Coming off consecutive wins against teams that participated in last year’s Final Four, the Alabama Crimson Tide (8-1, NET: 11, Kenpom: 11) will hit the road again tonight for a match-up that will have scouts from every NBA team foaming at the mouth, as they clash with Penny Hardaway and his Memphis Tigers (5-4, NET: 77, Kenpom: 39). Despite having already taken on the #1 Strength of Schedule in college basketball, you could easily make the argument that there hasn’t been a team Alabama has faced with more raw talent than the Tigers. Before the season began, I had this to say about the early December gauntlet that the Tide would be taking on:
There’s reason to believe that this year will be better than the last, but only if Alabama is ready to play elite competition a month into the season. The Tide begins the month by traveling to Seattle to play a team called the Gonzaga Bulldogs - perhaps you’ve heard of them? After that cross-country affair, Alabama will return home to play another 2021 Final Four participant, Houston, in a make-up game from last year. Then, Nate Oats’ group will have to travel to Memphis to play a Tiger team that is absolutely loaded with talent, including one of the best draft prospects of the past few years in freshman phenom, Emoni Bates.
With that being said, Memphis is struggling to play good basketball right now. While the Tide has been one of the hottest teams in the nation, the Tigers have been the exact opposite, having loss four straight games against a very meh schedule - Georgia, Iowa State, Ole Miss, and Murray State. They’ve got real issues on both ends of the court - they are playing some ugly, sloppy basketball. Memphis is averaging a nation-wide worst 18.6 turnovers per game, they foul all the time, and their squad of 5-stars and NBA prospects are just playing selfish, undisciplined basketball. It’s been a pretty damning indictment of Hardaway that this team has been this bad.
Still, they have a ton of talent. So, they are incredibly dangerous on any given night. Plus, they are desperate to stop the bleeding and turn things around. I couldn’t think of a better way for them to do that than by beating a top-ten Alabama team in front of a raucous crowd in one of college basketball’s most difficult venues.
The Tide can’t let the Tigers’ recent struggles lull them to sleep or give them too much confidence. This is a dangerous basketball team, and Alabama will need to continue playing as well as it has if the fellas want to clear this brutal three-game gauntlet.
GUARD 6’0 Alex Lomax (5.9 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.4 RPG, 91.3 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Lester Quinones (8.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 94.9 DRtg)
WING 6’9 Emoni Bates (11.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 98.9 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Deandre Williams (10.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 0.8 APG, 92.2 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Jalen Duren (10.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.1 APG, 84.4 DRtg)
The “starting five” for Memphis has been a fluid situation for Penny Hardaway, and it’s part of the reason they’ve struggled so much on offense. There is no true point guard that runs this team. Senior Alex Lomax (20.9% AST%) is probably the best option, but he’s ceded time to Earl Timberlake off of the bench lately because Lomax has been turning the ball over at an alarming rate (32.1% TO%). The Tigers don’t really run a discernable offense. That’s honestly the biggest issue. There has been a wave of former basketball superstars getting hired at the college level recently, and they all seem to have this problem. It almost seems like guys like Hardaway (and Avery Johnson, Jerry Stackhouse, etc.) were such good players themselves that they almost expect too much from their players, without having the coaching acumen to put them in positions to succeed. It’s like they can’t translate to lesser players how to do the things that came so naturally to them.
Emoni Bates is, as I said in my season preview piece, one of the best prospects the game has seen in years. He’s got guard skills in a (albeit thin) post frame. He was the slam-dunk #1 prospect in the 2022 class, but he reclassified to 2021 to play a season at Memphis before going on to be the top pick of the 2022 NBA Draft. At least that was the thought process. Instead, Bates has struggled to make much of a difference (38.8%/31.0%/71.0%; 8.7% AST%; 5.8% REB%), and it’s really starting to look like he maybe should have stayed another year in high school.
