien (2.9 PPG, 3.0 PPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 SPG)

A quartet of freshmen make up the rest of the Razorback rotation. The Hogs lost a ton after last season to graduation and the NBA, so they’ve gone all-in on getting their new guys plenty of minutes off of the bench. Sills is the most lethal on the offensive end. A strong shooter (42.2%/42.6%/68.1%), Sills is likely to be the next great scorer for Mike Anderson in a long line of play-making guards. Chaney is being groomed to take over as the man in the middle once Gafford goes pro, and he’s responded well in his first collegiate year (55.4% FG%, 97.9 DRtg, 11.6% REB%, 8.6% BLK%).

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Take Care of the Basketball. Mike Anderson comes from the Nolan Richardson school of “40 Minutes of Hell”. One of the main principles of this philosophy is being ultra-aggressive on defense, running a lot of press, traps, and playing out on the opposing players’ hands. Alabama has struggled with turnovers all year, but recently, it’s gotten flat out embarrassing. If the Tide had turned the ball over just a few less times the other night, they would have held off the Auburn come-back, and wouldn’t be looking at a must-win today. The Tigers scored 28 points off of 19 turnovers, and Arkansas will do the same thing in Fayetteville if Alabama plays as dumb with the ball as they have been lately.
  2. Rebound. A win is going to be tough to come by today against this scrappy Arkansas team. Alabama will have to really grind if they want to leave Bud Walton with a rare road victory. Rebounding could make a massive difference on this front. It’s an area that Alabama has had success in this season. But whenever the Tide doesn’t put up the effort they are capable of on the glass, they lose one of the few competitive advantages that they have against most opponents. There is a strong correlation between how many offensive rebounds Alabama gives up and whether or not the Tide win the game. Block out and rebound the ball, fellas.
  3. Wake Up. The thing about this year’s team is that, recently, it doesn’t seem like these guys even care if they are successful or not. The two areas mentioned above are highly affected by player effort. Sure, Kira Lewis is the Tide’s only true ball-handler, and he’s only 17 (almost 18 now) years old, but 19 turnovers at home in a must-win game is pathetic. Not being able to out-rebound opponents, despite everyone on the team outside of Avery Jr. being 6’3 or taller, is embarrassing. Despite all of the issues and losses this season, Alabama still has a legit shot at the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but that alone would fire me up. If these guys roll out there with the same intensity they’ve been paying with recently, they will, justifiably, be headed to the NIT. Maybe that’s what this team deserves.

Again, the primary goal for this season, making the NCAA Tournament, is still ripe for the picking for the Crimson Tide. It’s right there! Despite all that has happened this season, Alabama has an opportunity to play their way in to the Big Dance.

The 2019 Tide Hoops squad is like a zombie cat, they don’t just have nine lives, they’ve got a tenth. Can Avery get these guys to get up off of the mat in the 12th round and win by decision? Or will the heavy-hitting Hogs finish off the technical knockout?

The game will tip-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.