Following its first conference loss of the 2021 season against Missouri this past weekend, the Alabama Crimson Tide (15-5, 10-1 SEC, NET: 9, Kenpom: 8) will travel tonight to the other Columbia for a battle with Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks (5-7, 3-5 SEC, NET: 108, Kenpom: 84). The Tide will be looking to prevent back-to-back road losses from becoming a losing streak, as we are now a week into February, the cursed month of sadness in recent years for Tide Hoops fans.
Truly, this is the first bit of real adversity that Nate Oats’ team has been through since the calendar flipped to 2021. The Tide has had to weather a few injuries at a time, but now those health issues are being compounded by a pair of losses in a week, after Alabama had gone over a month without a single defeat. To that end, Alabama is at a bit of a crossroads. Let’s be honest, the offense hasn’t been good recently. We all knew the shooting would regress to the mean after an incredible run in January, but the offense looks broken all-around right now: missed lay-ups right at the rim, too many turnovers, not enough movement, etc. Teams are being physical with the Tide and over-playing the lanes, as well as running the guys off of the three-point line and basically daring them to either drive into a contested lay-up or *gasp* take a midrange shot.
In other words, teams have adapted to Oats’ style. Alabama needs to learn how to counter. Defensively, the 2nd-ranked Crimson Tide are still bringing it, which is incredibly encouraging. But the injuries to Herb Jones and Jordan Bruner really sink the Tide when a big man like Jeremiah Tilmon comes around. Bruner is still weeks away from a return, and who knows what kind of game shape he’ll be in by the time he gets back, so Alabama really has to figure out a way to mask that weakness. I’ve honestly liked our doubles in the post whenever the team has committed to it; I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that. The defensive rebounding still stinks, but I don’t know how to correct that until Bruner gets back.
All of that being said, the Crimson Tide are still three games up in the SEC on those second place Missouri Tigers, and Alabama is still a consensus two-seed in the projected NCAA Tournament bracket. But, Oats will have to figure out a cure for what ails the Tide, if Alabama wants to go into March playing its best basketball. He’ll also have to do that while managing Herb’s litany of injuries that have piled up and really slowed down the SEC Player of the Year candidate.
Fortunately, the Tide have finally reached the easy portion of the conference schedule. Alabama will play four straight conference bottom-feeders in the next two weeks: South Carolina, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt. Really couldn’t have timed it better. However, as Tide Hoops fans know, wins are never easy in February, no matter how bad the opponent may be.
Can Alabama take care of business while figuring some things out and managing injury issues?
POINT 6’4 Jermaine Cousinard (11.2 PPG, 3.8 APG, 3.0 RPG, 1.4 SPG)
GUARD 6’2 Seventh Woods (5.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.3 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 A.J. Lawson (17.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.5 SPG)
WING 6’6 Justin Manaya (7.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.0 APG)
POST 6’11 Wildens Levegue (5.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG)
Man, that 2017 Final Four team sure feels like it was a long time ago at this point, doesn’t it? The Gamecocks haven’t even sniffed the NCAA Tournament since then, and this year won’t be any different for Frank Martin’s crew. To be fair, South Carolina has been hit by COVID as hard as any team in the country, as they’ve had multiple breaks in play now. Thus, they’ve only played 12 total games, whereas Alabama will be playing its 12th conference game tonight.
The ‘Cocks don’t lack talent in the starting unit though. A.J. Lawson was a blue-chip recruit who has been a mainstay for South Carolina the past few seasons. His whole career he’s been measured up to Kira Lewis, due to their similar size/skills combo and recruiting rankings in the same 2018 class. He’ll never be the primary ball-handler like Kira was (10.4% AST%; nearly even 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), but he does score the ball well (43.8%/36.3%/65.3%), which is always a challenge with his length.
