With the loss in Starkville this past Tuesday, the Alabama Crimson Tide (15-13, 7-8 SEC, NET: 39 Kenpom: 46) has put itself well off of the NCAA Tournament bubble for now. With only a pair of Q2 games and a home Q3 match-up with lowly Vanderbilt left on the regular season docket, there isn’t much the Tide can do but hold steady and tread water just outside of the projected tournament field. If Alabama truly wants to make something out of this first season under Nate Oats, the team will have to do so in Nashville in a few weeks.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to play for, though. With a strong finish, Alabama has a chance to finish with a winning record in conference play for only the second time in the past seven seasons (2017 being the other instance), which would obviously keep alive its streak of avoiding Sad Wednesday of the SEC Tournament (Alabama is one of only five schools to never appear in the play-in round since its inception in 2013). Also, jockeying for positioning within the conference will be hugely important for the Tide to set up a potential run in Nashville. If Alabama can win out, the Tide will be 10-8 in conference play, which will likely put them as the seventh seed in the conference, most likely playing a Q1 opponent in the first round (Arkansas) and then getting a rubber match with a top-seeded NCAAA Tournament team that ‘Bama matches up well against (Auburn). A loss will likely set the Tide up with either a Q2 (Tennessee) or Q3 (Texas A&M) opponent in the 8/9 match-up with the winner advancing to take on a red-hot Kentucky team that no one wants to play right now.
So yeah, this is a big game today. The South Carolina Gamecocks (17-11, 9-6 SEC, NET: 63, Kenpom: 71) are playing their best basketball of the season right now, as they have once again followed Frank Martin’s usual track of starting slow and finishing strong. The Gamecocks are as much alive for the NCAA Tournament as the Tide is, despite their rather poor metrics. With a trio of Q1 wins and a solid overall record, a strong finish for them could put them in the field regardless of what happens in Nashville.
There is a lot at stake tonight, and Alabama will likely be without John Petty, who, thankfully, only suffered a strain to his elbow the other night. Can the Tide get a big home win late in the season?
POINT 6’4 Jermaine Cousinard (12.2 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.8 RPG)
GUARD 6’6’ A.J. Lawson (13.5 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Keyshawn Bryant (8.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
POST 6’7 Alonzo Frink (4.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
POST 6’11 Maik Kotsar (11.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.1 BPG)
As I’m sure most of our readers know by now, Frank Martin’s teams are always known as being slow, drudging squads that are extremely physical and attack the glass constantly. For that reason, games against them are almost always ugly, low scoring, and feature a ton of free throws. However, Martin’s teams always seem to make a leap from being the kind of team you don’t want to play to being legitimate contenders when he is able to find a few guards who can create and score on their own.
Well, he’s got those guys right now. Lawson was a freshman phenom a year ago who got off to a really brutal start early on this season, but has since rebounded. With Cousinard emerging as the new point guard of the team, Lawson has been able to attack off-ball a lot more, which has allowed him to get back to his high-scoring ways from a season ago (42.2%/34.8%/70.1%). Cousinard has been a decent scorer himself (39.5%/30.3%/68.1%), but his main addition has been his ability to run the offense (22.8% AST%). Bryant is an athletic marvel, and a frequent contributor to any and all “top ten plays” segments across the sport. While he’s not a shooter at all (42.8%/6.7%/65.4%), he can get to the basket as well as anyone.
In the post, South Carolina has its typical one-two punch of physical bigs. For years, Chris Silva was the main presence in the post, and Maik Kotsar was his trusty side-kick. Now, Kotsar has become ‘the man’, while Frink has taken over the side role of enforcer (93.3 DRtg, 6.6% BLK%, 14.2% REB%, 3.6 Fouls per Game). Kotsar is well on his way to an all-conference selection, scoring at a 51.6% clip while rebounding (12.1% REB%) and defending (92.2 DRtg) at a high rate.
GUARD 6’3 Jair Bolden (8.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Trae Hannibal (3.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.1 APG)
GUARD 6’4 T.J. Moss (2.3 PPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 RPG)
WING 6’6 Justin Manaya (7.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.0 BPG)
POST 6’7 Jalyn McCreaery (4.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG)
POST 6’11 Wildens Levegue (2.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG)
Unlike most college teams, South Carolina goes deep into its bench (mostly because of all of the fouling), and gets quality production out of it. Bolden and Manaya are bench players in name alone, as both are high usage guys. Manaya even leads the team in MPG. Bolden is the classic scoring sixth man (41.3%/40.4%/70.0%), who Martin likes to bring off of the bench to spark the offense. Manaya is a high-volume scorer who doesn’t have great numbers (39.7%/26.4%/64.7%), but he is absolutely a threat with the basketball.
Moss is really a great back-up point guard with his high assist rate (21.3%), but he does have issues turning the ball over. Hannibal, McCreary, and Levegue are all freshmen who will be around Columbia for a long time, so get used to their names. Hannibal is an excellent defender (89.2 DRtg), and the latter two are both strong on the glass (McCreary: 12.8% REB%; Levegue: 14.7% REB%). All qualities that their coach loves.
Three Keys to Victory
- Dictate the Tempo. South Carolina is essentially a better version of the Texas A&M team that came into Tuscaloosa last week and beat then Tide. The Aggies were able to control the pace of the game and really bog down the high-flying Tide. All it took for them to win the game was for them to knock down some (ok, a lot of) shots and that was it. Alabama has to push the pace tonight.
- Fouls and Free Throws. With Petty unlikely to play tonight, Alabama is, once again, down to only eight scholarship players (since Raymond Hawkins is basically redshirting). The Tide can’t afford to trade fouls with the Gamecocks. If it does turn into a foul-fest, which seems likely given how terrible officiating has been in the SEC this season (and in Tuscaloosa, in particular), free throws are going to decide this game. Fortunately, Alabama is a good deal better than South Carolina at the charity stripe (69.2% to 61.8% in favor of the Tide).
- Rebounding. Again, South Carolina wants to make this an ugly game with a lot of physical play in the paint. Alabama’s bigs are really going to have to step it up on the glass tonight. With Jaden Shackelford becoming the kind of scorer that Petty is, really the biggest thing the Tide will be missing without Petty tonight is his ability to rebound the basketball. He just has a knack for being in the right position to get the ball, which everyone else on the team (minus Herb Jones) seems to significantly lack.
Alabama’s postseason fate won’t be decided tonight in Tuscaloosa, but this is still another opportunity for the Tide to make some moves in the conference standings and continue to grow and develop, both as a team and as individuals. With Petty out tonight, the rest of the guys are really going to have to step-up to the plate. It’ll be interesting to see how Shackelford, in particular, performs as he steps into the Petty role. Also, keep an eye on the continued development of Jaylen Forbes, as he’ll have to be that third option in the backcourt for ‘Bama.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.