Now that we are in mid-December, just a couple of weeks removed from Christmas, I’m sure many Alabama fans are starting to miss the epic Saturday afternoon clashes that frequent the fall calendar. If that describes how you are feeling during this holiday season, I’m here to tell you that elite, top-ranked showdowns aren’t going anywhere. They are just taking a step indoors.
That’s because this Saturday, the 8th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (7-1; Kenpom: 14; T-Rank: 20) heads west to Texas to take on the top-ranked team in college hoops - the Houston Cougars (9-0; Kenpom: 1; T-Rank: 1). That’s right, your 2023 Tide Hoops team will be doing battle with their second #1 team this season, having already defeated the preseason number-one team, North Carolina, in the 3rd place game of the Phil Knight Invitational over Thanksgiving.
But that North Carolina team was a bit of a paper tiger, these Cougars are for real. Kelvin Sampson has done an outstanding job bringing this program back from the dead. He’s led Houston to four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, which includes three Sweet Sixteens, a pair of Elite Eights, and a Final Four appearance in 2021. Here’s the scary thing - this year’s group might be his best yet. The Cougars are the highest rated team by just about every advanced stat algorithm or computer model available, mostly due to their historically good defense that is number-one in both Defensive Efficiency and eFG% allowed. They return a trio of athletic, talented guards and have added new, exciting pieces in the frontcourt. And they will almost certainly be out for blood after Alabama’s thrilling last-second win over them last season.
Yeah, this is going to be good, folks. Strap on in for this one.
POINT 6’1 Jamal Shead (6.7 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.1 RPG, 75.4 DRtg)
GUARD 6’1 Marcus Sasser (16.9 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.8 RPG, 77.2 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Tramon Mark (10.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 81.5 DRtg)
POST 6’7 J’Wan Roberts (9.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 72.6 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Jarace Walker (9.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 71.7 DRtg)
This is a veteran squad. With the exception of true freshman and former McDonald’s All-American, Jarace Walker - who chose to go to Houston rather than follow his friend and teammate Jaden Bradley to Alabama - the starting five is all upperclassmen. The trio of guards will decide how high Houston can climb this season, though. Last year’s game against the Tide was one of the last times Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark saw the court last season, as Mark got injured in that game and Sasser got hurt a few games later - both season-ending.
The Sasser injury hurt Houston, in particular. He’s their go-to scorer (42.6%/31.3%/89.5%), as he attempts nearly a third of the team’s shots when he is on the floor. Mark has similar efficiency numbers (41.8%/33.3%/85.0%). Jamal Shead struggles to score going to the basket with his small frame (33.3%/34.5%/60.0%), but he’s an elite passer and runs the offense with a 31.3% AST%, which puts him top-50 in the nation in that category. The offensive numbers aren’t what wow you though. It’s the defensive efficiency. Defensive Rating is a metric that shows how many points a player allows per 100 possessions. Anything less than 100 is considered above average. A rating in the 80’s is considered elite. These guys are all in the 70’s save Mark, who’s posting a meager 81.5.
Walker has been a freak in the frontcourt for Houston. I was honestly very surprised he chose the Cougars over Alabama, not just because of the Bradley connection, but because he’s lethal in transition - he can run the court as well as any big in basketball. He can also stretch the floor with his shot-making (46.2%/37.5%/66.7%) and is a beast on the boards (16.0% REB%). It’s like Nate Oats cooked him up in a lab! J’Wan Roberts is a more traditional post player, but he’s just as good on defense and the glass (15.1% REB%).
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’4 Ramon Walker Jr (3.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 79.5 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Terrence Arceneaux (6.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 71.7 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Reggie Chaney (3.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 73.3 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Ja’Vier Francis (5.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 64.1 DRtg)
Y’all, these defensive ratings are silly. Ramon Walker and Terrence Arceneaux are extensions of the starting backcourt - athletic guards who defend the hell out of the ball and are merely decent players on the offensive end. Reggie Chaney is somehow still playing college ball - he began his career playing for Mike Anderson at Arkansas. And Ja’Vier Francis has stupid efficiency numbers - 68.8% FG%, 18.7% REB%, and a 24.6% BLK% to go along with that insane 64.1 DRtg.
Three Keys to Victory
- Take Care of the Basketball. Erik went into detail about this just yesterday, but Alabama will not even cover in this game unless they do a much better job with turnovers. Houston is top-ten in the country in turning opponents over, and Alabama is one of the worst teams in basketball in valuing possessions and taking care of the ball. As has been mentioned a few times, the Cougars halfcourt defense is elite. They will be draped all over Alabama’s players and disrupting passing lanes is a specialty of theirs. For the Tide to have any hope in this one, they can’t turn the ball over more than 10-12 times tops.
- Control the Pace and Move the Ball. One good way to mitigate Houston’s elite halfcourt defense is to pick up the pace and get shots up early in the shot-clock. The longer Alabama possesses the ball, the less likely the Tide is to make a basket. It’s basically a science at this point. Getting shots up early is exactly what Alabama did last year in their 83-82 win over Houston. When the Cougs are inevitably able to stop the ball and get Alabama into the halfcourt, the Tide can’t rely on isolation hero ball. Houston will be licking their chops if Jahvon Quinerly and company start dribbling the hell out of the ball. Off-ball movement is a must in the halfcourt against Houston. If they start reaching for turnovers, run some back-cuts, double moves, oops, something. Just don’t settle for one-on-one iso’s please.
- Win the Battle of the Boards. You’ve heard enough about Houston’s defense. Alabama’s is pretty filthy too. The Tide is 17th nationally in Defensive Efficiency, in large part because the guys do a great job of contesting shots. Nate Oats’ squad is 8th in eFG% and 4th in 2P%. In other words, there are going to be a lot of missed shots in this game. That’s not even a bad thing! I’d much rather Alabama brick a shot than turn the ball over, especially since the Tide is 4th in the country in OREB%. Houston is quite adept at it as well, just two spots behind Alabama at 6th in OREB%. Whoever controls the boards will control this game.
This is a massive game and opportunity for the Tide. Alabama hasn’t played in a top-ten hoops matchup in 20 years, when Mo Williams led the 8th-ranked Tide to a win over #3 Oklahoma in the Coaches vs Cancer Classic in Madison Square Garden. Oklahoma’s coach that night? Kelvin Sampson.
That win helped propel Alabama to its first - and only - number-one ranking in the AP Poll’s history (the Tide later crapped away the rest of the season and got bounced in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. No, I’m not still mad, why do you ask?). It’s not a crazy stretch to say that a win over Houston tomorrow could put a #1 ranking in play for this season.
Let’s not count any chickens before they hatch, though. Early lines have Alabama installed as about an 8-point underdog for a reason. The game will tip-off at 2:00 PM CST and will be televised by ABC, which can be found anywhere you can get your hands on an antenna, or you can visit Sling TV and stop worrying about whether or not the Tide is on cable or not altogether - we have had three games already this year only available via streaming.
Either way, this one has the makings of an epic clash on the hardcourt. Let’s get behind Nate Oats and this blossoming program!