Joining him in the back-court are Cousinard and Woods. Cousinard came out of nowhere last season to become the point guard for the Gamecocks, and while he has his issues with turnovers, his 23.0% AST% mostly makes up for it. He’s got a ton of athleticism, but his shooting is not good (29.5%/28.8%/52.5%). Woods was a five-star recruit that originally played at North Carolina for a few seasons, but he’s failed to live up to his hype out of high school. The 40th-ranked recruit in the 2016 class spent most of his time at UNC on the bench, so he decided to transfer home to Columbia, SC. Unfortunately, he hasn’t had much more success in the lower Carolina either. He hasn’t shot the ball well at all (39.7%/16.7%/66.7%), has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, and is a minus defender (102.1 DRtg).
In the front-court, senior Justin Manaya has been around forever. He’s a tough player with good size, and is a very solid all-around wing (42.4%/28.0%/63.6%; 12.0% REB%). Levegue is trying to follow in the footsteps of recent South Carolina bigs like Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, but the sophomore still has a way to go to get there. He does rebound at a 16.2% clip, but his scoring and defending still need a lot of work.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Trae Hannibal (4.8 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.4 APG)
GUARD 6’4 T.J. Moss (3.0 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.1 RPG)
WING 6’5 Keyshawn Bryant (14.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 SPG, 1.2 BPG)
WING 6’6 Trey Anderson (3.0 PPG, 1.2 RPG)
WING 6’7 Jalyn McCreary (4.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG)
If you’ve watched South Carolina with Frank Martin at the helm over the years, you know exactly what to expect with them. They are going to be physical as hell on defense and attack the glass relentlessly. Fouls are almost encouraged. Because of that, Martin always has a ton of guys he rotates in and off of the bench. It’s like a war of attrition when you play a Frank Martin team.
Most of the time, Martin isn’t exactly rotating in the most talented players on the planet. They don’t exactly recruit well at South Carolina. Keyshawn Bryant is the one exception. A bench player in name alone, Bryant is probably the second best player on the team. An elite athlete, the 6’5 wing plays much bigger than what he is listed at, capable of putting any defender on a poster with a monster jam. He’s a stat-sheet stuffer who plays fast and spends most of his time flying around the rim.
Three Keys to Victory
- Tempo, Tempo, Tempo. Alabama has really slowed down its pace in recent weeks. Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Missouri all successfully brought the Tide’s tempo down substantially. Tired legs are undoubtedly a part of this problem, especially with the injury issues Alabama has faced, but the team has to be able to dictate the tempo of the game if they want to continue playing at the high level they were at in January. The good news is that, unlike in most years, this South Carolina team is not good on defense, and they have also tried to pick up the pace to offset those defensive weaknesses. So, if they choose not to slow the game down, Alabama will have a good opportunity to get back to its high-flying ways tonight.
- Free Throws. While South Carolina isn’t as good on defense as a Frank Martin team typically is, they are just as physical as always, and they still foul the hell out of their opponents. If Alabama can even get into the lane consistently, the guys will have plenty of opportunities from the charity stripe. The Tide absolutely has to make those count tonight. On the flip-side South Carolina is 326th in the country in free throw percentage. Of course, every time I mention something like that the opponent inevitably goes 23/26 from the line.
- Relief for Herb. As of this writing, Nate Oats is still considering sitting Herb for tonight’s game. I’ve been saying for a couple of weeks now that the guy needs some actual rest. I get why we’ve kept him out there - it was an incredibly tough and important stretch of the season, and as long as he’s not at risk for further injury, why not? - but if Alabama wants to be peaking in March, Herb needs to heal up now. If he does sit for significant portions, or all of, the game, guys will really need to step up. Jahvon Quinerly will be the only true ball-handler, and Alex Reese, James Rojas, and Juwan Gary will have to continue doing their best impersonations of low-block post players.
With just over a month before the SEC Tournament begins, Alabama is very much in need of a get-right game. The good news is that the next two weeks will be full of opportunities against (what should be) overmatched opponents. With the loss to Missouri on the docket, there is a little bit of intrigue in the SEC regular season championship race, so hopefully the Tide can shake off that ‘L’ and start piling up some wins to put it out of reach.
More importantly though, Alabama just needs to heal up and figure out some identity issues on offense. That starts tonight in South Carolina, let’s see what Nate Oats has cooked up.
The game tips-off at 5:30 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.