Well, that was something, wasn’t it? Apologies to the Mississippi State Bulldogs, they didn't deserve to be absolutely embarrassed like that yesterday, but the Crimson Tide wasn’t playing. Honestly, there isn’t a team in college basketball that would have beaten Alabama the way it was playing yesterday. That team is capable of playing into April. The scary thing is that the Tide didn’t even shoot that well (13/36 from three). Imagine what a hot shooting night would look like with that kind of performance.
With the Tide’s evisceration of Mississippi State now in the rearview mirror, Nate Oats has to quickly get his guys ready to go back out and do the same thing today against a much better opponent - the fourth-seeded Tennessee Volunteers (18-7, 10-7 SEC, NET: 18, Kenpom: 20). The Vols were the preseason favorite to win the conference for a reason: they have arguably the best mix of talent and experience in the SEC with veterans like Victor Bailey, John Fulkerson, and Yves Pons, as well as one-and-done type of talents in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson.
For that reason, the Vols have been a bit disappointing this year. When the Tide went into Knoxville back in early January and stunned Tennessee 71-63, most saw it as an upset that would possibly allow Alabama to challenge the Volunteers for the SEC crown. Little did we know at the time, that was simply Alabama taking care of business against an inferior team. Still, as mentioned, Tennessee’s ceiling is probably higher than anyone’s in the conference outside of Tuscaloosa. Rick Barnes has developed a strong culture in Knoxville built on playing fantastic defense. In fact, Tennessee has the 4th best defense in the country, according to Kenpom’s Defensive Efficiency Ratings. Unfortunately for them, Alabama’s defense is #1.
So, the stage is set for a knock-down, drag-out type of game. Can the Tide keep the momentum rolling from yesterday and secure a spot in the SEC Championship Game?
The SEC Tournament Semifinals aren’t really a foreign spot for either of these two programs. Excluding last year, for obvious reasons, this is Tennessee’s third straight tournament playing into the weekend in Nashville, and Alabama made consecutive semifinal appearances of its own in 2017-2018. Additionally, Alabama and Tennessee are second and third, respectively, in all-time SEC Tournament Championships.
So, this is going to be a battle of historic SEC powers, really. Much like what the Third Saturday in October used to be. But, history will play no factor in today’s meeting. What will play a factor is both teams’ key injuries to starters. Alabama, of course, will be without freshman Josh Primo, who hurt his knee against the Bulldogs. Tennessee will be missing its best post player in John Fulkerson, who was hit with a right elbow like he was in the octagon for a Friday night UFC brawl yesterday against Florida (seriously, Omar Payne could face actually charges for a shot that dirty). As unfortunate as it is that both teams will be missing a key starter, Alabama clearly wins that trade, as Fulkerson is arguably the most important player on the squad (and again, prayers out for the kid, as he looked dangerously concussed after that blow).
In the last meeting, Tennessee was truly horrendous shooting the basketball (31.8% FG%, 4/21 from three). I wouldn’t expect them to be that bad again. However, with Fulkerson likely out, Tennessee is going to be really shallow on depth. The Vols have basically utilized a seven man rotation all season, with Springer and Johnson coming off of the bench to support the starting five of Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey, Josiah-Jordan James, Yves Pons, and Fulkerson. With the big man out, Tennessee will have to rely on lightly used players like E.J. Anosike and Olivier Nkamhoua in the paint. That’s huge for an Alabama team that, itself, is thin on post players.
Three Keys to Advancing
- Keep it Rolling from Yesterday. Listen, if Alabama comes out playing like the Tide did yesterday, with unbelievable effort on defense and extraordinarily good spacing and movement on the offensive end, none of this matters. Because there is only a handful of teams in college basketball that can hang with Alabama when it plays like that. Tennessee’s ‘A’-game is second weekend of the NCAA Tournament worthy, but Alabama’s is National Championship worthy.
- Push the Pace. One thing that Tennessee does have in common with Mississippi State is how deliberately slow both teams are. The Vols are 246th in the country in tempo. They want to limit possessions for their opponents by taking care of the basketball and hitting the glass hard. With Fulkerson likely out, the Vols are going to be missing one of the key cogs that allows them to control pace. If Alabama can keep the tempo up like they did yesterday, they will be able to run the shallow Volunteers out of the gym.
- Keep Tennessee’s Offense Honest. The Volunteers aren’t an elite offensive team by any stretch of the imagination, but they have multiple guys who are clearly capable of getting buckets - Jaden Springer, in particular. When teams can’t spread Alabama’s defense out, it is tough sledding for any offense. If the Tide’s guards and perimeter defenders can lock down shooters on the wings, Tennessee is going to have a tough time putting the ball in the basket consistently, especially without Fulkerson there to clean things up around the rim.
*Bonus Key: Please go up strong when finishing lay-ups at the rim, because Yves Pons swatting shots still shows up in my dreams at night
This should be a much more challenging match-up than yesterday’s meeting with Mississippi State, However, Alabama will be clearly favored for a reason. John Fulkerson’s absence is a big deal for Tennessee. If the Tide can come even somewhat close to recreating what it did yesterday, this should be an easy win for Alabama on its way to a rare double-dip with both an SEC regular season and tournament title.
The game will tip-off at noon CST and will be televised on ESPN.