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Bama Basketball Breakdown: #4 Baylor

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Can the erratic Tide bounce-back from rock bottom in time for the defending national champs?

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Oklahoma Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Being a Tide Hoops fan is never dull, is it? Fresh off a tragically pathetic loss to one of the worst power conference teams in the country, the Alabama Crimson Tide (13-7, 4-4 SEC; NET: 24; Kenpom: 19) finds itself at a major crossroads. The Tide hasn’t played well, really, in over a month. Even the recent ranked wins over LSU and Tennessee were sloppy games where the Tide barely snuck out home victories. But, prior to this stretch, Alabama was looking like a Final Four caliber team.

And it’s not like that was a fluke. I mean, despite their recent form, the advanced stats unanimously agree that Alabama is at least a top-30 basketball team. Kenpom, Bart Torvik, ESPN’s BPI, Jeff Sagarin - all of them. This team is absolutely capable of being a true contender, and I think that’s the most aggravating thing about the Tide’s recent play. Because it has been garbage.

So, again, Nate Oats’ team finds themselves trying to decide if they want to be contenders or pretenders. And they’ll have to figure that out on the fly against one of the toughest three-game stretches I’ve seen on any schedule anywhere in the country this year - #4 Baylor, at #1 Auburn, #12 Kentucky in consecutive games. It’s not like there is time for the fellas to go to the drawing board and build it back up. It’s go time.

The first team up, as mentioned, is the defending national champions - the Baylor Bears (18-2, 6-2 Big 12; NET: 3; Kenpom: 2). Scott Drew has turned a team that had one NCAA Tournament appearance in over 50 years (Baylor’s only postseason appearance from 1951-2007 was in 1988) into one of the juggernauts of college basketball. Even despite losing two-way superstar guards in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell to the NBA, as well as a pair of senior starters in MaCio Teague and Mark Vital, the Bears are clearly one of the best teams in college basketball yet again this season.

It will take a return to early December form for Alabama to grab a ‘W’ for the SEC in today’s SEC-Big 12 Challenge. The Tide is capable of it, but can they pull a complete 180 in just a few days?

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’1 James Akinjo (13.2 PPG, 5.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 87.1 DRtg)

GUARD 6’3 Adam Flagler (12.5 PPG, 3.6 APG, 2.1 RPG, 91.4 DRtg)

WING 6’8 Kendall Brown (10.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.0 APG, 87.9 DRtg)

WING 6’9 Matthew Mayer (9.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.2 APG, 79.9 DRtg)

POST 6’10 Flo Thamba (4.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 83.3 DRtg)

The sign of an elite program and a great coach is the ability to consistently elevate role players into stars as your best players move on to the next level. Baylor has shown that in spades this season. Big man, Flo Thamba, is the only returning starter from last season, and while he’s a hell of a defender, he’s averaging less than five points and boards a game for a reason. Don’t get me wrong though, Thamba is a problem (15.7% REB%; 7.0 BLK%), but he has a Usage Rate of just 12.9%.

Instead, it’s been the bench guys from last season’s title team that have taken over, as well as a true freshman in Kendall Brown. Brown utilizes his elite size/skill combo to give defenses fits (65.4%/33.3%/72.1%). He’s joined in the frontcourt by the mustachioed Matthew Mayer, who plays hellacious defense (a sub-80.0 DRtg is insane) and has the ability to rebound (12.3% REB%) as well as step-out and knock-down shots (40.6%/32.1%/63.0%).

James Akinjo has been the alpha of the team offensively (42.6%/35.1%/77.6%; 30.6% AST%); however, he’s been banged up recently, dealing with a lingering tailbone injury that sidelined him in their latest game with Kansas State on Tuesday. If he’s slowed at all, or doesn’t play, that would seriously boost Alabama’s chances of pulling off the upset this afternoon. Adam Flagler has done his best to make up for Akinjo’s production, and Flagler can flat-out play ball (44.2%/37.0%/71.9%; 21.9% AST%), but he’s not typically their primary ball-handler.

Off the Bench

GUARD 6’1 L.J Cryer (13.9 PPG, 1.7 APG, 1.6 RPG, 92.6 DRtg)

GUARD 6’2 Dale Bonner (2.1 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 92.0 DRtg)

WING 6’8 Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (8.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.0 APG, 83.6 DRtg)

WING 6’9 Jeremy Sochan (7.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 82.4 DRtg)

Next year’s superstars starts with scoring sixth man, L.J. Cryer. The guy can straight-up score the basketball (47.8%/46.7%/77.8%). He’s an elite shooter that Alabama’s guards cannot allow to get loose for open shots. Jeremy Sochan is another blue-chip freshman who has really done it all for the Bears off of the bench (48.9%/36.1%/54.3%; 15.3% REB%; 14.5% AST%), which he’s undoubtedly learned from one of my absolute favorite players in college hoops - Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (66.7%/45.5%/72.7%; 20.6% REB%). Not only does ‘Everyday Jon’ have easily the best name in basketball, but his intensity and high I.Q. basketball is every coaches’ dream. I mean, a 20.6% REB% is incredible. It doesn't hurt that he shoots nearly 50% from the perimeter.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Turn this ______ Around. Auburn may be #1 in the country right now, but you won’t convince me that Baylor and Gonzaga aren’t still the best two teams in college basketball. For Alabama to have any chance in this game today, we need to see the same team that took the floor against the Zags. The team that played with high energy on every possession, took it to the Bulldogs’ bigs, knocked down shots like they are capable of doing, and battled on the glass enough to stalemate the Zags on the rebounding count. Anything less than that will result in a loss today.
  2. Get JQ Going. Jahvon Quinerly’s level of play dictates how Alabama executes more than just about any one player’s impact on their relative team in the country. The Tide seemingly goes as he does, and lately, that has been straight into the dumpster. Quinerly’s conference numbers are abysmal (38.3%/17.0%/71.4%; 98.5 ORtg; 110.8 DRtg), and because J.D. Davison has yet to adjust to the size and speed of power conference collegiate defenders and keeps turning the ball over (27.3% TO%), Quinerly is the ball-handler on this team. Quinerly has to turn things around on both ends of the court before Alabama is able to do so.
  3. Three Pointers, Please. I’ve mentioned this just about every game for a few weeks now, but this year’s Tide team is going to live and die by the three-point shot. I know Oats’ philosophy is that shots falling simply determines the margin of victory, while defense determines whether or not the team wins, but that is simply not how this team is built. The Tide is now 64th in the country in Defensive Efficiency, and while they can absolutely do a hell of a lot better than that, there aren’t any great defenders on this team. Our guards and wings are small, Charles Bediako is still shell-shocked by that big from Davidson using actual post moves on him, and the likes of James Rojas and Juwan Gary can’t D-up without fouling. The shots have to fall if Alabama wants to reach its potential. Period. And they simply have not been.

We’ve reached a fork in the road, y’all. This year’s Alabama team still has everything left in front of them - with the exception of a regular season title defense - but it’s now officially last-stand time. With three of the best teams in college basketball due up next, the Tide has to get going, like yesterday. Today’s game is a phenomenal opportunity to get back on track as we head into the month of February, especially if Akinjo is out.

I know most will laugh when they see this, but Baylor is listed as only a two-point favorite in Tuscaloosa today. That screams trap-game for the Bears. Alabama has the ability to win this game. But will they? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

The game will tip-off at 3:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN. That last bit shouldn’t matter to you though, esteemed RBR reader, because you will be in Coleman Coliseum to support the guys in real time, right?