After a rough week that saw the 10th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (9-2, NET: 22, Kenpom: 16) drop a game in Memphis and then struggle against an inferior Jacksonville State team, Nate Oats’ bunch will be looking to hit the brakes on their recent slide and get back to their early December form. They’ll have one last opportunity to do so before SEC play begins after the Christmas Break, as they meet the Davidson Wildcats (8-2, NET: 52, Kenpom: 59) in Birmingham tonight for the C.M. Newton Classic.
The Tide was, of course, supposed to meet up with the undefeated Colorado State Rams in a top-25 battle between two of the most fun teams in the sport; however, COVID reared its ugly head once again and prevented the Rams from being able to make the trip. The good news is that Davidson is a pretty close approximation to what Alabama would have seen against Colorado State. Both are offensively-led teams that rank among the best in the country in shooting, but lack athleticism or the ability to hold-up on the glass. So, Alabama will get a great challenge from the Wildcats.
To add to Davidson’s success this year, long-time head coach, Bob McKillop is one of the game’s best and most consistent winners. McKillop took over the Wildcats in 1989, and is only ten wins away from 1,000 career wins, all at Davidson. He’s taken his Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament eight times during his tenure, with seven other seasons where they won their conference’s regular season crown but failed to win the automatic bid from the conference tournament. Most notably, he helped make Steph Curry, the NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter, who he is today. Curry led the way for Davidson’s cinderella run to the Elite Eight in 2008.
So, another smaller school that can really shoot the ball and is led by a long-time coach with a history of success. Nate Oats and company didn’t take long to find another major challenge for the Tide. Can Alabama turn things around tonight in Birmingham?
POINT 6’0 Foster Loyer (15.6 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.9 RPG, 99.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Michael Jones (11.8 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, 95.0 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Hyunjung Lee (18.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.3 APG, 96.8 DRtg)
WING 6’9 Sam Mennenga (7.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 99.0 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Luka Brajkovic (11.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 94.2 DRtg)
A quartet of double-digit scorers on a team full of upperclassmen? This should be fun. And by fun, I mean, terrifying. Loyer is the initiator of the offense (19.1% AST%), but the Wildcats all share the ball equally well - each starter is over 15% AST%, which is pretty remarkable. He’s also had a lethal jumper going this year (47.3%/53.3%/87.0%), so the Tide better not lose him in traffic. Jones is no slouch in this regard either, shooting an elite 48.7%/41.3%/92.6% clip himself. These two guards can get hot in a hurry.
On the wing, Hyunjung Lee is the go-to bucket-getter though (51.2%/40.3%/84.8%). He utilizes his 6’7, 215-pound frame to shoot over the top of and bully smaller defenders, but also goes into his bag of guard skills against bigger, more physical defenders to create space. Keon Ellis could have his hands full on the defensive end tonight. Mennenga is a prototypical stretch-four. He rebounds well (13.2% REB%) and provides good size on the interior, but he can step out on the wing and knock down shots himself (50.8%/57.1%/54.5%). Finally, Brajkovic plays the traditional big-man role, rebounding (15.6% REB%) and defending the rim (1.2 BPG on 6.3% BLK%) while still being a productive scorer (55.6%/31.8%/58.8%) of his own.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’3 Grant Huffman (4.0 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 96.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Desmond Watson (4.0 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 101.7 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Nelson Boachie-Yiadom (1.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, 100.1 DRtg)
Davidson will likely utilize a short, eight-man rotation tonight against the Tide. And that’s probably only because the starting five can’t each go a full forty minutes. The Wildcats don’t really get a whole lot from their bench.
Three Keys to Victory
- Rebound. As I said in my last preview, this will remain here until the effort on the boards improves, specifically the defensive end. Jacksonville State, who is not a good rebounding team, corralled 13 offensive boards on Saturday night. That’s just not winning basketball. That’s 13 extra possessions for the other team. You want to allow a two-point team to beat an efficient three-point team? That’s how you do it. The current level of rebounding production will cost Alabama multiple games in conference play, which will, in turn, cost them a title. Davidson basically doesn’t even try to crash the glass on offense, so the Tide has no excuse not to dominate the boards tonight.
- Discipline on Defense. The Wildcats are your typical old-school, college style team. They are going to run sets all night long. There is a reason all five starters clock in at over 15% AST% and at least two assists per game. They are 4th in the country from the perimeter (41.6%) specifically because they take their time, run their offense, and get guys open for good looks. And they can execute the offense from anywhere. One of their favorite things to do is play inside-out, as their bigs look to pass from the post to open guards on the perimeter who get free on intentional, well-designed switches. Communication is going to be vital for Alabama on the defensive end. Talking on screens and switches is absolutely necessary against a Bob McKillop-coached team. Davidson is also a great free throw shooting team (76.0%), so even when defenses stick with them, if they aren’t playing disciplined basketball, the Wildcats will happily go to the free throw line.
- Exert Your Will. Pound-for-pound, Davidson simply doesn’t measure up to Alabama’s athletes. They are one of the slowest teams in college basketball - 304th, in fact - and don’t have the physicality to bang on the boards with the Tide. Alabama needs to dictate the tempo of this game and simply over-power the Wildcats. Every opportunity Alabama has to speed the game up, they need to. For all of the talk about Nate Oats’ teams jacking up three-point shots all night, the Tide is 5th in the country in 2P% at 58.6%, and there isn’t a dude on Davidson that can check any of Alabama’s players. Play sound defense, crash the glass, and get up the court.
This is going to be a great test for Alabama and a huge opportunity for Davidson. The hype may not be the same as it would’ve been for Colorado State, but tonight’s C.M. Newton Classic is going to do right by its namesake in terms of high-level basketball being played. This is an important game for the Tide as Nate Oats’ guys try to right the ship after an ugly week, because conference play starts off brutally for Alabama.
It’s time to flip the switch, boys. This is going to be a significant one tonight. DraftKings Sportsbook has Alabama listed as a strong 8.5-point favorite*, which seems like a few too many, in my opinion. The Wildcats have played a pretty weak slate though, so it’s possible their numbers are a bit inflated.
We’ll find out tonight either way. The game is scheduled for a 6:00 PM CST tip, and will only be available for streaming on either ESPN+ or SEC Network+ for some reason. If you live in the Birmingham area, come on out to the brand new Legacy Arena at the just-renovated BJCC and catch what should be a highly-competitive game featuring a top-ten Tide team.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.