As the calendar finally comes to an end of the horror-show that has been 2020, the Crimson Tide (5-3, 0-0 SEC) will try to get 2021 off to a bang, with an important showdown with the Ole Miss Rebels (5-1, 0-0) in the opening game of SEC play tonight. It’s been a crazy year, obviously, but one thing that has remained constant throughout the chaos is Alabama’s presence just on the outside looking in of the projected NCAA Tournament cut-line. The Rebels, frequent neighbors of the Tide in this regard, also find themselves in a similar position at the conclusion of a shortened non-conference schedule.
Kermit Davis enters Year Three of his tenure in Oxford looking to bounce back from a disappointing 15-17 (6-12 SEC) finish a year ago, when the Rebels failed to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. To remedy that this season, Ole Miss is going to have to do a lot of work in conference play. The Rebels may be 5-1, but they have not beaten a single team worth any kind of value. The lone decent opponent on the non-conference slate so far was Dayton, who the Rebels blew a double-digit lead against. They will play Wichita State this weekend, but this isn’t Gregg Marshall’s Shockers anymore.
So, this is a critical game for both teams. For either one to make the Big Dance in March, double-digit wins in conference play are essentially a must. Alabama has had its struggles at times so far, to be sure, but the Tide actually has some meat on its resume thanks to a high-quality non-conference schedule.
Regardless, it’s SEC play now. Time to start making moves for 2021.
POINT 6’2 Devontae Shuler (14.8 PPG, 3.8 APG, 2.3 RPG, 2.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’1 Jarkell Joiner 6’1 (8.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.3 APG)
WING 6’6 Luis Rodriguez (9.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
WING 6’7 K.J. Buffen (9.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG)
POST 6’8 Romello White (11.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.7 BPG)
Every year since Davis arrived in Oxford, there has been a senior guard make a huge leap to All-SEC levels of play. This year’s recipient of Kermit’s Gift is Devontae Shuler. A three year starter at the point, Shuler has taken a side-kick role to the likes of Terence Davis and Breein Tyree in the past, but now it is his turn to lead the team. His shooting has elevated quite a bit this season (43.5%/40.0%/89.5%), and he continues to dish out assists at a high rate (24.5% AST%) while playing tough defense (76.4 DRtg). To stop the Rebels, you have to stop Shuler. Jarkell joins (ha!) Shuler in the back-court as a high-volume shooter. The transfer from Cal State Bakersfield hasn’t exactly been shooting the lights out this season (41.3%/25.0%/80.0%), but that was what he was brought over to do, and I’m sure that he’ll get it righted just in time for tonight’s game. Call it a hunch.
In the front-court, Kermit has completely revamped his team. Davis is currently winless against Alabama since he joined the SEC in large part because the Rebels haven’t had an answer for the Tide’s size and athleticism. That won’t be the case tonight. Romello White was one of the prized grad-transfers on the market this past off-season, as he decided to move on from Arizona State, where he was a three-year starter and finished second in rebounding in the PAC-12 last year. He has continued that success in the south as well, as he’s currently scoring at a 73.0% clip from the field and rebounding at (an albeit slightly diminished) 13.8% rate. He gives the Rebels something they have really lacked in recent years - a true center. Rodriguez has become Ole Miss’s version of Herbert Jones. He leads the team in rebounding (18.7% REB%), is second in assists (20.5% AST%), and has been an elite defender (64.7 DRtg). Oh, and he can score too, although he’s really struggled from the free throw line (44.4%/37.5%/57.1%). Buffen rounds out the starting unit as an extremely athletic wing who is sporting a strong 63.9%/33.3%/62.5% scoring split to go along with his 15.3% REB%.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’4 Matthew Murrell (4.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG)
GUARD 6’5 Austin Crawley (4.5 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.3 APG)
GUARD 6’5 DiMencio Vaughn (1.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG)
WING 6’8 Robert Allen (4.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.0 APG)
POST 6’9 Sammy Hunter (1.8 PPG, 1.0 RPG)
POST 6’10 Khadim Sy (6.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG
Like I said, they’ve got size now. Not just that, but plenty of depth to go along with it. Murrell was a four-star prospect in the 2020 class that figures to become a go-to scorer for them in the future, though he’s struggled a bit so far this season (33.3%/28.6%/83.3%). Crawley played a decent bit as a freshman a season ago, and brings good experience and size to the back-court. In the post, Sy is the guy to keep an eye on. A starter last season, Sy has been dealing with lingering injuries that have kept him on the bench for most of this year. He’s expected to play more minutes tonight, which would be a big boost for the Rebs. I should also note that Allen can shoot it (55.0%/33.3%/66.7%), which can be a problem with his size.
Three Keys to Victory
- Shot Selection. No two measures have been more predictive of Alabama’s success under Nate Oats than shot selection and rebounding. If the shot selection is strong, as it was in the second half against ETSU last week, the Tide can beat anyone. Jaden Shackelford finally let the offense come to him in that game, and he ended up with Player of the Week honors in the SEC, thanks to his super-efficient 26 points on 8/15 shooting. Nearly all eight of his made three-pointers were assisted looks where he caught it and shot in rhythm. Crazy how that works.
- Toughness. As mentioned, rebounding always looms large for the Tide. When Alabama tightens up its shot selection and puts itself in a better position to rebound the basketball, good things happen. Ole Miss isn’t a thin team led by guards anymore, that was never really Kermit’s M.O. at Middle Tennessee State. Now that he’s got his guys, the Rebels are going to be really physical. Alabama has to be able to answer that, both on the glass and on defense. It’s a good thing James Rojas is expected to play tonight after missing the ETSU game with a wrist injury, because the Tide will need him.
- Get Petty Going. With John Petty also expected back after an “internal decision” to sit him during the ETSU game, it’s time to get the Preseason All-SEC guard going. It has been a painfully slow start for Petty thus far this year. Hopefully, he took the time to watch Shack finally take the shots that both of them should be taking, because if Alabama can ever get both of them going in the same game, it’s going to be lights-out for the opposing team. There is no time like the present.
It feels like we are always talking about how big of a game the next one is, but when you play a tough schedule, that’s just life on the bubble. And Alabama lives on the bubble. Nate Oats’ squad better come out ready to play tonight, because a loss would be pretty disastrous if you take a peak at what is next for the Tide in the near future (at #7 Tennessee, Florida, at Auburn, at Kentucky, undefeated Arkansas, at LSU).
The game will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.