Tuesday night’s beating of the Kentucky Wildcats was probably the worst blowout win in Rupp Arena one could ask for, considering the Crimson Tide (10-3, 5-0 SEC, NET: 23, Kenpom: 21) lost their two most important players, Herb Jones and Jordan Bruner, to injury in the process. Herb’s level of play this year should have him in the conversation for SEC Player of the Year, and Bruner, the lone true post player in the rotation, had finally started to look a bit healthy, which was a key reason why the Tide has been red-hot as of late. Not to mention they are by far the best two defenders on the team, and arguably the top two rebounders as well.
But, let’s be honest, no one around here is going to be anything other than euphoric about the state of Alabama athletics right now, and the basketball squad(s - the women are doing better than the men, check them out) is no exception. John Calipari’s team this year is clearly the worst he’s ever had in Lexington, but that still doesn’t dampen handing him his worst home loss of his tenure there. Especially considering the Tide played over half the game without Herb and Jahvon Quinerly (who might be back with the team in time for Saturday’s game), and then lost Bruner early in the 2nd half.
That’s the biggest difference with Tide Hoops now - Nate Oats has a loaded roster of guys who are buying into the ‘next man up’ philosophy. John Petty and Jaden Shackelford took over after Herb and Bruner departed, and the defense across the board never let up, even with its two best defenders out.
So, excuse us if we aren’t going to let players being out deter us from thinking the Tide keeps things rolling against a likely NCAA Tournament team in Arkansas (10-3, 2-3 SEC, NET: 30, Kenpom: 36) this Saturday at Coleman Coliseum.
POINT 6’3 Davonte Davis (5.2 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 Moses Moody (16.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.3 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 Jalen Tate (10.4 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.0 APG)
POST 6’9 Vance Jackson (5.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.1 APG)
POST 7’3 Connor Vanover (8.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.8 BPG)
Last season, I wrote that the state of both the Arkansas and Alabama basketball programs were eerily similar: two traditional SEC powers that have become has-beens over the last ~15 years. Like Nate Oats at Alabama, second year Arkansas head coach, Eric Musselman, totally flipped the roster that he inherited this off-season, and it’s paid off thus far. The Razorbacks, much like the Tide, have boasted a fun, high scoring attack that has them currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament and be in contention for a top-four finish and a double bye in the SEC Tournament.
That’s not to say they haven’t had their issues though, especially lately. The Hogs can’t seem to find a true point guard, most recently plucking true freshman Davonte Davis off of the bench to be the primary ball-handler. Davis has shot the ball well (44.4%/40.0%/70.0%), but it’s not like his 15.6% AST% has blown anyone away, especially compared to his 17.0% TO%. Northern Kentucky grad-transfer, Jalen Tate, boasts the most assists on the team with a nice 27.2% AST%, but he’s really more of a wing, and he has also struggled mightily with turnovers (22.5% TO%).
Joining them in the back-court is potential one-and-done, Moses Moody. The big guard has been one of the best scorers in the league this season (45.0%/38.5%/80.3%). Vance Jackson, like Davonte Davis, was recently inserted into the starting line-up to help Arkansas with some defense and rebounding in the interior. The grad-transfer from New Mexico has the ability to stretch the floor as well (36.6%/34.8%/63.6%), but those are some unsightly FG and FT percentages. Finally, Connor Vanover, another transfer (Musselman is known as the transfer king for a reason), this time by way of Cal, anchors the starting group in the post. The tallest relevant player in the SEC, his size definitely presents some major challenges for the Tide on defense (10.1% BLK%, 84.3 DRtg) and on the glass (17.5% REB%). He’s also perfect from the free throw line this year.
Off of the Bench
GUARD 6’1 Desi Sills (11.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.6 SPG)
GUARD 6’1 J.D. Notae (15.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG)
POST 6’10 Jaylin Williams (3.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG)
Alabama may have some major injury concerns, but the Tide won’t get any sympathy from Arkansas. The Razorbacks were already down their starting wing, Justin Smith (11.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.1 SPG), due to an ankle injury he suffered in the conference opener. Now, they’ve lost freshman guard K.K. Robinson for the season as well, which has killed their depth. The good news for the Hogs is that Desi Sills and J.D. Notae are basically starters. Sills, the lone returning player from last season’s rotation after Musselman’s retooling of the roster, could easily end up starting again Saturday afternoon, as he has most of the season. He’s been a strong scorer for the Razorbacks (47.3%/37.5%/68.9%). Notae has operated as the prototypical scoring sixth man all season (42.0%/33.3%/78.6%), as he really provides a spark off of the bench for Arkansas (17.5% AST%, 31.3% Usage Rate).
Three Keys to Victory
- Reese and Rojas. Alex Reese and James Rojas better be ready to play the best basketball of their lives with Herb and Bruner out. Especially with Bruner likely being out for the majority of the regular season. Saturday, these two stretch fours will be tasked with playing the five and trying to check the 7’3 Vanover in the low post. Now, both of them have shown serious toughness in the painted area in recent weeks, but they are going to have to really work their butts off to deny the low entry pass and keep the Tide competitive on the boards. It wouldn’t hurt if they could trade some twos given up with some threes on the other end, as both are capable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tide utilize a five-out approach.
- Perimeter Shooting. Speaking of which, the Tide is going to need to make a lot of shots in this game if they want to win. That was basically the key to maintaining the lead against Kentucky after Herb and Bruner went down. Petty and Shack are going to need to take good shots and come out hot for this one. On the other end, Arkansas similarly likes to light it up from downtown. Now, none of them are elite, knock-down shooters, but every guy in the rotation, with the exception of Williams, can get buckets from range. Alabama will be tempted to help our undersized defenders in the post, but the Tide can’t give up open looks from easy kick-out passes because of it.
- Push the Tempo and Be Aggressive. Arkansas certainly doesn’t have any issues running the court, but with only nine scholarship players, wearing out those legs and forcing the Hogs into lazy fouls could be huge in this game. Defensively, Alabama doesn’t want to let Arkansas get the ball into the paint, so the Tide will need to be aggressive in the passing lanes and disrupt the flow of the offense as much as possible. As I mentioned, the Razorbacks have had turnover issues due to their lack of point guard play, so Alabama will want to force them into as many errors as possible.
With Bruner definitely out, Herb likely out, and Quinerly potentially playing, but being limited, this is going to be a major test of survival for the Tide. Arkansas is a legit team who can be downright explosive at times on offense. A loss in this game certainly isn’t going to doom the Tide or anything, but it definitely opens up the door for the other main contenders for the SEC crown to reclaim the top spot, especially since Alabama travels to Baton Rouge to take on one of them next week. Confidence is sky-high with this team right now though, and that alone can elevate a team’s play significantly. The Tide will need everyone’s best on Saturday.
The game tips-off at 2:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.