With just four weeks left to go before Selection Sunday, the Alabama Crimson Tide (16-5, 11-1 SEC, NET: 10, Kenpom: 10) has set its eyes on the first major accomplishment of the Nate Oats era - winning the regular season SEC Championship. Despite the set-back in Missouri last Saturday, the Tide has a commanding lead with only a few weeks left in conference play. No other team is within three games of the Tide in the current standings after Mizzou got run out of the building in Oxford earlier this week. With, at most, six games to play, it would take a epic meltdown for Alabama to not at least finish with a share of the title.
More importantly though, the Tide has to figure out some solutions to a few issues if Nate Oats’ squad wants to hit its stride at the right time come March. For one, injuries are starting to pile up. Jordan Bruner continues to be “a couple of weeks away” according to Oats, though we’ve stretched that couple of weeks out quite a bit now. A healthy, in-game-shape Bruner makes Alabama a different team, but it’s starting to come into question whether the Tide will have that luxury again this season. We’ll see. But, it’s important for Alabama to prepare for life without him. Better effort on the defensive glass is an absolute must, regardless of who is playing.
Which is why Juwan Gary’s shoulder injury is a significant one. Gary may not have been padding the stat-sheet, but he was a critical replacement for Bruner in the front-court. The 6’6 wing was playing much bigger than that recently, swatting shots and rebounding the ball with enthusiasm. It’s basically down to a stretch four in Alex Reese, a big bodied bruiser in James Rojas, and a raw freshman, Keon Ambrose-Hylton, in the front-court now for Alabama. Oh, and a seriously banged up Herb Jones, who is still being asked to play point guard on the offensive end until Jahvon Quinerly can get back to playing within the offense and defending at the level necessary to keep him on the floor for a maximum number of minutes.
So, yeah, this year’s team has some questions to answer. Still, Alabama is ranked 11th in the country and a consensus two-seed in the NCAA Tournament, with an SEC title looking like it is more a question of when and not if. To that point, the Georgia Bulldogs (11-7, 5-7 SEC, NET: 93, Kenpom: 89) come to Tuscaloosa today. This should be a game Alabama wins easily. But, as Tide Hoops fans know, nothing comes easy in February.
POINT 5’10 Sahvir Wheeler (13.5 PPG, 7.3 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 Tye Fagan (9.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.3 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Justin Kier (9.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.8 APG, 2.1 SPG)
WING 6’6 P.J. Horne (9.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG)
POST 6’8 Toumani Camara (12.6 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG)
The Bulldogs have an interesting mix in their starting unit: two blue-chip sophomores, a pair of grad transfers, and then Tye Fagan, who seems like he’s been playing basketball in Athens since Dennis Felton roamed the sideline. At point guard, Sahvir “The Dealer” Wheeler (I have absolutely no idea if anyone actually calls him “The Dealer”, but if they aren’t, why aren’t they?) leads the entire conference in APG and AST% at 7.3 and 37.7%. Those are insane numbers. He was a highly rated four-star coming out of high school, who made up part of Tom Crean’s heralded 2019 top-ten recruiting class (and you thought Georgia football was underperforming its recruiting rankings). Wheeler is definitely a drive-to-dish type of player, as he’s not the greatest scorer (39.1%/26.3%/70.8%), so Alabama needs to be aware of that on defense.
Joining him in the backcourt are Fagan and Justin Kier, a grad-transfer from George Washington. Both are very solid scorers (Fagan: 58.3%/26.1%/60.0; Kier: 40.4%/35.4%/78.0%), but Keir has a knack for turning opponents over (3.6% STL%). P.J. Horne transferred in from Virginia Tech. He may sound familiar to Tide Hoops fans, as he played 20 minutes off of the bench for the Hokies against the Tide in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. He plays the stretch four role for UGA (47.0%/36.2%/80.0%), but he has really struggled defensively (105.9 DRg) and on the glass (7.0% REB%).
Finally, Toumani Camara rounds out the starting group. Another former blue-chip prospect, the long post has taken a huge step forward this season. He looked incredibly raw last year, but he has polished his game significantly. He’s scoring at a 49.1% clip, despite attempting 2.3 3PAs per game (at a decent, for a big, 23.8% ). He sports a 14.0% REB%, 10.3% AST%, 2.4% STL%, and 3.2% BLK%. Honestly, Camara is one of the most underrated players in the country. I guarantee you very few people outside of Athens, GA know who he is. But he has a game that is made for the NBA. Watch out for this kid.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’1 K.D. Johnson (13.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.7 SPG)
WING 6’6 Andrew Garcia (9.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
WING 6’6 Christian Brown (4.6 PPG, 2.9 RPG)
POST 6’9 Tyron McMillan (2.2 PPG 1.5 RPG)
True freshman, K.D. Johnson, has given Georgia a huge lift since conference play started. The four-star product out of Virginia has actually been the Bulldogs’ best shooter (45.1%/45.5%/58.8%), which has made him a dangerous sixth man in his early career. Alabama better treat him like the starter he might as well be. Garcia and Brown are both solid players on both ends of the court, and McMillan provides size and depth for Camara in the post.
Three Keys to Victory
- On-Ball Defense. Tom Crean has always been heavy with isolation. Sure, he’ll throw in the pick-and-roll, as every coach does, but the main takeaway to defending the Bulldogs’ offense is to stop the ball from getting into the paint on the dribble-drive. As mentioned, Savir Wheeler is excellent at this. Whoever is defending him will need to really put the clamps down to lead the way for the nation’s top defense.
- Defensive Rebounding. This has been the main area Alabama has consistently struggled in all year. It will be vitally important today against Georgia. The Bulldogs are 20th in the country in Offensive RPG, as Crean places a heavy emphasis on making each offensive possession count. With Bruner and Gary out, Reese, Rojas, and Ambrose-Hylton are going to be tasked with finding a man and putting a body on him. Georgia isn’t exactly a huge team, so this should be an achievable task for the Tide.
- Offensive Movement and Three Point Shooting. It’s about time Alabama finds its mojo again on offense. Georgia is not a good defensive team (123rd in Defensive Efficiency). Much like LSU, they don’t do much of anything well on that end of the court. They let guys get past them, don’t rotate over, and are awful at protecting the basket. I can’t think of a better game for Alabama to get out of its offensive slump than this one - at home, against a poor defensive club. If the Tide wants to start getting hot again, today’s a great opportunity to do so.
Again, this should be a take-care-of-business type of ball game today. But, so was the near-loss to South Carolina on Tuesday night. Georgia can play - they certainly have guys on offense who can put the ball in the basket - so Alabama has to come out focused in this one. Saturdays have been brutal for the Tide in recent weeks. Can Alabama turn that around?
A win today would put Alabama on the on-deck circle for the regular season SEC Championship. Herb Jones’ status is still up in the air for today’s game, in part because Wednesday’s game against Texas A&M may end up getting cancelled, due to COVID issues with the Aggies’ team, which would allow for a much needed break for Herb.
The game tips-off at 2:30 PM and will be televised on the SEC Network.
For fun, let’s revisit the last time Georgia came to town against a top-15 ranked Alabama team