In the post, fellow top-ten 2021 recruit, Jalen Duren, mans the five for the Tigers. Another expected one-and-done, Duran has at least fit the bill of a young 18-year-old star playing a position that is tough to transition to. He’s scoring at a 66.5% clip in the paint and is a force on the glass (17.5% REB%). He also happens to be a beast defensively (84.4 DRtg; 3.0 BPG on 13.7% BLK%).
Off the Bench
GUARD 5’9 Tyler Harris (6.9 PPG, 1.0 APG, 101.2 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Jayden Hardaway (3.0 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 1.0 APG, 96.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’6 Earl Timberlake (5.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.0 APG, 92.8 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Landers Nolley (7.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 96.1 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Josh Minott (4.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 90.8 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Malcolm Dandridge (3.1 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 89.3 DRtg)
As mentioned, “off the bench” is being used loosely here for some of these guys. Timberlake has started at point guard the past two games, mostly because he’s been much less loose with the basketball (24.1% TO%) than Lomax without a fall-off in the assist category (21.0 AST%). Harris (50.0%/47.8%/81.3%) and Hardaway (40.0%/45.5%/66.7%) have been the two most efficient shooters for the Tigers, but their lack of size prevents either of them from taking on too large of a role.
Landers Nolley is a second-year transfer from Virginia Tech who actually chose Memphis over Alabama and a few other schools as one of the most sought-after transfers on the market after the 2020 season. He’s a high-volume scorer who has struggled a bit in his junior season (34.9%/33.3%/70.8%), but he was on the ACC All-Freshman team for a reason. Minott and Dandridge provide depth and size in the post.
Three Keys to Victory
- Rebounding. If there is one thing Memphis does well, it’s rebound the basketball. That typically is the case for a team with the size and athleticism that this group exhibits. Alabama has to do a much better job at finding a body and boxing out on the defensive glass. Houston is known for their ability to crash the glass on the offensive end, but that was an embarrassing display from the Tide the other night. The Cougars almost won the game on offensive boards alone, and Memphis is top 25 in the country in ORB%. Alabama can’t let that happen again.
- Win the Free Throw Contest. As mentioned, Memphis fouls their opponents at an alarming rate (348th in the country), but the Tigers also get to the line more than anyone in college basketball. The average Memphis basketball game this year has featured nearly 50 free throw attempts per game (I told you there’s been a lot of ugly basketball over there). So, you don’t need me to tell you how important the free throw line will be tonight. The good news for the Tide is that Memphis shoots just 66.8% from the stripe. The bad news is that Alabama has shot just 67.9%.
- Pick up the Pace and Make Memphis Pay. The Tigers are leading the country in turnovers per game for a reason - they don’t take care of the basketball on any part of the floor. It doesn’t help that they are trying to run almost as much as Alabama does (13th in Pace). As we’ve seen for two seasons now, teams that try to run with Alabama do so at their own peril, because Nate Oats absolutely lives for that. The way to beat Oats-led teams is to slow the game down, but it doesn’t seem like Memphis will attempt to do that tonight. Best of luck to them.
If there is a tougher three game stretch in college basketball - please point it out to me. If the Tide can win even one of these games, it will be a rousing success.
That is what I wrote about the opening stretch of December before the season began. Now, Alabama will attempt to complete a clean-sweep of those three loaded foes tonight (insert BUILD NATE OATS A NEW ARENA here). It’s been arguably the best open to a season in Tide Hoops history, even with that one pesky loss to Rick Pitino and Iona.
But, there’s no room to celebrate that accomplishment just yet, even with Memphis’ recent struggles. The Tigers have nine former top-100 recruits on the roster, and Bates and Duren are legitimate lottery picks for this upcoming NBA Draft class. DraftKings Sportsbook only lists Alabama as a 3.5 point favorite* in FedEx Fourm tonight, and let me tell you, that line stinks. I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-and-a-half foot pole.
It’ll take a strong effort from the Tide tonight to extend its current four-game winning streak. Memphis is a very dangerous team. The game will be televised on ESPN and will tip-off at 8:00 PM CST.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.