If this past week’s outcomes are any indication, we are in for a treat in Tuscaloosa tomorrow, as the Alabama Crimson Tide (15-9, 5-6 SEC; NET: 23; Kenpom: 18) play host to the scorching-hot Arkansas Razorbacks (19-5, 8-3 SEC; NET: 32; Kenpom: 22) at Coleman Coliseum. On Tuesday night, Arkansas pulled off the upset of the week when they emphatically dumped #1 Auburn in Bud Walton Arena:
Then, a day later, the three-ball finally started to drop for the Tide:
After dominating the SEC and making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament last season, both programs have taken a bit of a step back this year. In hindsight, that shouldn’t be all that surprising when you lose guys like Herb Jones, John Petty, Josh Primo, Moses Moody, Justin Smith, and Jalen Tate. However, while Alabama has been riding an up-and-down roller coaster all season, Arkansas has taken a more familiar path to reloading - starting slow and finishing strong. Eric Musselman’s group has won nine straight games, culminating in the win over #1 just a few nights ago.
But, if the Tide’s offense can carry over from the trip to Oxford - and that is a big ‘if’ - we should be in store for some early fireworks on Saturday. There may not be SEC title stakes on the line this year like there was last February when these two historic conference powers got together, but there will still be plenty of ramifications on Saturday. Both Alabama and Arkansas are considered near-locks to make the NCAA Tournament at this point, and they are clearly two of the more likely dark-horses to make another deep run in March. Additionally, the winners of this game very well may find themselves back in the top-25 next week.
POINT 6’1 J.D. Notae (19.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 91.5 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Davonte Davis (8.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.2 APG, 96.6 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Au’Diese Toney (11.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.0 APG, 99.0 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Trey Wade (3.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 99.9 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Jaylin Williams (9.5 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 87.3 DRtg)
2021 SEC Sixth-Man of the Year, J.D. Notae, has ascended to being the guy for the Razorbacks this season. Currently the SEC’s leading scorer, Notae is very much a score-first kind of point guard (42.3 %/30.5%/74.7% on 16.3 FGA per game), but he can set his teammates up for success as well (22.1% AST%). Arkansas’ offense begins and ends with him. Last year’s point guard, Dee Davis, basically splits that job with Notae, though he’s definitely more of a pass-first point (20.1% AST%; 43.0%/25.5%/69.1% on 7.8 FGA per game).
In the frontcourt, the Hogs utilize a pair of senior transfers - Eric Musselman’s specialty - in Au’Diese Toney (Pitt) and Trey Wade (Wichita State). Both are slashers who have the ability to knock down shots, but don’t go to that well often (Toney: 57.1%/33.3%/76.7%; Wade: 52.5%/47.1%/73.3%). Neither rebounds or assists to the level that Musselman would likely hope for, especially given their size and ability to get to the rim, but they are capable. Jaylin Williams has been the breakout star for Arkansas this season, though. Averaging nearly a double-double, Williams can score from all over the court (49.7%/31.3%/70.7%), rebounds at a very high level (17.2% REB%) and is the best defender on the team. Because of his versatility, Noah Gurley will likely see a lot of time defending him at the expense of Charles Bediako and James Rojas.
Off the Bench
GUARD 5’7 Chris Lykes (9.3 PPG, 1.7 APG, 1.3 RPG, 99.1 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Stanley Umude (10.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, 94.2 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Jaxson Robinson (4.0 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 100.4 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Kamani Johnson (3.0 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 91.4 DRtg)
POST 7’3 Connor Vanover (3.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 92.8 DRtg)
Arkansas definitely has guys on the bench that can contribute, but during this 9-game win streak, they’ve only really played eight - with Lykes, Umude, and Johnson joining the starting five. All three are transfers playing in their first season in Fayetteville - Musselman does have to meet his transfer quota, after all. The diminutive Lykes (Miami) is obviously limited by his size, but he can get buckets (41.8%/29.0%/85.3%). Umude (South Dakota) is basically a co-starter with Toney and Wade, as he’s essentially the same player (45.5%/33.3%/69.8%; 10.0% REB%). Johnson (Arkansas - Little Rock) has only recently started to play more minutes, but he’s been a great defender and rebounder (21.2% REB%) in that small sample.
Three Keys to Victory
- Keep it Hot. My goodness, Alabama’s offense versus Ole Miss on Wednesday was *chef’s kiss*. It wasn’t just the perimeter shooting finally regressing to the mean with an electric 14/22 night - everybody looked good in Oxford. J.D. Davison looked extremely comfortable attacking their zone and getting to the rim, which he paired with eight assists. Noah Gurley displayed the type of inside-out game that had every team in the country fighting for him last offseason. Jusuan Holt showed up and played extensive minutes, doing a lot of the little things that this team has missed. Oh, and Jaden Shackelford was incredible, of course. That’s the Tide Hoops team we were promised this season. If they play like that, Alabama is nearly impossible to stop.
- Free Throw Rate. The most efficient part of Arkansas’ offense is how often they get to the line and knock down their freebies. The Razorbacks are 24th in the country in free throw rate and shoot a solid 74.2% from the line. They have a lot of down-hill slashers who aren’t really known for their jump-shooting, so they play to their strengths in that regard. Alabama has to keep these guys in front of them and out of the paint. Conversely, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if the Tide can get to the rim and get fouled often themselves. The Razorbacks haven’t utilized the same depth that Alabama has lately, so wearing out the 7-8 guys that the Hogs like to play and then getting them into foul trouble could prove fruitful for the Tide.
- Offensive Rebounding. We all know how much Alabama has struggled to keep opponent’s off of the glass this year, but did you know that the Tide is actually 16th in the country itself in Offensive Rebound Rate? The Razorbacks are middle of the road in offensive rebounding - though that hardly seems to matter when the Tide is on the defensive end - but they are 33rd in the country in preventing offensive rebounds. If Alabama can win the battle for second chance points, that will go a long way in claiming victory.
Again, this year’s match-up between these two doesn’t carry the same weight as their pair of meetings last season, but that certainly doesn’t mean it will lack stakes and intrigue. Alabama is trying to put everything together for a late-season run into March in the same vein that Arkansas has seemingly already done so. With the Hogs celebrating their win over #1 Auburn the other night like they had won the Super Bowl - which was, in my opinion, a tough look for the SEC’s second best basketball program - an 11:00 AM tip on the road could come quite early for the Razorbacks.
This is another golden opportunity for Alabama to continue to round into form, while getting yet another marquee home victory. A win Saturday may very well jump the Tide back into the top-25 next week. But more importantly, it could continue to build confidence for a team that really seems to hinge on self-confidence offensively.
As mentioned, the game will tip-off at 11:00 AM CST, so be ready to pack Coleman early - hopefully, we won’t get many more opportunities to do so. If you can’t make it, the game will be televised on the SEC Network.