Whatever your expectations for Alabama basketball were coming into this season, I would imagine that they’ve been raised quite a bit after watching the Crimson Tide (1-0) absolutely destroy a good Louisiana Tech team this past Tuesday in the opening game of the 2021-22 campaign. The Tide looked like it was playing a tune-up game for the NCAA Tournament in March, that’s how crisp and clean the game was for Nate Oats’ squad. After years of dreadful November performances, Tuesday night’s dominating victory was a real sight for sore eyes. It’s incredible what Oats and his staff have done in such a short period of time.
With that being said, let’s not crown the Crimson Tide quite yet. One game sample sizes have never been a good indicator of anything, and there is a lot of basketball left to be played this year. We need this team peaking in March, not before the calendar year even flips to 2022.
Additionally, Alabama is going to be tested nearly every night, and Friday night’s match-up with South Dakota State (1-0) is no different. The Jackrabbits have only played Division 1 basketball for about fifteen years now, yet they have been to the NCAA Tournament five times. They have had only three coaches in that span, with Eric Henderson being the latest. His two predecessors, T.J. Otzelberger and Scott Nagy, were both plucked from bigger schools after successful tenures in Brookings, South Dakota. Otzelberger is now coaching up Iowa State, and Nagy has ripped off three-straight regular season Horizon League titles with Wright State.
This is a program that is used to winning. They play winning basketball - keep the rotation tight, run heavy sets, work the glass, buy-in on the defensive end, make free throws etc. It’s certainly not easy to get talented players to come to South Dakota, but when you have a winning culture, things tend to take care of themselves.
That’s not to say that the Jackrabbits lack talent either - this team was picked to win the Summit League for a reason. And they can really shoot the basketball.
*Stats based on last season’s numbers
POINT 6’6 Baylor Scheierman (15.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 4.0 APG, 101.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’0 Matt Mims (3.1 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 1.1 APG, 106.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Alex Arians (10.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 106.8 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Douglas Wilson (16.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 103.5 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Matt Dentlinger (10.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 104.7 DRtg)
South Dakota State returns all five starters from last season, as well as the overwhelming majority of their production from the bench. They are built very similarly to a Nate Oats team - they like to push the tempo with long, position-less players who can light it up from the arc. Take Scheierman, for example. The preseason All-Summit league forward plays point, but has the size and ability to hit the glass and bang in the post. He’s a small conference superstar, really, capable of scoring at an elite level (49.8%/43.8%/84.5%) while running the offense (19.9% AST%; 19.7% USG%) and crashing the glass (15.7% REB%). He does it all.
In the back-court, Mims and Arians provide the long-range shooting damage (Mims: 41.3%/38.9%/70.0%; Arians: 50.0%/44.3%/87.7%), and Arians doubles as the secondary ball-handler (13.0% AST%). Dentlinger and Wilson are both basically bigs who can play out in space. Neither of them are threats to shoot from the perimeter, but both can attack off the dribble as well as with their backs to the rim. Both are plus-rebounders (Dentlinger: 10.6% REB%; Wilson: 11.3%), and provide great size in the front-court.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’4 Noah Freidel (16.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 104.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’2 Charlie Easley (5.0 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 103.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 David Wingett (6.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 105.6 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Luke Appel (7.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 105.2 DRtg)
All four main contributors coming off of the bench are veteran players that largely served the same roles last season. Freidel is essentially a sixth starter. In fact, he was starting until a late-season injury put him on the bench for a while. However, he’s been so good in this role (40.9 %/38.4%/77.3%; 12.4% AST%) that they’ve decided to keep him in it for now. Easley (43.6%/41.2%/63.2%) is a true shooter that rotates in to provide a spark, and Wingett can stretch the floor as well (40.2%/36.5%/72.7%). Appel provides good size and a true post presence.
Four Keys to Victory
- Respect and Focus. The Tide is a team of mostly new faces. They’ve got two true freshmen starting, along with a transfer from a smaller school who isn’t used to playing the role of the heavy favorite. Alabama has to put the Louisiana Tech mauling behind them and respect what South Dakota State brings to Tuscaloosa tonight, because this team can absolutely play. As long as Nate Oats can get his team to do that, the Tide should be just fine. However, if the guys have been spending the past couple of days watching highlights of themselves on YouTube, they will be in for a rude awakening tonight against a Jackrabbit team that was picked to win its conference and boasts a trio of preseason All-Summit performers (Scheierman, Wilson, and Friedel). These guys can really shoot the ball.
- Lean into that Athleticism. With that being said, the disparity between the two teams in terms of athleticism and raw talent is significant. Take a look back at those Defensive Ratings (as a reminder, 100 is average, anything above that is below average), nobody on this team can guard the likes of J.D. Davison or Jahvon Quinerly. And while the Jackrabbits like to get out in transition themselves, that’s not a game most teams want to play against Nate Oats’ bunch. Any team that tried that a year ago found that out the hard way, and that was with a hybrid roster of Oats’ guys and Avery Johnson holdovers.
- Limit Turnovers and Fouls. So, where can the Jackrabbits find an advantage to win tonight? Well, they will almost certainly pull out the ole road underdog playbook of forcing turnovers and getting to the free throw line. South Dakota State shot 71.6% from the free throw line a year ago, which is pretty average, but they also attempted the 38th most in the country. They know how to get to the line for the freebies. Alabama’s bigs struggled with fouls against Louisiana Tech - it was one of the only negatives in the game - as Noah Gurley got tagged with four, Keon Ambrose-Hylton with three, and Charles Bediako fouled out. Granted, Kenneth Lofton Jr. isn’t suiting up for SDSU tonight, but that is still an alarmingly high number of fouls in the front-court.
- Chase them off the Three-Point Line. And then of course, there’s the old equalizer, the three-point shot. This is probably the most important area of the game tonight. South Dakota State shot 40.4% from the perimeter last year, 2nd best in the entire country. Again, all of those same guys are back. They knocked down 9/20 from deep against Bradley in their opener en route to an easy 81-65 win. If Alabama wants to win this ball game, the Tide has to lock-down the perimeter. The guys contested shots pretty well against Tech, but they have to be ready to prevent shots from going up at all against the Jackrabbits. SDSU is capable of making this a barn-burner with their shooting prowess.
So, yes, the Louisiana Tech beat-down was fantastic. But all of that dominance is worth exactly zero points in tonight’s game. South Dakota State can really play, and they are especially dangerous because of their experience, size, and ability to shoot teams out of the gym. Tide fans need to bring that same energy tonight, because the team is likely going to need it to get themselves going.
This is another major test from a small conference team. Can the Tide keep its focus and play another clean game tonight? Nate Oats’ squad will have to if it wants to avoid a nice helping of humble pie tonight.
The game tips-off at 7:00 PM CST and can be streamed on ESPN+.