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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Tennessee

The Crimson Tide face a must-win game after a brutal week

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

After a great start to the month, January did not end very well for the Alabama Crimson Tide (12-9, 4-4 SEC, NET: 41, Kenpom; 46), with a pair of losses and, even more concerning, a wrist injury to Herbert Jones that will likely have him sidelined for a few weeks. That’s not a good thing for an already shallow Tide team that’s had Beetle Bolden in and out of the rotation (Bolden is considered probably for Tuesday night’s game). Herb does so many things well for Alabama. No, he’s not a scorer, but his length and defensive abilities are irreplaceable for Nate Oats’ squad. He was dearly missed against an Arkansas team that Alabama should have had a massive size advantage against.

Now, the Tennessee Volunteers (12-9, 4-4 SEC, NET: 70, Kenpom: 65) come to town, and the Vols are a desperate team right now. They, too, are in a bit of a rough patch, having lost their last three games as they fall further away from the NCAA Tournament cut-line. Rick Barnes is a great coach, and he’s going to have this team ready to go tonight.

With consecutive tough road trips and a rematch with a surging LSU on deck for Alabama, the Crimson Tide really can’t afford a loss against the Vols.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’3 Santiago Vescovi (10.3 PPG, 3.7 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.0 SPG)

GUARD 6’5 Jordan Bowden (12.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.0 SPG)

WING 6’6 Josiah-Jordan James (7.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG)

WING 6’6 Yves Pons (11.1 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.1 APG, 2.6 BPG)

POST 6’9 John Fulkerson (11.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.8 BPG)

Tennessee is both similar to and very different from Arkansas. Like the Hogs, the Vols really play four big guards, though James’ rebounding and Pons’ freak athleticism allow them to play more in the front-court. Unlike the Razorbacks, Tennessee is a slow, grinding team that utilizes a lot of off-ball screens and actually utilizes size in the paint area. Barnes’ club isn’t nearly as big as they have been in recent years though, with studs like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield exhausting their eligibility after last season.

It’s been a rebuilding year for Tennessee, made worse when senior guard Lamonte Turner (12.3 PPG, 7.1 APG, 3.5 RPG) was lost for the season back in December. Fortunately for the Vols, that was right about the time that mid-season enrollee, Vescovi, became eligible. The 18-year old point guard from Uruguay has caught on quickly for the Vols, leading the team’s offense since conference play with a 27.9% AST%. He’s also shot the ball quite well (39.7%/38.0%/76.2%), though he’s not big enough to do any damage in the paint. Bowden is the team’s lone senior and go-to scorer, though he’s struggled a bit making the transition from sixth man to high-volume shooter (37.0%/27.7%/77.6%).

James was the prize possession of Barnes’ 2019 recruiting class: a 5-star combo guard with enough size to play out on the wing and in the post. Though he’s struggled to score with much consistency (37.1%/36.7%/82.4%), he’s very capable of taking over a game, and he’s transitioned quickly as a do-it-all type of player (18.6% AST%, 10.6% REB%, 1.6 STL%, 2.4 BLK%, 92.6 DRtg). He’s going to be a star for Tennessee in the future. Pons is known as the ‘French Freak’, a play-on of Milwaukee Buck’s star Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ‘Greek Freak’ nick-name. This is because of his insane quickness and leaping ability. While Pons isn’t the most polished player, as his negative assist-to-turnover ratio suggests, he is a hell of an athlete who is one of the leading shot-blockers in the country with a crazy 8.5% BLK%. That’s right, a 6’6 guy is blocking almost a tenth of every two-point shot attempted when he’s in the game.

Lastly, Fulkerson is the lone true post in the starting line-up. He’s not the greatest rebounder for his size (11.6% REB%), but efficient on offense (63.8% FG%) and effective on defense (90.5 DRtg).

The Bench

GUARD 6’6 Jalen Johnson (3.6 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.0 APG)

WING 6’7 Devonte Gaines (2.6 PPG, 1.6 RPG)

POST 6’8 Olivier Nkamhoua (4.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG)

POST 6’9 Drew Pember (1.7 PPG, 1.3 RPG)

POST 7’0 Uros Plavsic (4.8 PPG, 1.2 RPG)

This is where Alabama could really have some problems against Tennessee. They are deep, and they are big. Look at the size on these lads. Johnson is the only one capable of creating his own shots (39.0%/35.6%/86.7%), but the rest of the bench is like a Frank Martin wet dream. Just a ton of size on the wing and in the post.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Push the Pace and Make Shots. As with any game where Alabama plays a slow, methodical, grinding team, controlling the tempo of the game is of the utmost importance. Further, the Tide is simply going to have to shoot the ball a hell of a lot better than it did against LSU and Arkansas last week. Oats’ brand of play lives and dies by the three-pointer, so Alabama can’t afford to have another off night from the like of John Petty and Kira Lewis.The Tide need to turn this game into a track-meet that Tennessee simply can’t keep up with.
  2. Compete on the Glass. For all of Tennessee’s size, they don’t actually have the greatest rebounding numbers from an efficiency stand-point. They are actually at a net-negative in this category in conference play. Still the Vols have a massive size advantage on Alabama without Herb Jones, so it’s going to take a full team effort to keep the rebounding margin close. It makes it even more important that Alabama take (and make) as many three-pointers as possible, since the longer rebound will make it likelier that the Tide can create second-chance opportunities.
  3. Fouls. In case you haven’t learned by now, there is no such thing as a home-court advantage for Alabama when it comes to getting calls from the refs. I know other teams get quite a bit of leeway when they are the home side, but Alabama simply doesn’t get that benefit for whatever reason. With that being said, the Tide can’t afford to foul Tennessee much tonight. For one, Tennessee is very good from the free throw line (74.9%). More importantly, Alabama will have, at most, eight scholarship players available. Tennessee has a small army on their bench. They would love to ugly this game up.

This is a critically important game tonight for the Crimson Tide. With road trips to Georgia and Auburn followed by a home tilt with LSU up next, a loss tonight could very well lead to a six game losing streak during the middle of conference play. That’s certainly not out of the question, and would most likely sink the Tide’s 2020 season. Alabama will be short-handed once again tonight, but the most talented players on the court will mostly be in white with Kira Lewis, John Petty, and Jaden Shackelford.

Alabama has to make shots and control the pace tonight. Vegas does have Alabama listed as a six-point favorite, which certainly seems high.

The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPNU.