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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #20 Arkansas

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Alabama travels to Fayetteville for a ranked showdown with championship aspirations at stake

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Woo pig, this going to be a big one.

A year ago, I hinted that the recent hires of Nate Oats with the Alabama Crimson Tide (18-5, 13-1 SEC, NET: 8, Kenpom: 8) and Eric Musselman with the Arkansas Razorbacks (17-5, 9-4 SEC, NET: 25, Kenpom: 22) represented true turning points for two of the SEC’s historic programs that had fallen into a void of mediocrity. However, not even I could’ve foreseen this immediate of a turnaround. With only a week left (depending on whether or not any “postponed” games are actually made up), these two ranked foes will do battle in Bud Walton Arena with the SEC regular season Championship on the line.

Well, kind of. It depends, really. I previously claimed that the Tide had locked up a share of the SEC title already with its win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, and that remains true, assuming no other games are made up. However, Oats mentioned in his presser on Monday that the SEC is going to let them know by Friday if they reschedule any make-up games for next week. Currently, the regular season is supposed to end with midweek games next week. However, with the exceptions of South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M, the rest of the conference has missed no more than two games each. So, it’s possible that the SEC could stretch next week out into a two or three game week, depending on how many are necessary to make up.

Alabama has only missed one game - last week at Texas A&M thanks to that generational snow storm. Coincidentally, A&M had to postpone both of their meetings with Arkansas as well, citing COVID issues both times. So, while it would be impossible for the SEC to set-up three different match-ups with A&M, the conference could technically set up a single game between the Razorbacks and Aggies. Especially if Arkansas does close the gap on Alabama during these last three scheduled games. Granted, that would require the Tide losing out and Arkansas winning all three of its remaining games to even have a chance.

Or, we can forget about all of those hypothetical scenarios, and Alabama could just close the door entirely with a win tonight. A Tide victory would 100%, no questions asked, clinch an outright SEC title, the first since 2002. It would also be only the second title since 1987. In total, it would bring ‘Bama to nine, which would further cement its status as fourth-most in the conference, only one behind Tennessee for third and two behind LSU for second (Kentucky has an insane 49 total regular season SEC Titles).

Additionally, this game has obvious NCAA Tournament ramifications. Arkansas has been on a tear lately, moving up to the six-line in most projected brackets, so a road win against the Razorbacks would look mighty nice on the ole NCAA Tournament resume. Alabama is considered, by most, to be the second two-seed in the S-curve behind Illinois, who was upset by Michigan State last night. So, a win tonight would likely put the Tide in the on-deck circle for the top line in the tournament.

It’s a massive game in Fayetteville tonight. Can the Tide measure up to the moment?

From Last Time

Three Keys to Victory

Reese and Rojas. Alex Reese and James Rojas better be ready to play the best basketball of their lives with Herb and Bruner out. Especially with Bruner likely being out for the majority of the regular season. Saturday, these two stretch fours will be tasked with playing the five and trying to check the 7’3 Vanover in the low post. Now, both of them have shown serious toughness in the painted area in recent weeks, but they are going to have to really work their butts off to deny the low entry pass and keep the Tide competitive on the boards. It wouldn’t hurt if they could trade some twos given up with some threes on the other end, as both are capable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tide utilize a five-out approach.

Perimeter Shooting. Speaking of which, the Tide is going to need to make a lot of shots in this game if they want to win. That was basically the key to maintaining the lead against Kentucky after Herb and Bruner went down. Petty and Shack are going to need to take good shots and come out hot for this one. On the other end, Arkansas similarly likes to light it up from downtown. Now, none of them are elite, knock-down shooters, but every guy in the rotation, with the exception of Williams, can get buckets from range. Alabama will be tempted to help our undersized defenders in the post, but the Tide can’t give up open looks from easy kick-out passes because of it.

Push the Tempo and Be Aggressive. Arkansas certainly doesn’t have any issues running the court, but with only nine scholarship players, wearing out those legs and forcing the Hogs into lazy fouls could be huge in this game. Defensively, Alabama doesn’t want to let Arkansas get the ball into the paint, so the Tide will need to be aggressive in the passing lanes and disrupt the flow of the offense as much as possible. As I mentioned, the Razorbacks have had turnover issues due to their lack of point guard play, so Alabama will want to force them into as many errors as possible.

Check out this link to read the full Breakdown for the last meeting

It was a Hog roast in Tuscaloosa last month, as Alabama absolutely annihilated Arkansas 90-59. It was classic Oats-ball, as Alabama shot 36 three-pointers and made 15 of them for a strong 41.7% 3P%. The Tide out-rebounded the Razorbacks 43-36 and had ten more assists with four less turnovers. It was a total mauling. In fact, had freshman phenom and potential NBA draft lottery pick, Moses Moody, not dressed out, Arkansas might have lost by 50 points. Herb Jones, the warrior that he is, actually ended up starting and playing 23 minutes, which was a massive boost for the Tide. John Petty and Jaden Shackelford did exactly what we needed them to do, combining for 33 points on 12/21 shooting. It was just a masterclass of exactly how Nate Oats wants his teams to play.

Awesome, let’s just do that again

It’s not that simple, unfortunately. For one, Bud Walton Arena has been a place of horrors for Tide Hoops over the years. As Erik mentioned yesterday, Arkansas is 20-6 against Alabama at home all-time, including having won nine of the last ten meetings in Fayetteville. In addition to that, Arkansas is on fire right now, a completely different team than they were when the Razorbacks came to T-Town. The biggest change for them has come from the back-court, as they have gotten much better point guard play out of Davonte Davis and Jalen Tate - not nearly as many turnovers, running the offense better, making clutch late game decisions, etc. It also hasn’t hurt having a healthy Jalen Smith back in the line-up. The big wing is averaging 12 points and 6 rebounds on over 50% shooting from the field. He played in the previous meeting, but he was not healthy at all. Oh, and Moses Moody is still very much a problem.

On the other side, Alabama is coming off a very pedestrian effort against Vanderbilt. Jordan Bruner is finally back (huzzah!), but he looked like a zombie out there on Saturday. Hopefully, that game allowed him to knock some rust off those knees. If he’s still hobbled, he could be more of a liability than an asset against a team that is full of athletes who can shoot. There is a chance Juwan Gary could play tonight, which would be a big boost for the Tide, as he’s really started to bloom as a wing playing undersized in the post.

The biggest key to this game though is Herb’s availability, and I’m not talking about any of his injuries. The senior captain has to be smarter about his fouls. His willingness to get into the scrum and draw contact is part of what makes him such an elite defender, but Alabama can’t afford to have him sitting on the bench in foul trouble. Arkansas, and anyone else the Tide will play in March, is too good for the Tide to be playing without its most important player.

So, the stage is set for arguably the biggest Alabama basketball game in over a decade. The Tide needs to come out with the same defensive focus that has Nate Oats’ squad ranked 2nd in the country in defensive efficiency. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to get Petty and Shack some good looks early to try to get them in a rhythm, either. If that happens, Herb stays on the floor, and Bruner and Gary can be net-positives working their way back from injuries, the Tide should be able to pull off the rare road win in Fayetteville and clinch an outright SEC Championship. It won’t be easy, though.

The game tips-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2.