I’m really trying hard not to get too excited, everyone. But it’s not easy, because Nate Oats has the Crimson Tide (8-3, 3-0 SEC) absolutely rolling right now. I don’t know what he did to this team over Christmas break, but it is working. Everybody on the team is playing the game the way they need to be successful both individually and as a unit.
Jahvon Quinerly (who will miss today’s game as well due to his vague medical condition), and Jaden Shackelford have become the play-making guards we had hoped to see this season. Both have stopped forcing everything constantly - playing fast for the sake of playing fast and wasting possessions. Instead, they are now letting the game come to them and are playing in rhythm. Ole Miss and Tennessee couldn’t stay in front of Quinerly last week, and Shack has been en feugo from the perimeter. Both have started playing decent perimeter defense now as well.
Speaking of which, John Petty has really stepped it up as a leader on the defensive end, and he’s being rewarded with some good karma, as he’s broken out of his shooting slump. Jordan Bruner was awesome against Florida, finally looking like the top-tier transfer that tore up the Ivy League for three seasons at Yale. Maybe his knee is starting to hinder him less. Alex Reese is out there showing great effort. James Rojas and Keon Ellis have started to really pick it up lately as they’ve gotten more time on the court. Josh Primo was one of the few who was off against Florida, but his back-to-back threes against Tennessee jump-started the hot shooting for the Tide. It’s amazing being able to withstand an off game from a shooter because someone else, like Ellis this past Tuesday, just picks it up and covers for him. Herb Jones is a baller, and should be in the running for SEC Player of the Year.
This is the team that we hyped up all summer long. Quinerly was one of the key reasons Alabama had such a big week last week. Yet, when the Tide lost him the very next game for a huge match-up with a fellow top-tier SEC opponent, the rest of the team just picks up the slack and Alabama cruises to an easy double-digit victory. Oats has challenged this team with changing the culture of Alabama basketball, and it seems that they are determined to do so.
One great way to do just that would be to take care of business on the road in Lee County. Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers (6-5, 0-3 SEC) are definitely in the midst of a rebuild right now, after having lost their top six guys from last season. It certainly doesn’t help that their five-star point guard, Sharife Cooper, has been held out all season due to eligibility concerns. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a Jeff Lebo or Tony Barbee Tiger team, but it certainly isn’t where they have been in recent seasons either.
Can’t sweep Auburn if you don’t beat the Tigers at their place, though.
POINT 6’6 Justin Powell (11.7 PPG, 4.7 APG, 6.1 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 Allen Flanigan (13.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.8 SPG)
WING 6’6 Devan Cambridge (7.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.8 APG)
WING 6’8 Jaylin Williams (11.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
POST 6’10 J.T. Thor (7.7 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.1 APG)
This is a very inexperienced team. A trio of sophomores and a pair of true freshmen make up the starting line-up for the Tigers, and, despite Pearl’s elite-tier barbeques, only one of them, J.T. Thor, was considered a blue-chip guy coming out of high school. Justin Powell has been a major surprise for Auburn, though. A lightly-recruited three-star shooting guard, he has filled in extremely well at point guard while Cooper has been held out (42.9%/44.2%/76.5%; a ridiculous 33.7% AST%; 12.4% REB%). Unfortunately for the Tigers though, he missed the Ole Miss game this past Wednesday with a head injury, and may not be able to play today either. If that is the case, Auburn is going to be in some trouble. Nobody else on the roster is much of a ball-handler.
Flanigan has been a bit of a nice surprise this season as well, at least as far as his offensive production is concerned (50.0%/39.1%/72.2%; 20.2% AST%). On the other side of the coin, fellow sophomore, Devan Cambridge, has had a disappointing start to the year. The athletic wing is shooting only 31.8% from the field and a ghastly 40.9% from the free throw line (although if you’ve seen his form on free throws, that number won’t surprise you...yeesh). To make matters worse, he’s been a below-average defender (102.3 DRtg) and has not been very competitive on the boards (9.2% REB%). Those were not the type of numbers Pearl was looking for out of Cambridge this season.
Williams and Thor represent Auburn’s ceiling better than anyone else. Both are raw, but talented, guys with great length and athleticism. Williams is a classic stretch four who can score from just about everywhere on the court, with the exception of the free throw line (53.3%/41.3%/50.0%). Thor’s offensive game is pretty limited. Right now, he’s mostly a guy who plays around the basket (42.4%/24.0%/69.7%), which is what makes his 8.8% REB% pretty inexcusable.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’4 Jamal Johnson (10.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.8 APG)
GUARD 6’1 Tyrell Jones (3.3 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.1 APG)
WING 6’6 Chris Moore (3.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
POST 6’10 Babatunde Akingbola (3.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG)
POST 6’11 Dylan Cardwell (3.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
The bench is mostly more of the same: talented, but young players still trying to find their roles on this team. The lone exception to that is the elder statesman, Jamal Johnson. The Spain Park product is now in his junior season at Auburn, and has played a pivotal role off of the bench as a scoring sixth man (39.0%/35.0%/69.6%) who provides leadership and experience. Akingbola has the highest ceiling, literally and figuratively, of anyone on the Auburn bench. However, that has remained mostly just potential, as it hasn’t really manifested into much production. He does swat shots at a high rate, though (8.8% BLK%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Defensive Rebounding. Even though the Tide has been playing significantly better basketball in the last few weeks, giving up second chance points via offensive rebounds is still killing Alabama. Auburn happens to be quite good at it too, as they are averaging 12.5 ORPG. A great way to get beat by a lesser team on the road is by giving up extra possessions. Alabama has to improve in this area.
- Make the Tigers Earn it. Auburn is really bad at the free throw line (62.1%, 322nd in the country). There is absolutely no reason a team with as much depth as Alabama’s should allow Auburn to get open looks knowing how many points the Tigers leave at the stripe. Additionally, if Powell can’t play, the Tide can get really aggressive on defense trying to cause turnovers, because Alabama can withstand fouls being called, and Auburn will have a hell of a time trying to make things happen with their lack of ball-handlers.
- Keep Up the Energy. The change in effort on defense, on the glass, and even in the offensive rhythm has been electric to start off 2021. Momentum is such a major part of college basketball, and Alabama has it in spades right now. Guys just feed off of each other, and, as they say, shooting really is contagious. If Alabama can keep it rolling the way the Tide has played the past few games, we could be talking about this team contending for an SEC championship.
And yes, I know that, as fellow battered Tide Hoops fans, that’s scary to read. But it is true. This team just has that feel right now. They are trying to change the culture of Alabama basketball, and it looks like Nate Oats has unlocked that passion inside of them. 2021 could be the year the program finally turns the corner.
But first, the Tide has a little business to handle with the “basketball school” across the state.
The game will tip-off at 11:00 AM CST, courtesy of Auburn’s winless conference record, and will be televised on ESPN2.