December 4th, 2021 will go down in history at the University of Alabama, as the football and basketball teams completed a clean sweep over a pair of elite bulldog teams - one for the SEC Championship and the other for a spot in the top ten. It was truly a glorious day to be an alumnus of the state’s flagship university. And while the football team’s win awarded them with yet another trophy and spot in the College Football Playoff, I’d argue that Tide Hoops’ win over Gonzaga - in Seattle, no less - was a more significant win for its respective program.
Gonzaga is arguably the best team in college basketball this season. They’ve been the best program in the country over the past five years. Not only that, but the way Alabama won was incredibly impressive, building a lead by as much as 18(!) points, and then, withstanding the Zags’ inevitable comeback multiple times in the second half. That’s what a championship-contending basketball team does. Without a doubt, Alabama’s win over Gonzaga last week was the most convincing display I’ve seen from the basketball team in my 20 years watching.
But - and I can’t stress this enough - it was one game. This isn’t college football, where a single game showing can essentially make the season a successful one (alright, Alabama fans don’t feel this way, but pretty much every opponent on the schedule does). There is a lot of basketball left to be played between now and March. Last week’s win will possibly be the best bullet-point anybody has on its resume come Selection Sunday, and the performance itself shows just how elite this team can be, but the Crimson Tide (7-1; NET: 12; Kenpom: 10) can’t let it get to their heads.
Reason being - there ain’t no rest for the best. Next up, Alabama hosts, yet another, Final Four team from last season - the 14th-ranked Houston Cougars (8-1; NET: 3; Kenpom: 5). Houston coach, Kelvin Sampson, is in his eighth season with the Cougars and his 30th season of coaching major collegiate basketball, following stops at Washington State, Oklahoma, and Indiana. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been - 17 NCAA Tournament appearances, 7 conference titles, and a pair of Final Fours, with the latest, of course, being this past April.
Despite all of that success, this very well may be his best team ever. The Cougars have gotten off to a phenomenal start this season, beating nearly everyone by double-digits and suffering just the one loss to Wisconsin. All that, despite losing a trio of starters from last year’s Final Four squad.
This is going to be an epic clash in Tuscaloosa tonight. The first top-15 match-up since 2007, in fact. Can Alabama keep it rolling and string together back-to-back wins over Final Four teams?
POINT 6’1 Jamal Shead (7.0 PPG, 5.3 APG, 2.2 RPG, 80.5 DRtg)
GUARD 6’1 Marcus Sasser (17.7 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.3 RPG, 81.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Kyler Edwards (13.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.7 APG, 84.0 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Fabian White (9.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 81.6 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Reggie Chaney (4.7 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 78.8 DRtg)
As mentioned, the Cougars return just a pair of starters from last year’s squad, but they’ve done a fantastic job of replacing the departed Quentin Grimes, Dejon Jerrau, and Justin Gorham, the former two of which are playing in the NBA now. The first big piece was the development of Shead, a sophomore who has taken over point guard duties because of how good he his setting up his teammates for success (33.4% AST%). It certainly doesn’t hurt that he can score himself (51.0%/35.3%/70.0%). The next step in replacing Grimes and Jarreau in the back-court was bringing in Texas Tech transfer, Kyler Edwards. Edwards is a microwave shooter - he heats up quickly (41.5%/35.7%/73.1%) - so you don’t want to let him get loose.
But this Houston team goes as the lone returning starting guard, Marcus Sasser, goes. Sasser’s return to school was a pleasant surprise for Cougar fans, as he was part of a ‘Big Three’ with Grimes and Jarreau. The preseason first team All-AAC selection is working on bigger personal awards with his game this year. Sasser can score with the best of them (48.2%/48.5%/74.1%), but he’s also a top-end defender (81.0 DRtg; 2.6 SPG). He is quickly establishing himself as one of the best two-way guards in the country.
