After a really tough four-game stretch away from Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide (3-2) finally return home to the friendly airport hangar that is Coleman Coliseum tonight. It was a mixed bag of results between the Maui Invitational and the neutral site match-up with Clemson, with Alabama splitting the four contests at 2-2. The Tide had nights where the team was on fire offensively, nights where no one could buy a basket to save their lives, nights where the defense and effort was abysmal, and nights where the energy was off of the charts. Ultimately, Alabama finds itself with a pair of “quality” losses and a solid neutral site win over a likely fellow bubble team in Providence. The season certainly hasn’t been wrecked by any stretch, but there isn’t a ton of meat on the Tide’s resume currently either.
Unfortunately, with COVID problems plaguing the Houston basketball program, the sixth-ranked Cougars will not make the trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend, which would’ve provided the Tide with a massive “win-win” opportunity. To credit Greg Byrne and company, Alabama moved quickly to reschedule with the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (5-2). The problem with that is this: both Furman (5-1) and Western Kentucky can really play, but a home loss to either wouldn’t exactly reflect well on the Tide.
So, the challenge is this: Alabama has to close out non-conference play with a trio of home wins. If so, the Tide is 6-2 with a strong SOS and a couple of nice wins. A loss in any of the next three will put Alabama on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament ledger, regardless of how good Furman and Western Kentucky might be.
And Furman is good.
POINT 5’11 Alex Hunter (9.8 PPG, 3.8 APG, 3.5 RPG)
GUARD 6’3 Mike Bothwell (17.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 4.2 APG, 2.0 SPG)
WING 6’7 Clay Mounce (15.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.0 SPG)
WING 6’7 Jalen Slawson (10.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.5 BPG)
POST 6’8 Noah Gurley (13.8 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.7 BPG)
If these names sound even somewhat familiar to you, it’s because they came into Tuscaloosa and gave Alabama all it could handle just over a year ago. The Paladins return four starters from last year’s group that went 25-7 (15-3 SOCON) and were well on their way to the NCAA Tournament. The lone new starter is Bothwell, who was an electrifying sixth man for them last season. He’s also their best scoring threat (55.9%/37.5%/84.0%), so he’s not exactly an unknown or a fill-in.
Furman was the consensus pick to win the SOCON this preseason by the media, and will certainly be in the NCAA Tournament conversation come March. They’re one loss of the season was a close one on the road at Cincinnati. Despite that loss, their average margin of victory right now is 24.2 PPG. Sure, they’ve mostly played some terrible teams, but that’s what good teams do against bad teams.
The Paladins are extremely well coached by fourth year head man, Bob Richey, who has averaged 24 wins a season since he took over. All three front-court players can score inside and out (Mounce: 50.7%/30.3%/86.7%; Slawson: 63.6%/20.0%/69.0%); Gurley: 45.6%/28.6%/76.5%), and they will absolutely take advantage of any easy put-backs that the Tide has an affinity for allowing. This team runs sets, moves the defense with high IQ passing, and gets open looks quite often. They are a very dangerous team on the offensive end.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’0 Joe Anderson (2.2 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG)
GUARD 6’0 Jaylon Pugh (5.2 PPG, 1.0 RPG)
GUARD 6’4 Marcus Foster (3.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG)
POST 6’9 Garrett Hien (5.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG)
The Paladins do rely heavily on their starting unit to do the heavy-lifting. The rest of the rotation is comprised of a trio of true freshmen, who are very much still getting their feet wet at this level, and junior guard, Jaylon Pugh. Pugh is currently shooting 61.5% from the arc, so the Tide need to treat him with respect when he checks into the game, as he’s playing the Bothwell role of scoring sixth man this season.
Three Keys to Victory
- Control the Tempo. Furman is a half-court team that greatly prefers not to go to the bench very often. If Alabama can control the pace in this game, the Paladins simply won’t be able to keep up. The Tide can go ten-deep with players who can get up and down the court quickly, and the gap in athleticism is massive. This is Alabama’s number one advantage. If the Tide can wear out the starting five of the Paladins, this will be an easy victory for the home team. However, if Alabama can’t control the tempo, as the Tide failed to do this past Saturday against Clemson, it’s going to get interesting.
- Stop Playing Hero Ball. I’m still not to the point of name-dropping yet this season, but we’ve got some serious AAU-style, hero-ball, hollywood-wannabes out there right now, and they are wasting possession after possession by trying to iso all night. Throwing yourself into the teeth of the defense and out-of-rhythm pulling-up from NBA range do nothing to help the team. Stop it.
- For the love of God, Rebound the Basketball. The second chance points opponents are getting is infuriating. It’s not even totally an effort issue - I thought the effort was there against Clemson. The positioning on the defensive glass is nightmarish. Clemson had guys unchecked all night, balls just dropping into their hands. I think I saw one of the Tigers look around after he caught it, stunned that no one was near him as he laid it in easily. Positioning is just not good right now. The guards are overcommitting on defense to create turnovers and prevent ugly communication problems on PnR switches, which definitely seems intentional and worked Saturday night, but no one is getting home to rebound the shot. Our lack of bigs is the biggest problem, but there’s nothing that can be done about that this season, unless Keon Ambrose-Hylton starts getting more playing time.
Alabama’s got a tough path ahead of itself before conference play starts up. The Tide really can’t afford to lose either game this week, but it won’t be easy. Furman is a cohesive unit that knows how to win basketball games. It’s all they’ve done for four years under Richey. They had a poor night shooting the ball last season, and still took Alabama to the wire in an eventually 81-73 Tide victory.
More importantly though, Alabama just isn’t playing consistently good basketball yet. Nate Oats said after the Stanford game a few weeks back that some of the guys on the team haven’t quite learned how hard it is to win at this level yet. Well, let’s hope they’ve started to. The defensive effort has turned the corner, now we need to see big improvements on the glass and in shot selection. If the Tide can figure that out, we will see this team dancing come March.
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.