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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #7 Tennessee

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The Tide take on the class of the conference in Knoxville

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With 2020 going out on a high note in the form of a double-digit victory over Ole Miss in the conference opener, the Alabama Crimson Tide (6-3, 1-0 SEC) will try to get 2021 rolling by stunning the best team in the conference on its home floor. It certainly won’t be easy to accomplish though, as Rick Barnes and his 7th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers (7-0, 1-0) are clearly the best team in the league, and they are rolling right now on both ends of the court. If Alabama wants to make a statement to begin the new year, it will have to play by far the best game of the season.

The Vols return four starters from last season, and added a pair of potential one-and-done five stars, as well as a couple of impact transfers, to create the best mix of talent and experience in the SEC. They were rightfully chosen as the preseason pick to win the league, and honestly, they aren’t just as advertised, they are actually better than that. The Vols are incredible on the defensive end, as they rate 2nd in the country in Adjusted Defense. They have totally bought in to Barnes’ scheme, and it has paid large dividends. They absolutely stifled and crushed a previously undefeated Missouri team on the road in the conference opener.

The good news is that Alabama has basically nothing to lose in this game. Playing the game alone will boost the Tide’s NCAA Tournament resume. These are often the times that John Petty and company get hot and make things interesting. Petty actually tore up the Volunteers the last time these two met in Knoxville, in a game the Tide should have pulled off the stunning upset.

So, we’ll see what happens.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’3 Santiago Vescovi (9.0 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.6 RPG)

GUARD 6’4 Victor Bailey (12.6 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.0 SPG)

WING 6’6 Josiah-Jordan James (8.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.0 BPG)

WING 6’7 Yves Pons (8.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.6 BPG)

POST 6’9 John Fulkerson (11.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)

This is a veteran group of players. The only underclassman that starts is sophomore Josiah-Jordan James, and he’s got serious talent. The do-it-all wing was a five-star in the 2019 class that wasn’t quite ready to handle the large load he was asked to bare while also trying to buy into Barnes’ system last year. That has since changed, however. J.J.J. is now scoring at a highly efficient rate (46.5%/43.8%/93.8%) while bringing it on the defensive end (73.8 DRtg), not to mention he clears both percentage rates (10% + REB% and 20%+ AST%) to be considered both a strong rebounder and passer as well at 14.4% and 21.0%, respectively. If he got more volume, he’d be the slam-dunk leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year.

He doesn’t get more volume though, because the rest of his team is loaded. Oregon transfer, Victor Baily, has been a scoring machine (51.5%/36.7%/90.0%) for the Vols. Vescovi dishes out assists with the best of them (25.3% AST%). Pons is an athletic freak who, no offense to our own Herbert Jones, is probably the best defender in the country. Fulkerson was preseason All-SEC First Team, and has done nothing to dissuade anyone of their votes for the real team come March.

Off of the Bench

GUARD 6’4 Jaden Springer (11.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.0 SPG)

GUARD 6’5 Keon Johnson (7.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.3 SPG)

POST 6’7 E.J. Anosike (4.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG)

POST 6’8 Olivier Nkamhoua (4.1 PPG, 1.0 RPG)

Oh yeah, and then there’s the pair of five-star freshmen who have both been projected by most outlets to be first round picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, Springer and Johnson. Having these two come off the bench is almost unfair, and it has been perfect for both of them. Springer has been electric as a scorer (56.0%/70.0%/76.0%), Johnson has been a highly efficient assist man (19.5% AST%), and both have been stout on the defensive end (Springer: 77.6 DRtg; Johnson: 73.9 DRtg).

After those two though, there is a steep drop-off. Anosike and Nkamhoua provide depth in the post, but they don’t do anything special. Nobody else on the team gets many minutes at all.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Shoot the Lights Out. Seriously, if Alabama isn’t hot from the perimeter tonight, the Tide isn’t going to win this game. It’s really that simple. Tennessee is unbelievably good on the defensive end. If the Tide’s guards try to isolate on any of these defenders, it’s not going to end well. Need a signature Petty game tonight.
  2. Push the Pace. The Vols want to dominate their opponents by bludgeoning them to death with hyper-efficiency on both ends of the court. The best way to disrupt that is to get them out of the half-court game that they want to play and create a little chaos. Think about this Tennessee team as an early Saban football team. What was the best way to beat Alabama circa 2012? Force them to try to control the uncontrollable. The Tide needs to press the issue, but the guys have got to be careful with the basketball and ready to adjust. The Vols will almost certainly run full court presses and half court traps in order to disrupt Alabama’s tempo, and the Tide has to be be able to adapt to that without turning the ball over.
  3. Hit the Glass on Defense. Pons, Fulkerson, and JJJ all bang the glass hard on the offensive end. Alabama has been pretty awful about giving up second chance points via offensive rebounds this year. If the Tide does that tonight, it’s going to be a tough scene. Tennessee is way too good to allow them extra possessions. If Alabama can actually force a miss on the defensive end, it cannot afford to waste it. Rebound the ball, gentlemen.

It’s not going to be easy, but a win tonight would completely change the outlook for this season. A win in Knoxville would be worth its weight in gold on the NCAA Tournament resume, and it would mean that the Tide is capable of contending in the SEC this season. It might even be the biggest win any Alabama sports program has had in 2021 thus far.

But, again, it’s going to take far and away the best effort of the season. The guards can’t be loose with the basketball, Petty and Jaden Shackelford are going to have to take good shots and get hot from the perimeter, Jordan Bruner and Herb Jones are going to have to hold up in the interior and not get into foul trouble, and, even then, somebody else is going to have to show up and get some buckets.

Hope for the best. The game tips-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.