After a full week off centered around the New Year’s holiday weekend, the 15th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (10-3, 1-0 SEC; NET: 21; Kenpom: 17) returns to action in only the second true road game of the 2021-22 campaign. The Tide, of course, opened up SEC play with a huge win over a ranked Tennessee Volunteers team in Tuscaloosa last week, which was a must, if Alabama wants to defend its regular season SEC crown. Nearly as important to holding serve at home is scraping out wins wherever you can on the road, which is never easy in college hoops. And it certainly hasn’t been easy over the years for the Tide when the boys visit the Florida Gators (9-3, 0-0 SEC; NET: 42; Kenpom: 28).
Alabama has lost ten of its last thirteen match-ups with the Gators in the O-Dome. The Tide holds a 76-70 all-time series lead over our neighbors to the south on the hardwood, but is only 20-42 when playing in Gainesville. Nate Oats lost his only visit there in a double overtime thriller in 2020. So, it’s been a tough place for the Tide to roll into and come away with a victory.
This year’s edition of the Gators has been like many of Mike White’s squads since Billy Donovan stepped away. They have plenty of talent and a lot of experience, but they seem to be less than the sum of their parts. On paper, the Gators should be contending for the conference crown with the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, and Tennessee, but instead, they seem to be a tier below those squads. Granted, they have yet to play a conference game, but December losses to rebuilding Oklahoma and Maryland units and a hideous home loss to Texas Southern has tempered Florida’s expectations quite a bit.
On top of that, the reason why the game tonight is the SEC-opener for the Gators is because they have been dealing with COVID issues in their locker room. They were supposed to play Ole Miss last week but couldn’t field enough players to play the game, so it was postponed. Florida hasn’t played a game in two weeks. Further, the whole thing has been kept pretty low-key. For example, tonight’s game was still in doubt as recently as yesterday. So this is definitely something to keep an eye on.
Either way, Florida is a very capable team, and playing them in the O-Dome is never easy. Alabama will need to continue to improve and play it’s best tonight if the Tide wants to start off the 2022 calendar year with a win.
POINT 6’1 Tyree Appleby (10.0 PPG, 3.1 APG, 2.1 RPG, 89.1 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Myreon Jones (9.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 89.9 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Brandon McKissic (7.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.8 APG, 88.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Anthony Duruji (9.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 88.1 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Colin Castleton (14.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 81.6 DRtg)
Now, I’ve searched everywhere, but I can’t find any inkling as to who all has been hit with COVID recently, so I’ll just preview the team assuming everyone is going to play. The Gators have three really solid guards, an explosive four, and an All-SEC big at center. Funny enough, all five started their college careers at different programs.
Tyree Appleby is your conventional point guard - he can score (37.4%/32.2%/89.2%), handle the ball (21.5% AST%), run the offense (20.7% USG%), and defends at a solid clip. Myreon Jones, who is originally from Birmingham, has actually played the Tide twice as a member of the Penn State Nittany Lions during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons. He’s been the main focal point of the offense in the back-court (36.9%/30.2%/83.3% on 9.5 FGA per game). He and Brandon McKissic are both new to the squad this year, with McKissic transferring in from Kansas City, where he was the leading scorer and a known bucket-getter. In typical Mike White fashion, McKissic’s shooting numbers have dropped significantly (37.5%/28.6%/72.2%), but he is very much capable of shooting closer to his career 47.6%/37.1% clip from the field.