In the front-court, Fabian White has stepped up big-time on the wing. He’s a long, physical slasher who can get to the rim, but he can also knock down shots from the perimeter (44.9%/39.1%/57.1%). He’s a strong defender, and his 12.0% REB% leads the starting unit. Chaney, a one-time Arkansas Razorback, is the other returning starter from last year. A true post, Chaney’s size (6’8, 225) is his main quality, but he’s a beast on the defensive end.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’5 Tramon Mark (11.8 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.5 RPG, 80.3 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Taze Moore (6.0 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.7 APG, 79.3 DRtg)
POST 6’7 J’Wan Roberts (4.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 73.7 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Josh Carlton (8.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 83.6 DRtg)
Unlike most college teams, Houston really like to utilize its bench. All four of these guys play over 15 MPG, and for good reason. Mark and Moore are a pair of big guards that can really play. Mark has provided a great scoring boost off the bench and boasts one of the best free throw percentages I’ve seen at this level (51.0%/31.3%/94.1%), not to mention a 25.3% AST%. Moore hasn’t been as much of a scorer (43.1%/29.6%; only two FTAs this season), but is a rare breed in that he is in double digits in both AST% (11.5%) and REB% (10.6%).
Roberts and Carlton provide the extra punch in the front-court. Roberts is an elite defender with an insane DRtg, which he pairs with a ridiculous, team-leading 23.3% REB%. He’s very limited on the offensive end, though. Carlton is a bit more of a scoring threat (60.0% FG%), and he utilizes his nearly seven-foot frame to make his mark on the glass (13.7% REB%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Control the Pace. Kelvin Sampson is an old-school basketball coach; thus, his teams play methodical, half-court ball for the most part. Obviously, Oats isn’t about that life. If Alabama can dictate the tempo in this game, the Tide will almost certainly emerge victorious. The Cougars don’t play many teams that like to run like Alabama does, and even despite that, they turn the ball over quite a bit (10.7 TOPG). However, if Houston can successfully slow the game down, it will be tough sledding for Alabama, because the Tide’s been known to get stale and turn the ball over itself a bunch in the half-court. And Houston is an elite defensive team (2nd in Adjusted Defense). Gonzaga liked to run with Alabama, and the Tide exploited that. The Cougars are a different animal (ha!).
- Make Them Earn It. Houston is remarkably efficient on both ends on the court. Offensively, they are shooting 49.6% from the field and 38.4% from three. They run developed sets and only take good shots. However, they are terrible from the free throw line (65.4%). Alabama’s defense needs to show up again tonight. Stay disciplined during Houston’s designed plays, keep their guards in front of you, and deny, deny, deny at the rim. Send them to the line and make them earn those points.
- Be Smart and Stay Humble. Alabama’s not an inexperienced team, but the Tide isn’t littered with a bunch of upperclassmen either. It’s really easy to read the press clippings and feel great about yourself after a win of the caliber that they just pulled off. But, you have to stay humble and keep playing good, sound basketball. Our guards have been known to try to play above their capabilities at times. Houston is going to be a tough challenge coming off the star-studded, NBA-style showdown in Seattle last Saturday, because they play elite, highly efficient, intentionally methodical, team basketball. They lull you to sleep and capitalize on your mistakes. Alabama has to stay disciplined and make smart decisions.
It’s a really great time to be an Alabama fan right now, y’all. Coming off the best showing I’ve seen in my lifetime, the Crimson Tide is now set to host its first top-15 hoops match-up in nearly 15 years. It’s going to be an incredible opportunity to string together consecutive wins over teams that participated in last year’s Final Four. If Alabama can pull that off, the sky is absolutely the limit for this club.
But, as mentioned, it’s got to be a ‘one game at a time’ approach. There is a lot of basketball to be played this season. That starts tonight in Tuscaloosa. According to DraftKings Sportsbook, Alabama is a slight, 2.5-point favorite*. That sounds about right to me. How the Tide responds to the win last week and whoever controls the tempo of the game should determine the outcome of this one.
The game tips at a ridiculously late start time of 9:00 PM CST. But hey, get your butts to Tuscaloosa anyway. This team deserves a sold-out, thunderous environment tonight in Coleman Coliseum. If you can’t make it, the game will be televised on ESPN2 after Bryce Young is given his Heisman trophy.
What a time to be alive.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.