As the final Saturday of January approaches, the SEC (mostly) takes a break from the rigors of conference play for its annual meeting with the Big 12 in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. This year, the Crimson Tide (11-7, 4-2 SEC, Kenpom: 42, Net: 38) drew arguably the most favorable match-up it could have, as Alabama will play host to the disappointing Kansas State Wildcats (8-10, 1-5 Big 12, Kenpom: 91, NET: 89).
Bruce Weber’s team had mildly high expectations coming into the season, following a year where they (along with Texas Tech) finally toppled the gargantuan that is Kansas basketball and won the Big 12. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they’ve really struggled to score, which has killed them early on in conference play. However, they did put together their best performance of the season this past Saturday in an 84-68 whooping of #14 West Virginia in Manhattan. Of course, they followed that up with a post-game brawl with their in-state rivals in what was an embarrassing night for the university. The Wildcats got out of that game mostly unscathed, as only two players were suspended, one of whom has been injured all season.
It’s been a frustrating season for Weber’s squad, but they don’t lack for talent. There are multiple players in the rotation who have both won a Big 12 title and played in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Alabama can’t afford another sloppy 25-turnover performance if they want to take care of business and get a big win for the conference Saturday evening.
POINT 6’4 Cartier Diarra (12.9 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Mike McGuirl (6.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Xavier Sneed (14.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.7 SPG)
POST 6’9 Montavious Murphy (5.0 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.8 APG)
POST 6’9 Makol Maiwen (7.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.0 BPG)
As mentioned earlier, Kansas State has winning experience on this roster. Diarra, Sneed, and Maiwen all had major roles on each of Kansas State’s previous two teams. The major problem is that no one has really stepped up to fill in the holes left behind by the likes of Dean Wade, Kamau Stokes, and Barry Brown. Ciarra and Sneed carry the team on the offensive end (Ciarra: 42.1%/31.0%/60.0% on 10.8 FGA per game, 37.6% AST%; Sneed: 40.4%/33.0%/71.7% on 11.3 FGA per game).
McGuirl is someone who had stepped it up a bit, but he’s been out for a few weeks battling a couple of different lingering injuries. He’s questionable for this weekend, but when he’s been on the court, he’s been a difference-maker because of his range. His shooting numbers are by far the best on the team (44.1%/45.5%/70.0%). Murphy is a freshman big who has been elevated to every night starter due to the attrition the ‘Cats have dealt with. He and Maiwen have good size, but their combined production on the offensive end and on the boards leave a lot to be desired (Murphy: 36.7% FG%, 62.5% FT%, 8.7% REB%; Maiwen: 42.6% FG%, 73.7% FT%, 13.2% REB%).
GUARD 6’0 David Sloan (4.7 PPG, 2.3 APG, 1.2 RPG)
GUARD 6’4 Dajuan Gordon (6.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.3 SPG)
POST 6’8 Levi Stockard (4.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
POST 6’9 Antonio Gordon (5.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.8 SPG)*
* Denotes Suspended Player
With Gordon suspended for three games, if McGuirl can’t go on Saturday, the Wildcats’ normally solid bench will become really thin. Sixth Man Dajuan Gordon has provided a nice spark as a true freshman off of the bench for Weber’s team. A true scorer (48.5%/40.5%/64.3%), Gordon has shown a lot of potential and very well may be the future of this team. Sloan is the consummate back-up point guard, able to keep the offense running at its usual level when Diarra comes out for a breather (41.9%/37.0%/52.0%, 27.8% AST%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Dictate the Pace. Kansas State plays at a very similar tempo as Missouri does; so, just like last week’s match-up with the Tigers, controlling the tempo of the game will be critical. If Alabama can keep this pace moving and run up the number of possessions in the game, the Tide will make the Wildcats very uncomfortable. Also, Alabama is much more efficient on the offensive end, so more possessions means the more likely the better offensive team ends up winning the game.
- Free Throws. The good news for Alabama is that, while Kansas State plays a very similar brand of basketball as Missouri does, they are just about the least likely team in the country to make 31 unanswered from the free throw line. The Wildcats shoot a horrid 65.9% from the charity stripe, which puts them just outside the top 300 in the nation. Alabama, of course, has progressed in this area of the game by a significant margin this season, as they are knocking down 71.5% of their free throws. Kansas State plays a physical brand of basketball, so I would expect there to be quite a bit of fouls called in this game. Free throws could loom large.
- Clamp Down on Diarra and Sneed. Much like Vanderbilt the other night, K-State relies on two guys to do most of the heavy lifting on offense. If Alabama can prevent either from penetrating the paint area and force them into contested jumpers, the Wildcats offense could become really stagnant. Especially if McGuirl can’t go.
Looking at the schedule for this year’s SEC-Big 12 Challenge, the conference is definitely expecting this one to be a victory for the Tide. Alabama has now won nine of their last twelve games, while Kansas State has only won a single game in Big 12 play. That being said, the Wildcats have talented players on the roster with big-time winning experience, so they are not at all to be taken lightly.
The game will tip-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2. If you are going to be around Tuscaloosa and don’t yet have tickets, you can check out the offerings on StubHub here.
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