Following an up-and-down holiday weekend in Orlando that finished on a serious high, the #16th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (6-1, Kenpom: 11; T-Rank: 14) now head out to the exact opposite corner of the country to do battle with arguably the best program in college basketball in the last five years - the 3rd-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-1, Kenpom: 1; T-Rank: 1). Mark Few has officially turned ‘America’s Cinderella’ into one of the absolute mainstays of college hoops. Gonzaga basketball has almost become synonymous with college basketball. In truth, they have basically become what Notre Dame used to be in college football - a private Catholic university that does its own thing and plays huge, national match-ups with elite teams from all over the country.
The only thing missing is a ring or two. But, this year’s group has as much of a chance to capture that elusive first national championship as anybody in the field. The Zags are loaded. Impact transfers, experienced vets, superstar freshmen - you name it. The Bulldogs straight-up demolished their first six opponents of the season - including #5 UCLA and #7 Texas - before finally suffering a defeat at the hands of the (now) top-ranked Duke Blue Devils.
Alabama has had this game circled since it was announced, and for good reason, as this match-up will determine just how far away Alabama is from being a true Final Four contender. If the Tide can travel cross-country and go toe-to-toe with Gonzaga, Nate Oats’ club can hang with anybody.
And listen, if Alabama plays like it did in the second half against Miami last week, the Tide can absolutely beat anybody it comes across. That performance was as dominant of a performance as I’ve seen in my time as a Tide Hoops fan. But it’s also the minimum effort necessary to beat the Zags.
POINT 6’5 Andrew Nembhard (9.3 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.3 RPG, 89.8 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Rasir Bolton (11.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.9 APG, 93.0 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Julian Strawther (14.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 89.4 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Drew Timme (17.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 89.0 DRtg)
POST 7’0 Chet Holmgren (13.8 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 79.8(!) DRtg)
Sheesh, where do I start? This team is big, and they defend the ball extremely well. If the first two names sound familiar, they should. Nembhard transferred from Florida after the 2020 season - where he was the starting point guard as a sophomore for the Gators - to come off the bench for the Zags as a junior last year. Now that he’s back in the starting role, he’s been extremely effective distributing (24.8% AST%) while still getting buckets of his own (46.0%/30.0%/77.8%). Speaking of transfers, this will actually be the third different uniform that Rasir Bolton has worn against the Tide. Bolton was a freshman playing for Penn State when Alabama beat the Nittany Lions 73-64 in Tuscaloosa during the 2018-19 season, and then suited up for Iowa State a year later in the Bahamas when the Cyclones ran Nate Oats’ first Tide team off the court in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Bolton actually dropped 22 points on the Tide that day. This season, he’s continued that role as a creator and elite scorer (52.4%/42.%/78.6%).
And that’s the weaker portion of the starting line-up. Because the front-court is as good as I’ve seen in college basketball. Julian Strawther is a long, skilled wing that has been getting buckets (51.3%/42.5%/77.3%) and hitting the glass (14.8% REB%) in his second season in Spokane. Drew Timme is an old-school, elite back-to-the-basket scorer (62.2%/12.5%/69.2%), and was a second-team All-American last season. And Chet Holmgren is a future All-NBA regular. The seven-foot freshman from Minnesota can do it all. He can score at any level (71.0%/36.8%/71.4%), rebound (15.8% REB%), handle the ball and distribute (16.1% AST%), run the floor, and defend almost any position (check his Defensive Rating again), though he is lethal at the rim (3.5 BPG). This kid is insanely good at basketball. If you haven’t watched him yet, you are in for a treat.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Nolan Hickman (7.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, 91.2 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Hunter Sallis (4.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 80.4 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Anton Watson (3.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 80.9 DRtg)
POST 6’9 Kaden Perry (2.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 89.8 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Ben Gregg (4.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 87.9 DRtg)
So, you finally get Gonzaga into their bench, and what do they have awaiting you? Oh, just a pair of five-star guards and an athletic wing built in the same vein as Herbert Jones. Sallis, the higher-rated of the two guards, has struggled a bit with his shot thus far (48.4%/0.0%/87.52%), but it’s only a matter of time before he gets that worked out, and he’s more than made up for it on the defensive end. Hickman has found his shooting stroke just fine (57.1%/34.8%/75.0%) and is a nice distributor of the ball (12.3% AST%) as well. Watson, as mentioned, is very Herb-like. An elite defender, Watson can also be an effective scorer going towards the basket (41.7%/0.0%/64.3%) and is second on the team with a 22.3% AST%. Perry and Gregg provide relief for Timme and Holmgren in the paint, if they ever come off the floor.
Three Keys to Victory
- Guard Play. If there is anywhere Gonzaga is remotely susceptible, it’s in the back-court. Luckily for Alabama, the Tide’s strength is playing through it’s guards. Alabama will need the best efforts that Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, and J.D. Davison have to offer in this one to have a chance. That means no wasted possessions on dumb shots or turnovers. They need to be able to keep the tempo high without being sloppy. Knock down open shots when they are available, because there won’t be many opportunities. Attack off the dribble and be ready to attack the glass or pass if the slide from one of the Zags’ bigs commit. Defend at a high level. If the Tide doesn’t get great - not good - play from these three, this won’t be even competitive. No other key or factor will matter if we don’t get JQ, Shack, and JD’s best.
- Hold Up Inside. The biggest mismatch in this game is the Bulldogs’ bigs vs the Tide’s front-court. Charles Bediako is about to find out what defending an elite big man looks like Saturday night. Alabama will need every decently-sized player on the roster to crash the glass to be competitive on the boards. The guards will probably need to help with double teams whenever Timme or Holmgren get the ball in the painted area, because it’s unlikely that the bigs can guard them one-on-one, and sliding across the paint with two bigs on a double is an automatic two points for the Zags. God-speed to our bigs.
- Keon Ellis. The guards get all the press-clippings for Alabama, but this is Keon Ellis’ team. If he wants to be a first round pick and an All American, it’s time to showcase that Saturday night. Keon honestly can’t come off the floor for more than a breather. He just does so many things well on both ends of the court and has the size to match some of the Zags bigger guards and wings. Ellis is only averaging 7.7 shots per game, despite his elite scoring splits (55.6%/46.7%/90.5%). That has to change. Not just in this game either. I’d really love to see him become more assertive on the offensive end, and Oats needs to run sets that feature him more.
Saturday is going to be an epic day for the University of Alabama’s athletic department, with the football team playing the #1 Georgia Bulldogs for the SEC Championship and Tide Hoops playing on the other side of the country against another elite group of Bulldogs. To be completely honest, I think the football team has the easier task. Vegas tends to agree as well, as DraftKings has Gonzaga listed as an 8-point favorite*.
Saturday night’s clash with the Zags is must-watch television, and it will take Alabama’s absolute best to pull off the stunning upset in Seattle. The good news is, we just watched it unfold in the last half that the Tide played.
Tip-off is set for 7:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2, for any NBA scouts that won’t be in attendance.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.