I’ve been telling anybody that would listen that this year’s Tide Hoops squad would be the most Oats-inspired one to date, and man, was that evident in the opening night 75-54 easy win over the Big South favorites, Longwood. The difference in size and athleticism was apparent from the opening tip, as the 20th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (1-0; Kenpom: 16) absolutely stifled the Lancers on the defensive end and dominated the paint on the offensive side of the court. Sure, the turnovers and poor shooting were worrying, but you’d have to expect turnover issues early on with this being a team of guys mostly playing together for the first time.
With that all being said, the Tide don’t have time to sit around and pat themselves on their backs, as the schedule ramps up immediately. Tonight, the four-time defending Atlantic Sun regular season champs come to Tuscaloosa, as the Liberty Flames (1-0, Kenpom: 81) enter Coleman Coliseum. Head coach Ritchie McKay begins his 10th season guiding the Flames, as he’s stuck around in Lynchburg, VA despite plenty of offers over the past few years. You might remember McKay and company taking down 5th-seeded Mississippi State in the 2019 NCAA Tournament; this is a very good basketball program right now.
This year’s group could be McKay’s best too. The Flames opened up their season with an absolute smackdown of Division II foe, Regent, by a score of 104-38. Sure, the competition wasn’t very good, but this team looked every bit as good as people have prognosticated for the upcoming campaign. Alabama’s mostly young squad will absolutely be tested tonight. A loss wouldn’t be that surprising.
Stats based on the 2021-22 season
GUARD 5’9 Colin Porter (True Freshman)
GUARD 5’9 Darius McGhee (24.6 PPG, 3.6 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.2 SPG)
GUARD 6’3 Joseph Venzant (3.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG)
POST 6’7 Kyle Rode (9.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.2 APG)
POST 6’7 Shiloh Robinson (9.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.1 APG)
Whether or not the Flames are able to live up to the hype as being McKay’s best team will depend heavily on the development of true freshman point guard, Colin Porter. Not only is Porter a freshman, but he also reclassified to this year’s class, and he’s listed at 5’9, 150 lbs. Taking on the role of primary ball-handler is a tough ask, but it’ll be crucial in freeing up super senior and two-time A-SUN Player of the Year, Darius McGhee to play more of a scoring role. McGhee actually played in that NCAA Tournament game against Mississippi State, that’s how long he’s been around. He has a career shooting split of 44.0%/38.2%/86.9% on a ton of volume. Last season, he led the country in three-point field goals made, while setting the program and A-SUN record for most threes made in a single season with 142. He’s inarguably the best player in the history of the school’s basketball program.
A trio of returning starters join Porter and McGhee in the opening lineup. Venzant rounds out the starting backcourt as the team’s best defender (93.6 DRtg), while Rode and Robinson enter their senior seasons looking to build off a year where they were a highly efficient pair of starters in the frontcourt. Rode is a stretch four who can both distribute (25.3% AST%) and shoot (50.9%/42.5%/88.7%), while Robinson is a more traditional post, but can also space the floor with his shot-making (56.3%/37.1%/67.0%).
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Brody Peebles (5.4 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.2 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Isiah Warfield (1.7 PPG, 1.5 APG)
GUARD 6’4 Jonathan Jackson (1.3 PPG)
POST 6’9 Blake Preston (6.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.0 APG)
The bench rotation probably won’t go very deep for the Flames tonight. The two to make note of are Peebles and Preston. Peebles is actually from Hartselle, AL, and has the potential to be a pretty lethal sixth man (44.7%/39.7%/67.9%). I’d expect to see a lot of him tonight against his home-state flagship. Preston is actually the best rebounder on the team by a lot (20.9% REB%), and his size will be called upon early and often against the Tide tonight.
Three Keys to Victory
- Contain McGhee. The key to beating Liberty in 2022-23 will always start with locking-down McGhee on the perimeter. The guy will absolutely fill it up from three if you allow him to. Luckily, Alabama won’t be depending on Jaden Shackelford to D him up tonight. Instead, it will be a plethora of long guards and wings like Nimari Burnett, Brandon Miller, and even Noah Clowney, since Dom Welch will miss the game again tonight.
- Bully Ball. Much like the opener against Longwood, Alabama simply outclasses Liberty in size and athleticism by a lot. The Flames were 334th in OREB rate and 326th in BLK% last year, and it’s mostly the same team but with another small, skinny point guard. Alabama needs to utilize its length again tonight. The Tide bothered the Lancers’ offense all night with their size and dominated the glass with an insane 67-38 rebounding margin. They have the opportunity to do that again in this one.
- Limit Turnovers. This is an area that needs to improve. Sure, the jump-shooting absolutely needs some work still as well, but you can win a lot of basketball games playing the kind of defense Alabama is capable of this year as long as you limit turnovers and continue to hit the glass. Liberty, for their part, doesn’t force a lot of turnovers - they had just a 7.5% STL% last season - but they make you work in the halfcourt. That can turn into a lot of unforced turnovers if you aren’t used to playing together or get impatient, two things Alabama has struggled with under Oats.
This is going to be another tough test to begin the season for the Tide. Liberty is the kind of team that wins 25+ games and upsets a 5-seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament come March. As mentioned, they’ve done so recently. Darius McGhee won’t be the most talented player on the court tonight, but - at this stage of his career - he’ll probably be the best one.
The good news is that Alabama matches up well with the Flames. That size mismatch is going to be gigantic tonight, and the effort we saw on defense on Monday was elite. Still, the Tide needs to be cleaner on the offensive end, both in taking care of the ball and scoring it. The game tips off at 7:00 PM CST and will, once again, only be available on SEC Network+. Whoever is making these decisions needs to be fired. This is 20th-ranked Alabama’s second match-up with a likely NCAA Tournament team, both only available via streaming.
The best way to watch is always in person though (as long as you eat beforehand, right Greg Byrne?), so come on out and support this exciting Tide Hoops squad!