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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Arkansas

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The two biggest surprises of the 2020 SEC season meet in Tuscaloosa

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

This upcoming Saturday evening, the Alabama Crimson Tide (12-8, 4-3 SEC, NET: 40 Kenpom: 45) will host the Arkansas Razorbacks (15-5, 3-4 SEC, NET: 39, Kenpom: 35) on what the school has deemed ‘90’s Night’ in Coleman Coliseum. And honestly, these two getting together for a big game on 90’s Night in Tuscaloosa is one of the most apt events I can think of in the year 2020. The parallels between these two programs in the last ~20 years are incredible.

The Razorbacks were one of the great programs in the entire country in the 90’s, and Alabama enjoyed the last few years of the great Wimp Sanderson era at the beginning of the decade. Circa 1995, there was no doubt that these two programs were second only to Kentucky in the SEC on the hardwood. Since then, things have changed quite dramatically. Arkansas has failed significantly in trying to fill the void left behind by the legendary Nolan Richardson, who led the Hogs to five regular season championships (three in the Southwest, two in the Southeast), a pair of SWC Tournament Championships, a trio of Final Four appearances, and a National Championship in 1994. Alabama found some sustained success in the early 2000’s under Mark Gottfried, but has been the definition of mediocre in the ~15 years since.

Neither team has made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament or won an SEC title (regular season or tournament) since Alabama made their Elite Eight run in 2004. Meanwhile, bottom-feeders like South Carolina and Auburn have made Final Four runs and mid-tier teams like LSU and Tennessee have supplanted the Tide and Razorbacks as being the second-tier of the SEC behind Kentucky and Florida in the minds of the general public. In fact, every single team that’s currently in the SEC has either won a conference title or advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since Alabama or Arkansas last did so.

In other words, Arkansas and Alabama have become has-been programs. Both schools decided this past off-season that this was no longer acceptable, and went out and made huge head coaching hires. We all know about the work Nate Oats has done here in Tuscaloosa, but Eric Musselman has had a similar impact in Fayetteville. Suddenly, both of these teams are fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid in only Year One of their new coaching regimes, and the future looks very bright for both.

So, yes, it seems like poetry that these two meet on 90’s Night this Saturday, as Oats and Musselman are doing their best to try to bring the 90’s into the 2020’s by making the Alabama-Arkansas game one of the most significant in the SEC again.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’3 Jimmy Whitt (14.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.2 SPG)

GUARD 6’2 Desi Sills (9.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 SPG)

GUARD 6’5 Isaiah Joe (16.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.6 SPG)

GUARD 6’5 Mason Jones (19.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.8 SPG)

POST 6’6 Adrio Bailey (6.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 1.8 BPG)

The Razorbacks have one of the most unique rotations in college basketball. For one, they play four guards and only one post player, who would likely be out on the wing for most teams. They also don’t have a single freshman in the rotation, so the Hogs can count on experience across the board.

Jones and Joe are the two stars of the show for Arkansas. Both are strong, high-volume scorers (Jones: 43.7%/32.7%/87.0%; Joe: 36.4%/34.4%/82.5%), and Jones is also able to assist his teammates (23.0% AST%) and rebound (11.1% REB%) at a high level. Both are likely headed for All-SEC teams when the season comes to an end. They are not alone in their play-making though, as born again Razorback, Jimmy Whitt, (who originally played in Fayetteville before transferring away to SMU) has actually been the most efficient scorer this season (52.3% FG%), though he lacks any kind of range, as he hasn’t made a three-pointer all year. Sills is another solid guard in his own right. Bailey is a heck of an athlete with a high motor, which makes up for his lack of size in the paint (11.3% REB%, 7.8% BLK%). He’s also capable of stretching the defense (48.5%/35.3%/53.2%).

Recently, however, Arkansas has really been plagued by the injury bug. Joe, Whitt, and Sills have each been limited in the last week due to recent injuries. Joe was held out of the TCU game last Saturday and played in a limited role off of the bench in Arkansas’ loss to South Carolina earlier this week. Whitt and Sills both left that game with injuries as well, and Whitt hasn’t practiced since. This will definitely be something to keep an eye on in Saturday’s match-up.

The Bench

GUARD 6’2 Jalen Harris (4.3 PG, 2.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 0.9 SPG)

POST 6’7 Jeantal Cylla (1.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG)

POST 6’8 Reggie Chaney (4.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 0.9 APG)

And this is why: Arkansas is really shallow on depth. Only eight players have averaged more than 9.0 MPG this season, with Cylla just barely meeting that mark. Harris might as well be an extension of the four starting guards (38.2%/28.9%/74.2%, 18.5% AST%, 91.8 DRtg), and Cheney provides a strong post option off of the bench (73.8% FG%, 12.2% REB%, 86.9 DRtg).

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Reestablish the Hard-Hat Mentality. Nate Oats has lamented Alabama’s effort and focus in recent outings, both in games and at practice. He even went as far as benching John Petty in the last game to prove a point. In their wins over Vanderbilt and Kansas State last week, it did appear that the team was coasting. Well, they got a cold dose of reality in Baton Rouge Wednesday night, as the Tigers dominated the Tide from start to finish, particularly on the glass. This team can easily make a run at the top of the conference and a decent seeding in the NCAA Tournament, but they aren’t going to get there on talent alone. They must be willing to out-work their opponents. Going up against a team with a short rotation and multiple players banged up, this is a perfect opportunity for Alabama to wear an opponent down with their uptempo style and grind them down on both ends of the court.
  2. Dominate the Glass. This is a bit of an extension to the first key. As mentioned, Arkansas completely lacks much of a front-court. While Alabama certainly doesn’t have dudes like LSU does in the post, they do have much more size than the Razorbacks. The Tide have no excuse not to come out on top in the rebounding category, and they really should dominate this area of the game.
  3. Limit Jones and Joe and Force Perimeter Shots. Unlike recent opponents Vanderbilt and Kansas State, Arkansas is actually capable of hurting Alabama across the rotation, but they still rely heavily on their main two scorers: Jones and Joe. The Tide need to get the ball out of their hands and force others to beat them. Further, it would behoove the Tide to do a better job than they did the other night of denying dribble penetration and forcing the Hogs into taking contested shots. Arkansas is 288th in the country in three-point shooting (31.1%).

Both of these programs are trying to get back to the way things used to be. There was a time when the Alabama-Arkansas basketball game was must-watch television, and it honestly doesn’t seem right that this match-up has fallen as far as it has. Both teams have surprised a bit in just Year One of their respective new coaches’ regimes, and they now head into this match-up together looking to come away with a nice win for the old NCAA Tournament resume.

It’s also the second of six straight tough games for the Crimson Tide. Alabama needs to at least protect home court during this stretch if the team intends on making a legitimate run at the Big Dance come March. With Selection Sunday just six weeks out, the Tide can’t afford to blow many more good opportunities like the one they have Saturday night.

The game tips-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.