With the relentless onslaught of top-tier non-conference opponents now in the rearview mirror, the 6th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (8-2, NET: 21, Kenpom: 13) returns home for its only Quad 4 game of the season thus far. The result in Memphis against the Tigers is obviously not what anybody wanted, but if you had told me the Tide would be sitting at 8-2 at this juncture, knowing the incredibly difficult schedule the team had to face, I’d have taken it every single time. Alabama obviously won’t be ranked sixth in the country when the AP Poll comes out on Monday, but, provided that they win tonight, Nate Oats’ squad will still be either just inside or just outside the top ten.
Either way, it has been a remarkable start to the year for a Tide team that was going to be reliant on a lot of new faces this season. With Colorado State having to withdraw from the C.M. Newton Classic in Birmingham this upcoming Tuesday, tonight’s match-up with the Jacksonville State Gamecocks (5-5, NET: 190, Kenpom: 149) could be the final chance for the Tide to get things right before conference play begins in earnest - although I have heard that Alabama is attempting to find a replacement for the Rams for Tuesday (EDIT - the Crimson Tide will now play the Davidson Wildcats on Tuesday night in Birmingham). Regardless, this is a great opportunity for the Tide to focus on improving upon it’s weaknesses against a team that is - at least on paper - an overmatched foe.
Still, Nate Oats pointed out earlier this week in his presser that Ray Harper’s guys play hard, and if the Tide doesn’t match that intensity, it could easily be a loss. We aren’t that far removed as a program from dropping games like this that can really wreck an NCAA Tournament resume. Jacksonville State is certainly a capable basketball team.
POINT 6’3 Darian Adams (14.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 4.4 APG, 96.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’1 Jalen Finch (7.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.9 APG, 98.3 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Jalen Gibbs (11.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 98.8 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Kayne Henry (8.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 0.8 APG, 98.0 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Brandon Huffman (10.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 93.2 DRtg)
Jacksonville State has four returning starters from last season’s opening game against the Tide, which Alabama won 81-57. Jalen Gibbs, a grad transfer from Mount St. Mary’s, is the lone newbie in the starting unit for the Gamecocks. He was brought in for his shooting abilities, and he hasn’t disappointed in that regard (38.2%/46.6%/85.7%). He joins his fellow Jalen, Finch, as perimeter threats that can really shoot it (37.5%/35.7%/84.6%). Darian Adams runs the show, though. His 28.3% AST% leads the team, but he’s been pretty lethal from three-point land as well (41.8%/41.3%/81.8%).
In the front-court, the ‘Cocks rely on a pair of long-time starters in Kayne Henry and Brandon Huffman. Henry hasn’t been as impactful as in previous seasons this year, but he’s still a dynamic, do-it-all, type of wing that could really turn it on at any minute (46.6%/36.7%/64.0%; 11.7% REB%). Huffman is your traditional big - he rebounds (17.4% REB%) and protects the rim (5.2% BLK%) at a high level and provides good size on the offensive end.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’0 Demaree King (9.2 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 101.5 DRtg)
GUARD 6’1 Caleb Byrd (2.1 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 93.0 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Juwan Perdue (3.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 99.2 DRtg)
WING 6’9 Jay Pal (3.4 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 95.0 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Maros Zeliznak (2.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 103.8 DRtg)
The Gamecocks have utilized a pretty large rotation of guys this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them tighten that up a bit for the Tide tonight. Demaree King is the quintessential sixth man - he can score (42.7%/40.7%66.7%), handle and distribute the ball (14.9% AST%), and provides quite the spark off the bench. Jay Pal has a ton of potential as a 6’9 wing with guard skills, but he’s still got a ways to go to reach that ceiling (55.0%/22.2%/53.8%; 23.4% TO%). Perdue is a hard-nosed player on the wing, and Zeliznak provides good size in relief of Huffman in the post.
Three Keys to Victory
- Defend the Perimeter. If there is any possible path to victory for the Gamecocks, it begins with the three-point line. It’s been their one area of strength all season, as they actually rank 20th in the country with a 39.3% 3P%. Now, that comes almost entirely from their starting guards + King, so it’ll be up to the Tide’s perimeter defenders to bring it on the defensive end tonight. I don’t have any doubts about the level of effort and ability Keon Ellis will bring in that regard, but this should be a really good test for Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, and J.D. Davison.
- Rebound. This key will remain here until the the rebounding improves, specifically on the defensive end. Granted, Houston and Memphis are both elite on the offensive glass, but Alabama got it’s butt kicked in that regard in consecutive games, and very nearly lost both because of it. Jacksonville State can’t hold a candle to those two teams on the offensive boards, but it’s still an opportunity for the Tide to work on finding a body and boxing out on the defensive glass. Additionally, Alabama’s front-court has been almost non-existent in general on the boards lately. Charles Bediako, Juwan Gary, and Noah Gurley combined for four total rebounds against Memphis on Tuesday night. That is, frankly, unacceptable. Against Houston, that trio combined for six total boards. Alabama will not compete for any championships of any kind with that kind of production on the glass from its bigs.
- Maintain Effort. Obviously, this should be an easy win for the Tide, one of the few on the entirely schedule. But, that will only be the case if the guys match Jacksonville State’s energy and maintain that level of intensity and focus the whole way through. There exists a very plausible scenario where the Gamecocks come out hot from three and the Tide is unable to match on the perimeter. That’s where Alabama has to flex it’s blue-collar basketball mantra - hit the glass, run the floor, and defend like hell. Let’s take care of business early in this one and get the whole roster some PT tonight.
With the 2021 calendar year coming to an end soon, Alabama has an opportunity to put itself in fantastic position for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament come March. Nate Oats’ squad will have easily one of the best non-conference resumes in college basketball, as long as they can take care of business tonight.
But, regardless of the resume, Alabama still has a lot of room to improve - rebounding, free throw shooting, keeping the half-court offense from getting stagnant at times, taking care of the basketball, defending at a high level consistently, etc. Games like tonight are way more important in this regard. This is a wonderful opportunity to work through some weaknesses and really start to become the elite team we all know that the Tide is capable of being on a more consistent basis. Because that is absolutely necessary if Alabama wants to repeat as champions of the SEC and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
The game will tip-off at 7:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.