After a huge week that saw the Alabama Crimson Tide (14-11, 6-6 SEC, NET: 36, Kenpom: 46) knock off the 25th-ranked LSU Tigers after nearly beating the 11th-ranked Auburn Tigers on the road, Nate Oats’ team is right back on the cusp of the NCAA Tournament. Just about every bracketologist out there has Alabama listed on their respective “First Four Out” lists. With a NET ranking of 36, the Tide would be in solidly as a 9-seed if that metric alone was used to create the field; however, that is certainly far from the case. Just ask N.C. State, who was left out of the field a year ago despite a NET ranking of 33. They were snubbed because of their laughably abysmal non-conference schedule that ranked 352nd out of 353 teams.
Obviously, SOS will not keep the Tide out, as Alabama sits at 31st in the country. But the point is, any weak spot on the resume can be justified to exclude entry. The Tide’s two biggest weaknesses are a lack of Q1 victories and a lack of wins in general. It’s very rare for a team to make the NCAA Tournament only three games above .500, especially if they only have a pair of what is considered big-time wins.
Enter Texas A&M (12-12, 6-6 SEC, NET: 134, Kenpom: 170) Wednesday night. The Aggies certainly can’t provide any additional stock to Alabama’s quality win tally (and honestly, even a win might see the Tide slip a bit in NET), but they do provide the Tide with what appears, on paper, to be a great opportunity to move that overall record up a bit. A&M’s been going through some major growing pains this season, the first under new head coach Buzz Williams. While the Aggies have some leftover talent from the under-achieving Billy Kennedy era, they are quite short on the kind of talent-experience combo that results in success in college basketball.
With that being said, they’ve obviously improved quite a bit from the beginning of the year, when they suffered losses to the likes of Harvard and Fairfield (not to mention needing game winning shots to beat Texas A&M Corpus-Christi and Texas Southern), to now, where they’ve won as much as they’ve lost in conference play. Granted, five of those wins have come against the four teams most likely to be participating in Sad Wednesday in Nashville, but still, there has been clear progress.
Alabama can’t afford a loss tonight. There’s no way the Crimson Tide are dancing in March (barring an auto-bid) with a home loss to A&M added to the resume.
POINT 6’3 Wendell Mitchell (8.6 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.4 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Andre Gordon (7.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG)
WING 6’7 Savion Flagg (9.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.8 SPG)
POST 6’7 Emanuel Miller (6.8 PPG, 6.6 RPG)
POST 6’9 Josh Nebo (11.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.1 BPG)
As mentioned, there are some talented holdovers from the Billy Kennedy era in this rotation, but notice that only one guy on the team is averaging double-figures in scoring. The Aggies are purposefully slow in their pace (which knocks a lot of these numbers down, obviously), but they really just don’t have many places to go on the court for consistent production. Senior guard, Wendell Mitchell, has really struggled to generate points on the offensive end this year (27.9%/24.5%/71.9%; 14.3% AST%). Those are some ugly numbers. 4-star freshman, Andre Gordon, joins him in the back-court. One of the key pieces of A&M’s future, Gordon has had some issues taking on such a heavy load as the rest of the offense has been as stagnant as it is, but he’s got real potential (35.8%/26.5%/73.1%; 15.7% AST%).
The front-court is really where the Aggies are able to cause problems. Flagg has the skills of a guard (team-leading 20.0% AST%) in a big man’s body, making him a tough match-up on both sides of the court. But, as is a theme of this team, he’s had a tough time getting the ball in the basket (38.9%/30.4%/57.6%). Miller is another blue-chip freshman that’s been thrown straight into the deep end, but he’s responded pretty well (43.7%/16.7%/64.5%; 15.7% REB%, 95.4 DRtg). ‘Bama fans should remember Nebo, the big man who went for 21 points and 7 rebounds in the Aggies upset win in Tuscaloosa last season. A 67.6% scorer with a 13.1% REB% and an insane 11.1% BLK%, he will be the toughest match-up for the Tide again.
GUARD 5’8 Mark French (1.6 PPG, 1.0 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Jay Jay Chandler (6.3 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.9 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Quinton Jackson (8.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.5 APG)
WING 6’7 Yavuz Gultekin ( 1.8 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
POST 6’10 Jonathan Aku (1.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG)
Williams typically likes to get the most out of his bench, and his brief tenure in College Station has been no different. The Aggies go ten-deep, even playing the diminutive former walk-on, French, a healthy eleven MPG. Chandler and Jackson are veteran guards who can defend and somewhat create (about as well as either of the starter at least), so there isn’t much drop-off in the back-court when they go to the bench. Gultekin and Aku are both freshmen bigs from overseas that provide good size on the interior. Aku is also strong on the glass (16.7% REB%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Push the Pace. Texas A&M is one of the slowest teams in all of college basketball. They want to muck things up and drag their opponents down with them. Because the Aggies have such a hard time scoring the ball, they want to limit possessions as much as possible, hoping that they perform better in a smaller sample size of possessions. Oats has the opposite philosophy, looking to expand the sample size as much as possible so that the better team (Alabama) wins. If Alabama plays its style and keeps the tempo up, there’s no way A&M is able to stay with the Tide.
- Rebounding. Herb Jones’ herculean effort on the boards (17 rebounds) kept the Tide just about even with LSU (-2) on the glass this past Saturday, which was the number one reason why Alabama came away with the victory. Jones and the Tide will need to keep that level of effort up on the boards in this one, as A&M actually does have size and depth in the post. Nebo, in particular, will be a problem tonight. Any path to an A&M victory almost certainly requires that they get a large number of points in the paint and second chance baskets, so the Tide needs to slam that door shut.
- Keep it Hot. Again, A&M simply can’t hang with Alabama if the Tide have it cooking from downtown. With Jaden Shackelford blossoming into a scoring machine and Jaylen Forbes coming along, Alabama has suddenly become a deadly shooting team. We all saw what happened first-hand last season when a team from this state followed this same formula to a Final Four run. They were also 6-6 in conference play at this point.
With the huge win over LSU, Alabama is firmly planted right back on the NCAA Tournament bubble. However, that will be completely undone with a loss tonight to a mediocre-at-best A&M team that ranks in the 130s in the NET. The Tide need to keep riding their current momentum and take care of business tonight, because there are much bigger fish to fry in the future for this team, but only if they can maintain course.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.