All is right in the state of Alabama basketball again, as the Crimson Tide (9-7, 2-2 SEC, Kenpom: 45, NET: 46) restored order with an impressive 83-64 win over the previously undefeated and 4th-ranked Auburn Tigers Wednesday night. It was an electric atmosphere in Coleman Coliseum, as Nate Oats got his first signature win of his short tenure as head coach. There is no question that this is the kind of season-defining win that could potentially spark a surprising run at the NCAA Tournament in just Year One of the Oats era.
With all of that being said, it won’t matter if the Tide don’t turn the page quickly and get zoned-in on their next task: defeating the Missouri Tigers (9-7, 1-3 SEC, Kenpom: 73 NET: 75). In fact, this game is the first of three straight where the Tide will be healthy favorites, with a road trip to Vanderbilt and a home match-up in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge against Kansas State to follow. Both of those teams are arguably the worst in their respective conferences, so if Alabama can continue playing the way they have been, the Tide should be looking at a four-game winning streak when they head to Baton Rouge in a couple of weeks.
But, again, the focus needs to be on this next game. Missouri is a solid team this year. Like most of Cuonzo Martin’s teams over the years, the Tigers defend well, but struggle to score consistently on the offensive end of the court. Martin is very much a throwback to the early portion of the previous decade (it’s still really strange to be referring to the 2010s that way) in the SEC, when #SECBASKETBALLFEVER was running rampant through the South. They are sound on defense and iso-heavy on offense. If they can knock down their shots, they are more than capable of coming into Tuscaloosa and taking advantage of the Tide in a let-down spot.
POINT 6’3 Dru Smith (11.4 PPG, 4.3 APG, 4.2 RPG, 2.3 SPG)
GUARD 6’4 Mark Smith (11.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
WING 6’7 Kobe Brown (6.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
POST 6’10 Mitchell Smith (4.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
POST 6’11 Reed Nikko (2.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG)
I realize that Smith is one of the most common last names in the United States, but this is a bit ridiculous. Either way, Missouri gets the most out of their team when the three Smiths are on the court, particularly from guards Dru and Mark.
Dru Smith is a transfer from Evansville, where he was one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. The step-up in competition obviously had a significant effect on those numbers, but he’s still a very impressive player for Mizzou. He can score from all over the court (47.3%/36.4%/87.3%), sports an impressive 30.9% AST%, and has elite hands on the defensive end (4.7% STL%). Mark Smith is much more of a traditional shooting guard, as he prefers to play off-ball and utilize screens for set shots (42.4%/40.6%/69.2%).
Those two guards really shoulder a lot of the load on the offensive end for Missouri. In the front-court, the Tigers have a ton of size, but the production just simply isn’t there. Especially since junior big-man Jeremiah Tilmon (9.0 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.3 BPG) suffered a stress fracture in his left foot a few weeks back.
Brown is a big wing from the Huntsville area with a lot of potential, but the freshman’s got a way to go before he meets his ceiling. He’s struggled as a shooter (43.0%/24.4%/66.7%) and doesn’t use his length as effectively as he could. He does rebound (10.0% REB%) and defend well (87.8 DRtg) quite well though. In the post, the final Smith, Mitchell, has a long frame that he uses to defend the paint (88.7 DRtg), though his 1.3% BLK% is surprisingly low. Offensively, Mitchell really struggles (33.8%/27.0%), though he somehow hasn’t missed a free throw all season. Nikko has stepped in to fill the starting role for the injured Tilmon, and he’s really just a big body. Though he’s got a ton of experience - I swear this guy was playing when Cuonzo was coaching at Tennessee.
GUARD 6’2 Xavier Pinson (7.3 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.9 RPG)
GUARD 6’4 Javon Pickett (7.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.6 APG)
GUARD 6’5 Torrence Watson (4.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
POST 6’8 Tray Jackson (2.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG)
Mizzou has a trio of solid sophomore guards that take up the majority of the bench minutes. Each of them has size and can play stout defense, but they are all very inconsistent scorers. Jackson is a true freshman that’s had to take on a much larger role in recent weeks due to Tilmon’s injury.
Three Keys to Victory
- Dictate the Tempo. Alabama and Missouri are on the exact opposite ends of the efficiency spectrum. By that, I don’t mean that one is really efficient and the other isn’t. I mean that they both utilize two separate strategies of efficiency. While Alabama, of course, subscribes to the new-school theory of maximizing the number of possessions (thus increasing the sample size of possessions in a game, which, in theory, should benefit the better team as it lowers the standard deviation by isolating outlier possessions) and getting good shots off before the defense can get set, Cuonzo Martin and Missouri are more old-school in their approach to efficiency. They are attempting to limit possessions and score late in the shot clock, hoping that their patient approach will lead to them being more efficient on a possession-by-possession basis. Whichever team can play to its liking is more than likely going to come away with a victory Saturday.
- Carry Over the Defensive Effort. The Tide played by far their best defensive game of the season the other night against Auburn, contesting shots and turning the Tigers over 21 times. Missouri won’t be as hasty with the basketball, so turnovers likely won’t be there for the taking. However, they also aren’t much of a passing team in general. Dru Smith is the floor general; the offense runs almost entirely through him (and Pinson when he’s on the court). Outside of Dru, the rest of the team is really playing iso-ball and looking to create shots on dribble-penetration or pick-and-rolls. Again, it’s very much a call-back to SEC basketball circa 2013. Unfortunately for Missouri, they aren’t very good at contested jumpers, so they have a lot of empty possessions. If Alabama can force them to take contested shots, it’s unlikely that the Tigers will make enough of them to beat the Tide.
- Avoid the Let-Down. In years past, I would almost certainly be expecting a loss in this game. This has all the makings of a trap-game. However, this team is so much more mentally tough than they’ve been; it is really incredible how much of a difference Nate Oats has made. Alabama is better than Missouri and should win this game. The Tide finally got that first big win of the season, and now the next step towards bigger and better things is to be able to handle success and take care of business in games like the next three on the calendar.
This is a crucial game for Alabama because, well, when you’ve got seven losses already in mid-January, you really can’t afford many more if you want to make the NCAA Tournament. But it’s so much more than that as well. The Tide have played to the level of their competition for about as long as I can remember. They’ve made a habit out of following up huge victories with crushing defeats. This is an opportunity for them to make a statement and show the world that they are no longer going to play that weak style of basketball. It’s an important step that a program has to make if they want to have sustained success.
The game will tip-off at 2:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network. If you’re in the area, please come out and try to help carry over the same energy that Coleman had the other night against Auburn. It’s obvious that this team feeds off of that electricity, and if we want to keep Nate Oats around for a long time to come, we have to show up to consistently support his teams.