2021 is starting out hot for Alabama athletics. That certainly doesn’t exclude the basketball squad. After toppling 7th-ranked, and previously undefeated, Tennessee on Saturday night, the Alabama Crimson Tide (7-3, 2-0 SEC) will look to keep the momentum rolling against another very good team in the Florida Gators (5-1, 2-0 SEC) tonight. The Tide and Gators are currently the lone 2-0 teams in conference play. That’s right, a first place battle on the hardwood between Alabama and Florida will take place in Coleman Coliseum tonight, no Billy Donovan or Mark Gottfried necessary.
This is a major opportunity. In the previous decade-plus, it seems like every time Alabama has gotten a major win against a top-ranked foe that could potentially turn the season around, the Tide has followed it up with a stinker in the immediate game that followed. But, as Nate Oats told the guys late in the game against Tennessee this past weekend, it’s time to change the culture of Alabama basketball. The 2021 team has the chance to do that right now.
This may be Mike White’s best Florida team. Despite the terrifying loss of Preseason SEC Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson (who is back with the team on the bench, thankfully), the Gators are loaded with talent and experience. Their one loss was against a ranked Florida State team in that tragic game where Johnson suddenly collapsed on-court. They took the rest of non-conference play off, which is why they’ve only played six games total, but they’ve started off SEC play with a dominant win at Vanderbilt and a big victory at home over fellow NCAA Tournament-hopeful, LSU, this weekend.
It’s still early in conference play, but this feels like a season-defining game for the Crimson Tide. Can Alabama change the culture of Tide Hoops tonight?
POINT 6’5 Tre Mann (15.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 Noah Locke (9.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.5 APG)
GUARD 6’5 Scottie Lewis (14.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1.7 BPG)
WING 6’7 Anthony Duruji (5.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG)
POST 6’11 Colin Castleton (11.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG)
Even with the loss of Johnson (16.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, 1.0 SPG), this is a strong starting five. It begins with the trio of guards the Gators rely heavily on in the half-court. Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis were both blue-chip prospects in the 2019 class who really disappointed in their freshmen campaigns. That has not been the case this season. Both have been shooting the lights out (Mann: 46.4%/44.0%/80.0%; Lewis: 53.3%/46.7%/78.4%), and Mann has really taken over the starting point guard role well (23.3% AST%). Three-year starter, Noah Locke, joins them in the back-court, where he has continued his solid play as a true shooting guard (43.8%/41.4%/66.7%). As is always the case with Mike White’s teams, all three are also plus defenders.
Where his teams have usually struggled in the past is having multiple options in the front-court. The blow from the loss of Johnson has been softened by the emergence of Anthony Duruji. His stats may not blow you away at first glance (41.1%/27.3%/65.6%; 12.2% REB%; 95.8 DRtg), but I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from him in his first two games starting on the wing. He really gets after it on both ends of the court, and it appears that he is determined to fill in the Johnson-sized void in the starting line-up. Colin Castleton is a transfer from Michigan who has taken on the role of a true center. He’s scoring at an elite rate (73.7%), and really plays well around the basket (13.6% REB%; 7.4% BLK%).
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’0 Tyree Appleby (7.3 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG)
GUARD 5’11 Ques Glover (2.6 PPG, 0.8 RPG)
GUARD 6’5 Niels Lane (1.8 PPG, 0.8 RPG)
WING 6’7 Samson Ruzhentsev (1.7 PPG, 0.7 RPG)
WING 6’7 Osayi Osifo (1.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG)
POST 6’10 Omar Payne (4.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.5 BPG)
The loss of Keyontae can mostly be felt on the bench. With Duruji being elevated to starting minutes, Florida only has two other players who are averaging double-digit minutes a game (Appleby and Payne). Appleby transferred in from Cleveland State, and many thought he would take over the starting point guard role left vacant by Andrew Nembhard. He’s certainly played to that level of expectation in his sixth man role, dishing out assists at a 19.9% clip and forcing turnovers on 4.0% of all opponent possessions when he’s out on the floor, but he has struggled to get his scoring going consistently (41.9%/26.7%/87.5%). Payne is an athletic, leaping post, rebounding at a 10.1% rate and blocking a ridiculous 10.5% of all opponent attempted two-point shots.
After those two though, Mike White is looking for some more answers. He’s got some strong potential options: Glover, Ruhzhentsev, and Osifo are all underclassmen who were highly rated players coming out of high school.
Three Keys to Victory
- Keep Up that Beautiful Defensive Intensity. My goodness, the guys were working on the defensive end of the court Saturday night against Tennessee. Sure, the Vols shot poorly in that game, but Alabama’s effort was a huge factor in that. They were aggressive, but disciplined. Scrappy, but intentional. The Tide really communicated better than the team had all year, and the guards did a much better job of keeping guys in front of them. I really thought that John Petty set the tone defensively in this game, and the rest of the team followed. Herbert Jones is always going to bring it, Jordan Bruner really provided some strong minutes in the post, James Rojas was a bit of an eraser in the paint, Keon Ellis’ length and activity continues to drive opposing players mad, it was just a great effort all around. Florida can be very stagnant on offense, but their guards can really create in isolation. Perimeter defense will be key tonight. Can’t let Florida’s guards get hot.
- Defensive Rebounds. Again, the effort level Saturday night was a complete 180 from some of the games earlier this season. Unfortunately though, Tennessee still came away with far too many offensive boards that forced Alabama to work way too hard to turn the Vols away for good. The Tide actually did really well at creating its own second chance opportunities with offensive rebounds of its own, but the defensive positioning has to get much better. There are still just too many unchecked players getting second chance looks.
- Finish at the Rim. The one major weakness that nearly cost the Tide against Tennessee was Alabama’s inability to finish lay-ups. That seems routine, but with some of the guys out there, it’s just not. Sure, nobody else has a guy like Yves Pons lurking around the rim looking to swat shots, but Castleton, Duruji, and Payne are pretty good themselves at defending the rim. Jahvon Quinerly has been excellent recently at getting past his defender and either finishing at the rim or kicking out to the corners, and I’d love to see more of that tonight. When Alabama’s players are intentional on offense and play within their roles, this offense is really dangerous. Just ask Tennessee’s elite defense how fun it was trying to contain the Tide’s early second half blitzkrieg. But, the Tide has to make more of the easy ones count.
It’s an exciting time for Alabama fans right now, and the basketball team really has an amazing opportunity to keep the good vibes rolling in 2021 with a win tonight. The victor will be leaving Coleman Coliseum in sole possession of first place in the SEC. Now, it’s still really early, and Tide Hoops fans have certainly been hurt before in these situations, but if this team wants to be the one that helped changed the culture of Alabama basketball, tonight’s a good place to start.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.