Well, maybe we got a little bit ahead of ourselves after the resounding win over Michigan State, huh? Humble pie never goes down well, but it can absolutely be a needed experience, and the Alabama Crimson Tide (5-1; Kenpom: 14; T-Rank: 18) is probably much better off for it after getting beat by the 20th-ranked UConn Huskies 82-67 Friday night. I thought the biggest difference in that game compared to the prior five was just how much more physical UConn was than Alabama. They brought tough ball pressure and defended passing lanes at an expert level, making their halfcourt defense nearly impenetrable for a team that relies so heavily on drive-and-kick tendencies. They also battled on the boards, only allowing the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country to go +3 on the glass. It felt like as soon as Alabama battled back to tie the game at 50, the Tide had just run out of gas. UConn got on a little bit of a run and the young Tide kind of folded after that.
Again, I think this was a great - albeit humbling - experience for Nate Oats’ team. UConn is really freaking good. That team will be going places this season. How Alabama responds to that loss is what really matters. But the guys don’t have much time to lick their wounds, as they’ll meet the (for now) top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels (5-1; Kenpom: 21; T-Rank: 19) in the Third-Place game of the Phil Knight Invitational today. UNC is coming off a humbling loss themselves, as they blew a seven-point lead with five minutes to play against the Iowa State Cyclones in their semifinal match.
Hubert Davis’ squad was preseason #1 for a reason - they brought back four starters from last year’s National Runner-Up team. However, many forget that North Carolina was about one tier above the bubble for most of the season last year. That’s about how they have played so far this season, which has led to them being considered a bit of a disappointment - even before the loss on Friday, they hadn’t exactly dominated their opponents this year, including needing a come-from-behind victory to beat Portland in the opener of the PK85. Still, this is obviously a very talented and capable team, and they will be looking to bounce back from their first loss of the season as well.
POINT 6’0 R.J. Davis (15.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.3 APG, 104.7 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Caleb Love (17.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.2 APG, 101.8 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Leaky Black (8.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.3 APG, 99.8 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Pete Nance (13.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 2.0 APG, 103.5 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Armando Bacot (16.2 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 96.8 DRtg)
On paper, this starting five looks incredible. Four returning starters and a grad transfer in Pete Nance who was a hyper-efficient three-year starter at Northwestern. But what immediately jumps out is their defensive ratings. Only Armando Bacot is playing at an above-average level on that end of the court. The Tar Heels actual rank 50th in the country in Kenpom’s Defensive Efficiency. Which isn’t awful, but certainly not what you expect from the #1 team in the country.
Offensively, UNC runs mostly through their two guards, almost to a detriment. R.J. Davis (41.1%/26.7%/95.8%) and Caleb Love (44.2%/23.7%/75.0%) have both struggled to shoot the ball well from the perimeter, yet they take over half of the Tar Heels shots. The guard duo has yet to recapture the form that led North Carolina to an appearance in the National Championship game last April, but they are certainly capable of it.
Instead, it’s the pair of posts in the frontcourt that have been really powering UNC to success this season. Bacot has picked up right where he left off (56.4% FG%; 19.1% REB%; 1.3 BPG) and Nance has been an elite weapon on offense (55.6%/45.5%/79.2%; 11.7% AST%). At nearly seven-feet tall, both guys can be serious problems, though Nance’s 8.2% REB% and weak defensive ratings suggest that he doesn’t play to his size enough. Leaky Black makes up for a lot of that on the glass (12.6% REB%), as he’s a great effort player.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’3 Seth Trimble (3.0 PPG, 107.8 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 D’Marco Dunn (2.5 PPG, 110.4 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Tyler Nickel (1.6 PPG, 110.2 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Puff Johnson (4.0 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 100.9 DRtg)
The thing about the Tar Heels’ starting five is - for better or worse - those five guys are going to decide how this season plays out. Because this bench is...lacking. UNC plays their bench less than even Michigan State has this season, and based on the numbers, for good reason. In fact, only Notre Dame has given their bench less playing time than North Carolina this year. All of these guys were blue-chip recruits though, so maybe Hubert Davis needs to change things up a bit.
Three Keys to Victory
- Protect the Paint. Defensively, Alabama needs to keep the Tar Heels from getting paint touches. The UNC offense is easily at its worst when the guards are pulling-up for shots off of the dribble - which they have a bad habit of falling into. North Carolina is currently shooting just 30.8% from three as well, placing them 253rd in the country. The Tide’s length and athleticism should be a really tough match-up for UNC in this game - there is a reason Alabama is #1 in the country in 2P% allowed.
- Attack the Basket on Offense. The Tide’s offense needs to be going downhill all day today. North Carolina has not been very good defensively when teams force them into action. Dribble penetration has torched them at times, as they have been late to rotate into help defense, both in the paint and on the wing for kick-outs. Additionally, if Alabama can get their starters into foul trouble, there isn’t much behind them.
- Take Care of the Basketball. A great way to bail out the struggling UNC defense is to keep making the insane number of unforced errors the Tide can fall victim to for long stretches at a time. Alabama is 310th in the country in TO% - easily the biggest weakness on this team. If this doesn’t get corrected, the Crimson Tide is going to lose games that it shouldn’t.
I’d love to see Brandon Miller be a bit more forceful in this game, as well. The guy is a special player, and likely will be the best on the court today. It’s going to be an interesting battle. Both teams are looking for a bounce back, UNC is technically the more talented team but has struggled to get much from its depth, the Tar Heels are certainly more experienced in their starting rotation, Alabama matches up well, etc.
Either way, it’s a huge opportunity for the Tide. North Carolina won’t be #1 when the new rankings come out this week, but they are for now, which gives Alabama the rare opportunity to take down the top-ranked team in the land. A team that quite literally just played for a national championship last spring. It will definitely be a major plus on the ole tournament resume come March, if the Tide is able to come away victorious today.
The game tips off at 2:30 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN.