As the calendar approaches the month of February, the SEC has entered halftime of the season. With only nine conference games left to play, the Alabama Crimson Tide (14-3, 9-0 SEC, NET: 10, Kenpom: 9) is the commanding leader in the clubhouse, a full three games up in the loss column on second place. Barring a February Collapse (new basketball fans, those words have been capitalized for a reason: Tide Hoops has developed a trademark in agony and dismay during this wretched month over the years), Alabama will almost certainly end up winning its first SEC title in nearly 20 years. What Nate Oats has done in less than two seasons is unbelievable.
But before the Tide starts taking ‘Happy Gilmore’ shots off of the tee on the back nine, there’s a bit of a brawl about to take place on the turn: the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. It’s the 8th year of the annual rivalry, with the Big 12 currently holding a 4-1-2 edge in the series. However, most of the Big 12’s success came early on - our (mostly) western foes won each of the first three challenges, accumulating an overall 20-10 record against the SEC. The SEC finally fought to a draw in 2017, broke through and won its only challenge in 2018, and has lost 6-4 and tied in the previous two years, respectively.
So, it has become quite competitive in the last four installments. Tomorrow should be more of the same, and one of the headliners includes our beloved Tide, as the team travels to Norman to take on a similarly-hot Oklahoma Sooners squad (10-4, 6-3 Big 12, NET: 20, Kenpom: 20). This will actually set the stage for the day at 11:00 CST, with the eyes of the nation watching these two ranked foes battle on ESPN. It should be an exhilarating shoot-out between two NCAA Tournament locks, jockeying for better positioning in the field.
This is going to be fun.
POINT 6’5 Austin Reaves (15.8 PPG, 5.1 APG, 5.1 RPG, 0.9 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 De’Vion Harmon (12.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 Elijah Harkless (4.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, 2.1 SPG)
GUARD 6’5 Alondes Williams (7.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 0.8 SPG)
POST 6’10 Kur Kuath (7.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.7 BPG)
Lon Kruger’s Sooners are built very similarly to what Nate Oats has assembled in Tuscaloosa. They don’t play at the same breakneck pace that Alabama does, but Lon Kruger has been a staunch believer in the drive-and-kick offense for years at Oklahoma (think Buddy Hield and company in 2016, Trae Young in 2018, etc.). This year’s squad plays 4-in, 1-out sets almost exclusively, as they now start four guards in their line-up.
Offensively, everything begins and ends with Austin Reaves. The dude’s a stud. He’s almost like a lesser version of the Dallas Maverick’s Luka Doncic. Reaves has his hands on the ball most of the game (25.3% USG%), and he uses his size/skill combo to attack the rim (43.0% FG%), dish out assists (29.2% AST%), and crash the glass (8.7% REB%). His one weakness is his jump-shot (24.1% 3P%). However, much like the Mavericks, Kruger decided that the best way to substitute for this was to surround him with guards and shooters who create good spacing on the floor.
Harmon is about the only starter who would be considered a ‘shooter’ (48.5%/37.0%/81.8%), but Williams is more than capable (48.5%/25.0%/94.1%) and is great off of the dribble. Harkless’ numbers won’t blow anybody away, but he’s really turned it on since he was given a spot in the starting line-up (he was 6/11 from downtown in games he started before having an off-night against Texas). He’s also been an elite defender (86.8 DRtg, 5.9% STL%), albeit in a somewhat limited sample size. Kar Kuath is the lone post player in the starting group. He’s also a capable scorer from multiple ranges (56.0%/28.6%/64.3%), but his true presence is on defense, where he blocks 9.1%(!) of all opponent 2P attempts.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’1 Umoja Gibson (8.9 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.1 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Trey Phipps (3.2 PPG, 0.8 RPG)
WING 6’7 Jalen Hill (4.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.0 SPG)
POST 6’7 Victor Iwuakor (5.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
POST 6’9 Brady Manek (10.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 0.8 BPG)
The two guys to really keep an eye on off of the bench for the Sooners are Gibson and Manek. Gibson is your typical scoring sixth man who provides a nice offensive spark, as he’s probably the best shooter on the team (40.4%/42.0%/70.6%). Manek is basically a starter; in fact, he was the starter for the past three years until Kruger decided to go with the four-guard look. Manek even started the last time these two teams met for the SEC-Big 12 Challenge in Tuscaloosa three years ago. He’s the definition of a stretch-four, capable of knocking down shots from the perimeter (42.4%/39.0%/72.7%), though he’s quite average on defense (100.2 DRtg) and on the boards (9.0% REB%). Jalen Hill is similar to Manek as a scorer (54.5%/45.5%/66.7%), although on a much lower volume of shots, but he is a bit better on the glass (10.7% REB%) and on the defensive end (96.4 DRtg).
Three Keys to Victory
- Push the Pace. It’s been well established at this point, but teams that try to run with Alabama, or are unable to slow the game down, simply don’t have success against the Tide. Florida, Arkansas, and LSU are three examples of teams who recently got into track-meets with Alabama. It didn’t work out very well for them. Again, Oklahoma’s roster is built similarly to the Tide’s, but they deploy it in a different way. The Sooners play more like Villanova, attempting to destroy their opponents with efficiency. They take care of the basketball, get back on defense to prevent transition baskets, and take optimal shots only on the offensive end. If the Tide can coax them into pushing the pace a bit, perhaps they get sloppy in ball-handling, or get tired and don’t get back on defense, etc. This isn’t football, the Sooners aren’t used to playing at high-octane tempo in the Big 12. Most teams aren’t ready for it when the Tide takes the court. There’s a reason Alabama is undefeated whenever the Tide scores 80 points, and it’s not just because they were raining threes from the perimeter, it’s because they successfully controlled the tempo of the game.
- Disrupt and Limit Reaves. As I mentioned earlier, Oklahoma’s offense begins and ends with Reaves with the ball in his hand. He initiates the offense the majority of the time, as his ability to get into the lane off the dribble is paramount for their success. Thanks to some serious individual improvement in on-ball defense, Alabama has been letting the guards play-out on the perimeter more this season. However, it may be a good idea to let Herb Jones handle the point defensively in this game. If the Sooners win this game because they get a ton of offense from the rest of the team stepping up and creating, just tip your cap and move on. Don’t let them beat you with their bread-and-butter.
- Free Throws. What was once a staple in this section, free throws haven’t been focused on as much in 2021. The reason being the obvious improvement in that area under Nate Oats. Now, the Tide is still pretty average from the charity stripe (148th in the country at 71.2% FT%), but that’s a major improvement over the last, what, 15 years? However, Oklahoma is excellent from the line (51st in the country at 75.1%), especially when one of their guards or Manek is the one shooting them. Free throw shooting sealed the game for the Tide against Kentucky the other night, and it might loom large again tomorrow.
This is going to be a blast of a game. Alabama does come into this one pretty beat up: Jordan Bruner is still out, James Rojas hasn’t played much recently due to a “medical condition”, and Herb has busted up every part of his body recently. But that’s to be expected at the midway point of conference play. Whether or not the SEC can upset the Big 12 in the challenge this year will depend largely on whether or not the conference-leading Tide can take care of business on the road against a scorching-hot Oklahoma team.
More importantly though, Alabama is currently projected as a 2-seed on Bracket Matrix, and a non-conference win at Oklahoma would further cement the Tide’s status at the top of the bracket. With the weaker portion of the SEC schedule coming up after next week, it would behoove Alabama to grab a few more Q1 wins to keep the resume nice and full.
The game tips-off at 11:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.
UPDATE: Sooner starters Austin Reaves and Alondes Williams will not be playing today.