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Bama Basketball Breakdown and How to Watch: #14 Tennessee

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The Crimson Tide tips-off SEC play with a massive top-25 showdown with the Volunteers

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Even after concluding a non-conference schedule that featured the likes of #4 Gonzaga and #12 Houston - arguably the toughest slate any team in the country has taken on - the 19th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (9-3, NET: 23, Kenpom: 19) is still trying to figure things out. After dispatching both of the aforementioned 2021 Final Four participants, Alabama ended the first half of the season with less than encouraging performances against Memphis, Jacksonville State, and Davidson - two of which ended up as outright losses.

So, despite a strong record against a brutal stretch, one that any of us would have absolutely taken prior to the season beginning, the Tide finds itself in search of answering a few questions - how to better take care of the ball, prevent blow-bys on defense, keep the opponents off of the offensive glass, etc. Nate Oats mentioned in his presser earlier this week that he believes we have the guys to get it righted, but the execution simply needs to be better. Personally, I think there are a number of other changes/developments that need to be made in order to get the best out of this roster:

  • J.D. Davison needs to play point guard more. He’s electric with the ball in his hands, and he’s not anywhere near the shooter that Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly are. Let’s get Quinerly and Shack some more opportunities off the ball.
  • Keon Ellis needs to be utilized more. He’s only being used on 16.4% of possessions, which is 7th on the team. That’s unacceptable to me. Whether he needs to be more aggressive or the coaches need to do a better job of featuring him, something needs to change.
  • The frontcourt guys need to step-up in a big way on defense and the glass. Charles Bediako got taken to task against Davidson’s big man, and his rebounding lately has been quite poor. It’s totally reasonable that a 19-year-old freshman who is used to AAU basketball would get beat by a more-developed, 23-year-old with actual post moves, but Bediako can’t let guys get to their spot repeatedly like he did in Birmingham. And Noah Gurley has been a major disappointment thus far, there’s really no other way to put it - poor shooting (20.7% 3P%; 58.8% FT%), average play on both ends (100.9 ORtg; 100.6 DRtg), and a negligible impact on the boards (10.3% REB%). He’s a better player than this.

I don’t want this to come off as too negative though. Again, Alabama is ranked in the top-20 in the country and has a resume that is probably even better than that. How many times during the 21st century have we been able to say that? Still, as challenging as the non-conference portion of the schedule was, SEC play may be even tougher. This isn’t last season’s SEC - no one is going 16-2 this year. In fact, the SEC has a legitimate argument that it is the best conference in basketball this season.

Furthermore, Alabama’s schedule opens up with a brutal stretch - #14 Tennessee, at Florida, at Mizzou, #11 Auburn, at Mississippi State, and #16 LSU - in the first six games. Three tricky road trips where Alabama hasn’t found much success over the years and three massive show-downs against hated rivals at home. The Tide is going to have to figure things out quickly if it wants to repeat as regular season SEC Champs in 2022.

You have to start somewhere though, and the Tide will do so with a huge clash against the 14th-ranked Tennessee Volunteers (9-2, NET: 8, Kenpom: 10) in Tuscaloosa tonight. It’s a huge night in the SEC, as undefeated LSU also takes on one-loss Auburn in another top-25 showdown. It may not be 2022 quite yet, but the 2022 SEC season is going to be heavily impacted by the results tonight.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’0 Kennedy Chandler (14.0 PPG, 5.3 APG, 3.0 RPG, 86.1 DRtg)

GUARD 6’3 Santiago Vescovi (13.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.2 APG, 83.2 DRtg)

WING 6’6 Josiah-Jordan James (6.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.1 APG, 76.5 DRtg)

WING 6’8 Olivier Nkamhoua (8.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.0 APG, 81.6 DRtg)

POST 6’9 John Fulkerson (9.9 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.5 APG, 87.8 DRtg)

Rick Barnes has been such a good coach for such a long time, he’s honestly become quite underappreciated nationally. And he’s had some really dang good teams at Tennessee - particularly in 2018 and 2019. But, this year’s squad could challenge those groups. Both of the Vols early season losses were against Q1 opponents on a neutral court - Villanova and Texas Tech - and the last time out, Tennessee handed #9 Arizona it’s first and only loss of the season in Knoxville.