In the front-court, Florida returns both starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. Anthony Duruji is a high-energy leaper who has surprised with a sweet stroke from the field this year (56.9%/42.9%/75.0%). On the flip-side, his rebounding (9.8% REB%) has been a bit disappointing for a guy that profiles as a board-man, but discount his ability to hit the glass at your own peril. Colin Castleton is the best player on this team. The 6’11 big man is averaging a near double-double with ridiculous efficiency (53.3% FG%; 19.6% REB%; 15.2% AST%; 9.6% BLK%). He’s a lock to be All-SEC at this point.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’3 Elijah Kennedy (2.3 PPG, 1.1 RPG, 87.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Phlandrous Fleming (11.8 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 88.3 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Niels Lane (1.1 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 92.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Kowacie Reeves (3.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 87.7 DRtg)
WING 6’7 C.J. Felder (4.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 84.0 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Jason Jitoboh (3.1 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 89.1 DRtg)
The Gators run one of the deeper rotations Alabama will see all year, as six guys off of the bench have played a material amount of minutes this season. Fleming, Reeves, and Felder are the ones to note in this match-up. Fleming is a spark-plug scorer, shooting a 43.3%/37.8%/80.9% split on a usage rate of 23.8%. Alabama has to realize when he is on the court, because he makes his minutes count. Reeves is a blue-chip freshman who has struggled with his shot in his inaugural collegiate season (29.6%/29.4%/100%), but he’s got plenty of talent to get it going in conference play. Felder is a long wing that can stretch the floor (59.5%/44.4%/66.7%), but he also gets after it around the rim (12.2% REB%; 5.4% BLK%).
Three Keys to Victory
- REBOUND. The Tide’s 43-35 rebounding margin was one of the determining factors in the win against Tennessee last week. However, the Vols still managed to come away with 10 offensive boards. Noah Gurley had himself a game though (he obviously reads RBR), corralling ten rebounds of his own, nine of which were on the defensive end. Hopefully, that’s the kind of effort and production we continue to see from the big man, because if he starts playing to his potential, Alabama is going to be tough to beat. We’ll need him tonight, as Florida is 25th in the country in ORB%.
- Limit and Deny Colin Castleton. The nearly-seven-footer is the main reason why Florida has been so stout on the glass this season. The number one question that Alabama has to answer if it wants to accomplish its major goals of repeating in the SEC and making a deep run in March is how to defend and hold up on the boards against teams with legit centers. Because that has killed the Tide at times, and there are a lot of them in the conference. Either Charles Bediako needs to grow up quickly, or Gurley needs to take over like he did against Tennessee. Keon Ellis is a tremendous player, but he doesn’t have the size to be an athletic eraser like Herb Jones was. Gurley can be that guy, but he’ll have a tall task tonight. Defensively, Alabama just needs to deny Castleton the ball as much as possible. The guy is a true post with moves, and he’s the backbone of an offense full of streaky shooters. Deny Castleton, provide resistance on dribble-drives, force shooters off of their spots, and watch the Gators chunk up clunkers.
- Run the Gators Down. Florida is already a medium-paced team (138th in the country), but with their COVID issues preventing them from doing much practice or conditioning work recently, Alabama’s breakneck tempo could be too much for the Gators to overcome tonight. If I’m Nate Oats, I’m pushing the pace against Florida in a major way. The Gators have solid guards, but Jahvon Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, and J.D. Davison are Alabama’s main competitive advantage tonight with their ability to speed up the game, get to the rim, and knock down shots. Although J.D. has got to cut down the turnovers, because he really should be running point more to allow JQ the ability to play off-ball and get loose for shots.
This is a big swing game for Alabama. A win on the road against a likely NCAA Tournament team will not only boost the resume quite a bit, it will also be like breaking the opponents’ serve in tennis in what should be a season-long slugfest for the SEC regular season title. Any win away from home against a capable team will be huge in this regard.
Mike White’s teams always have issues consistently putting the ball in the basket, but they defend like hell on the other end. That makes it tough to win at their place. DraftKings Sportsbook has the Gators installed as a 1.5-point favorite* tonight, which just screams trap game for all the average joes thinking the Tide rolls. Still, Florida’s COVID issues may not be baked into this line at all. It’s not easy to go from little-to-no practice to playing a top-25 team with the talent and the pace that Alabama imposes.
The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and is to be televised on ESPN2.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.