With the New Year once again drawing near, and with it, the start of conference play in the SEC, Alabama finds itself in a familiar position. At 4-3 against a strong non-conference schedule, the Tide would likely find itself hosting an NIT game if the season would have concluded yesterday. Feel the excitement. After what appeared to be a potential turning point to the season with a second half comeback win over Furman last Tuesday, the Tide fell victim to another strong mid-major at home in the month of December, an annual tradition that rivals picking out a Christmas tree, or making eggnog with your grandmother.
It just doesn’t seem like the product on the floor is getting any better. I’m watching the same old Tide Hoops team out there. Poor shooting, worse shot selection despite that, constant turnovers and dumb plays, a complete inability to rebound, total lapses on defense, etc. Yet, somehow the team always finds a way to keep things competitive enough to make you think, “If we had just knocked down our shots tonight,” or “Imagine if we had just cut down on a few turnovers,” or “lolololol I clearly hate myself, when’s the next game?”.
Anthony Grant had a Final Four contender last season in Dayton, who has now beaten both Mississippi schools already this year, by the way. Avery Johnson won Coach of the Year in the NBA once. Nate Oats made Buffalo a legitimate top 25 team. Eventually you have to look yourself in the mirror and ask, “Am I the asshole?”
Anyway, East Tennessee State (4-3) comes to town tonight. The Buccaneers are in the middle of a major rebuild after losing coach Steve Forbes to Wake Forest this past offseason. Forbes had made ETSU a legitimately scary small conference program, winning 20+ games each of his five seasons. Last year’s incarnation was his best; the Bucs went 30-4 and were certainly looking like a Cinderella team that no one wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament before everything was unfortunately cancelled. Forbes cashed out on that team and made the jump to the ACC, and the rest of the roster was completely flipped over as Jason Shay was promoted internally.
This is a must win game for Alabama. ETSU is not the team it has been for a few seasons now. Their three losses are to heavyweights such as Abilene Christian, Austin Peay, and UAB. They are in the midst of a legitimate rebuild, and while they have some talent, a loss tonight would do irreparable damage to the Crimson Tide’s NCAA Tournament resume.
POINT 6’2 David Sloan (9.3 PPG, 4.0 APG, 1.3 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Ledarrius Brewer (15.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
WING 6’4 Vonnie Patterson (5.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 SPG)
WING 6’6 Damari Monsanto (6.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.6 SPG)
POST 6’8 Silas Adheke (6.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.0 APG)
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’1 Marcus Niblack (2.1 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.9 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Serrel Smith Jr. (6.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.1 APG, 1.6 SPG)
POST 6’9 Richard Amaefule (2.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG)
POST 6’9 Tyron Brewer (8.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.0 APG)
The Buccaneers are basically a poor man’s Alabama this season. Despite shooting 24.3 three-pointers a game, ETSU is only making a paltry 28.8% of them. They are a below-70% free throw shooting team (67.2%), they have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, and they aren’t exactly a stellar rebounding team. They do average 8.5 SPG and teams are only shooting 35.8% from the field against them, though I can’t be sure if that’s because of great defense or just because the best team they’ve played all season is UAB.
For East Tennessee State, it all starts with the Brewer brothers, especially Ledarrius. As the lone Buc averaging double figures in scoring, they are reliant on him to be an effective scorer every night (44.6%/36.6%/65.4%). The Tide can’t allow him to get going (although I’m sure some random guy from off the bench will end up being the real issue as he knocks down more threes in this game than he has all season). Besides the Brewers, Sloan has been a really nice point guard for the Bucs this year. He’s shot 50.0% from downtown himself, and with an AST% of 32.9% and a DRtg of 90.2, he’s an all-around point guard. With decent size and depth in the frontcourt, ETSU provides a challenge in the paint as well.
Three Keys to Improvement
Going a different route on this one, as this game truly is about Alabama getting better as a team
- Shooting. It really is the damndest thing. John Petty is a a career 37.9% three-point shooter (this year: 28.3%). Jaden Shackelford shot 37.9% in the second half last season (this year: 31.4%). Jordan Bruner shot over 30.0% from the perimeter during his career at Yale (27.8% this year). Jahvon Quinerly was a five-star prospect because of his offensive prowess, yet he’s only shooting 31.8% from three. The Crimson Tide is shooting 29.3% as a team. That’s atrocious. But the thing is, we know they are better than this. There is actual hard evidence to back that claim up. They say shooting is contagious, so hopefully someone gets everybody going soon. It would certainly help if Alabama started getting better looks. Petty and Shack are known green-light shooters, but the audacity of them to keep pulling-up with no rhythm just to brick it off of the rim is infuriating. Drive and kick fellas, it’s really not that difficult of a concept.
- Be Intentional with the Basketball. Shot selection is part of this. I’m not in practice with these guys, but I can’t imagine that Nate Oats is telling them, “let’s play as fast as we can and just throw all caution to the wind. Just be really effin chaotic for laughs and grins, maybe we’ll steal a game or two”. Playing fast doesn’t necessitate doing so recklessly. The turnovers in the Western Kentucky game were unacceptable. Quinerly, you can’t cross over every player you dribble against at this level. Herb, we all adore you, and you are the one guy really keeping the team competitive this season, but you’ve got to take better care of the basketball if you want to play point guard. Shack, I don’t know what the hell you are doing half of the time you get the ball. It’s really just sloppy and low basketball IQ play across the board. Some times I just wonder if the coaches are being honest with these guys. Alabama already struggles to win the possession battle due to, once again, being short on depth in the post, the Tide can’t afford to be careless with the basketball as well.
- Figure out the Rotation. This is 100% on the coaching staff right now. Alabama, as usual, is a talented but deeply flawed team. Everyone on this roster does some things well, and other things poorly. The coaching staff has to do a better job of putting guys in position to be successful. As I mentioned in the previous preview, Quinerly and Shack can’t be on the floor at the same time, the defense just suffers too much from it. Bruner needs less minutes so that he can go 100% more often when he is in. His knee is clearly limiting him, but he’s still playing quality ball when his energy is there. His defense has been overlooked, in my opinion. I don’t know what Juwan Gary and Keon Ellis have to do to get more minutes, that’s still baffling to me. Josh Primo needs to be featured more as a scorer when he is in the game, the kid has real talent. Conference play is about to start, time to get this sorted out.
I honestly hate how negative these previews have been lately, but it’s 2020, and I think I’m speaking on behalf of most of the fan base at this point. Watching the same product over and over again, with no true reason to believe that it’s getting any better, is absolutely exhausting as a fan base. Additionally, when the football team continues to dominate the way it has, it becomes especially tempting to tune-out the basketball program.
None of us want to do that. But a loss tonight would make it all but an inevitability.
The game tips off at 6:30 PM CT and will be available to stream on SEC Network+.