Leading the charge for the Vols this year has been freshman phenom Kennedy Chandler. A consensus five-star, Chandler has done what last year’s pair of one-and-done guards - Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson - failed to do, and that’s run and ignite the Tennessee offense. He brings it all as a point guard - he can score (44.4%/37.2%/75.0%), dish (31.7% AST%), and defend at a high level. And his presence has allowed three-year starter, Santiago Vescovi, to slide over to off-guard, which is a much more natural fit for the Uruguayan. Vescovi is more of a true shooter (41.1%/35.3%/73.7%), but he hasn’t forgotten how to get his teammates involved either (20.7% AST%).

In the frontcourt, Tennessee has a bevy of experience. Three year starting wing, JJJ, brings serious toughness all over the court (13.0% REB%, 76.5 DRtg, 1.5 BPG on 7.3% BLK%). He’s continued to struggle with his shot (30.0%/23.3%/70.0%), but the guy has the talent to turn that around. Olivier Nkamhoua is the latest long-term project that appears to be paying off huge dividends for Barnes. The third year player has finally cracked the starting unit, and he is making a serious impact - he leads the team in REB% (16.2%), BLK% (7.5%), and 3P% (60.0%). The guy is a serious athlete who makes the most of his 6’8 frame. Last, but certainly not least, is John Fulkerson, who, I swear, has been playing in Knoxville since the Bruce Pearl era. The big man is a traditional post with really strong skills (57.4% FG%, 14.2% REB%, 7.1% BLK%, 16.5% AST%), and he’s given Alabama’s lack of size fits over the years.

Off the Bench

GUARD 5’9 Zakai Zeigler (6.5 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.5 RPG, 86.8 DRtg)

GUARD 6’6 Justin Powell (7.3 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 93.4 DRtg)

GUARD 6’4 Victor Bailey (4.5 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 91.9 DRtg)

POST 6’10 Brandon Huntley-Hatfield (5.0 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 83.6 DRtg)

POST 7’0 Uros Plavsic (3.0 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 91.8 DRtg)

Tennessee also has a deep bench. Another true freshman, Zakai Zeigler, has had a significant impact as an offensive spark-plug off of the bench (39.4 %/33.3%/70.0%; 23.9% AST%). Justin Powell, who transferred from Auburn after one season on the Plains, has been a knock-down shooter (48.1%/41.2%/63.6%) for the Vols, as he - much like Vescovi - has been able to play off-ball more in Knoxville. Huntley-Hatfield and Plavsic offer great size in relief of Nkamhoua and Fulkerson. And Victor Bailey started for Tennessee last season. This is a deep group.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Dictate the Tempo. Tennessee is incredibly similar to the Houston Cougars - they are deliberately slow (although not as much as in recent years at 75th in pace) and very difficult to score on in the half-court (2nd in Defensive Efficiency). If Alabama wants to win this game, the Tide will have to dictate the pace of it. We’ve seen how much the Tide can struggle to generate offense in the half-court at times, so it’ll be up to Nate Oats’ bunch to push the ball and prevent the Vols’ defense from being able to settle in.
  2. REBOUND. If the offensive glass is as open as it has been recently, it’s going to be nearly impossible to beat Tennessee tonight. The Volunteers are 38th in the country in OREB%. We need to see the resurgence of Angry Chuck tonight in the post. Gurley and Juwan Gary need to be ready to hit the glass. The guards need to do a better job of keeping guys in front of them so that the other three guys I just mentioned don’t have to go chasing blocks to protect the rim, which inevitably opens up the glass. It is a full-team effort to prevent offensive boards, and Alabama simply can’t afford to a) give Tennessee extra possessions and b) allow the Vols to slow the game down by dominating time of possession.
  3. Smart, Patient Defense. The Vols are 16th in the country in assists - made field goals ratio. They share the basketball. They patiently run sets and cuts in the half-court and are constantly looking for the best open shot. The defense has to communicate tonight for Alabama. The guards really need to hold up on this end, because Rick Barnes likes to get his back-court players loose with multiple screeners. It’s got to be smart basketball tonight on the defensive end.

This is a major match-up for Alabama tonight. Not only is it the conference opener against a hated rival, but it’s also the only meeting between these two SEC contenders. Also, with the way Alabama has played recently, it would be a perfect opportunity to remind people why the Tide was ranked in the top-ten just last week.

DraftKings Sportsbook has Alabama listed as a 4-point favorite* in Tuscaloosa tonight, which is very encouraging. It’ll be a battle for sure. Alabama will have to bring the same level of play that it did against the likes of Gonzaga and Houston if it wants to get the SEC title defense campaign started off on the right foot. This should be second-weekend of the NCAA Tournament-level of play tonight, so if you can, make it over to Coleman Coliseum for this electric match-up.

The game will tip at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2. Big game tonight, y’all.

*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.*