Only two weeks remain until Selection Sunday, and the 24th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (18-10, 8-7 SEC; NET: 23; Kenpom: 22) has just about locked in its place in the NCAA Tournament for the second season in a row. If that holds, it will mark the first time that the Tide has made consecutive appearances in the Big Dance since Mark Gottfried took Alabama to the Tournament five straight years from 2002-2006. Furthermore, Nate Oats’ squad is in-line for - at worst - a 7-seed in the field. If the Tide does indeed receive a spot on a seed-line of seven or better, it would be the first time that Alabama has made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament seeded that highly since Wimp Sanderson was roaming the sidelines.
In other words, what this program has accomplished in just the first three years under Nate Oats has been rare territory for the University. Sure, this season has been incredibly frustrating at times, but ultimately, this is easily one of the ten best basketball teams that has represented Alabama since the turn of the century. I’d even make the argument that it is a top-five Tide Hoops team of the 21st century (2002, 2004, 2005, 2021, 2022 - chronologically). Not too shabby for a down year.
With that being said, the five seniors that will be recognized tonight after the Tide’s meeting with the South Carolina Gamecocks (16-10, 8-7 SEC; NET: 88; Kenpom: 91) - Jahvon Quinerly, Keon Ellis, James Rojas, Britton Johnson, and Tyler Barnes - have been a major part of that success. Alabama would not have reached the heights that it did the past two seasons without them. They absolutely deserve a raucous home crowd for their penultimate game in Coleman Coliseum, so I hope the fans come out in big numbers for them.
It’s also telling that Quinerly will be participating in Senior Day festivities, while Noah Gurley will not. Nate Oats even said this week that he expects this to be the last season for the former, while confirming that the latter will be returning to the Capstone for a final season next year (and man, will it be nice to have a second year of Gurley on the squad). So, enjoy Jelly’s electrifying handles and passing while you can, folks.
Now, South Carolina is hot. Winners of four straight, Frank Martin’s team is playing its best ball in some time, so tonight is not the night to focus too much on nostalgia. Because the Gamecocks are currently tied with Alabama for fifth in the conference, so this game could go a long way in deciding how things shake out in the SEC standings.
POINT 6’4 Jermaine Couisnard (11.5 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.4 RPG, 99.5 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 James Reese V (10.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 101.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Erik Stevenson (11.3 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.6 APG, 97.5 DRtg)
WING 6’5 Keyshawn Bryant (8.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 95.4 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Wildens Levegue (7.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 95.8 DRtg)
One reason for South Carolina’s success this year is the overall experience and maturity on this team - every starter is an upperclassman. Jermaine Couisnard is an athletic point guard and the leading scorer on the team (41.3%/34.0%/63.8%). He can really leap and his passing has improved considerably in his time in Columbia (25.2%), but he’s still not an elite ball-handler, and is prone to turn it over quite a bit (21.2% TO%). He’s joined in the back-court by a pair of transfers - James Reese (North Texas) and Erik Stevenson (Washington). Reese is a high volume, spot-up shooter (41.9%/32.8%/77.3%) who actually began his career at Buffalo - where he was recruited by none other than a young Nate Oats. Stevenson began his career at Wichita State (they are both well traveled), but he has blossomed into a well-rounded guard who is leading the nation with an insane 98.1% FT%. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a number like that before, especially this late into the season. That’s remarkable.
In the front-court, the athletic freak that is Keyshawn Bryant makes up for his lack of height by his ability to fly. He’s known to feature on Sportscenter’s Top Ten quite often. That being his said, his rebounding numbers are a bit disappointing for a guy with his leaping ability (10.4% REB%), but he can block shots (5.0% BLK%) and has some range on the offensive end (42.9%/33.3%/59.1%). Wildens Levegue is your typical Frank Martin bruiser in the middle. Big, plays hard, fouls a lot, and hits the glass (14.2% REB%).
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’2 Jacobi Wright (3.7 PPG, 2.0 APG, 1.7 RPG, 101.1 DRtg)
GUARD 6’2 Chico Carter (4.3 PPG, 101.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Devin Carter (9.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 96.6 DRtg)
WING 6’5 Brandon Martin (2.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 98.1 DRtg)
WING 6’7 A.J. Wilson (3.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 95.9 DRtg)
POST 6’8 TaQuon Woodley (2.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 93.3 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Josh Gray (2.9 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 93.0 DRtg)
As is typical of Frank Martin’s teams, the Gamecocks play a lot of guys. Most of them don’t make significant impacts in the scoring or assisting department, but they are all physical players who like to get their hands dirty and really muck games up. Again, this is very much a Frank Martin team. They play tough, hard-nosed defense and compete like hell on the boards; thus, they foul a lot, so they have to utilize a lot of bodies. Devin Carter is the guy to look out for off of the bench. A top 100 recruit in the class of 2021, Carter can get hot with the ball in his hands (41.7%/27.8%/68.4%), and has good potential for a strong career in Columbia.
Three Keys to Victory
- Protect the Paint. This team cannot shoot (31.5% 3P%). They can barely even get to the rim (48.2% 2P%). If it’s not Stevenson getting to the line, they aren’t making free throws (66.2% - 333rd in the country). So, if you defend them with any decent level of intensity and/or effort, you are almost certainly going to keep them under 70 points. Alabama’s effort on defense has come and gone a number of times this year - it’s a big part of what has made this team frustrating at times - but the Tide played well on that end against Vanderbilt the other night. It’s the main reason they won the game, considering how terrible the offense was in the first half. If Alabama can keep that level of play up on defense, the ‘Cocks shouldn’t threaten to score very often.
- Free Throws. As I mentioned earlier, Frank Martin’s teams like to foul. A lot. The Tide’s free throw shooting has really improved to the point of being sneaky-good lately - the Tide needed all 22 of the 25 attempts they made against the Commodores on Tuesday. There is a very good chance that Alabama will be headed to the line for that many shots again tonight. They certainly won’t want to leave points at the stripe. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s free throw shooting incompetence makes this an area where Alabama can really run up the advantage.
- Keep it Clean. The number-one reason why Alabama turned it around after halftime against Vandy - well, besides Quinerly’s brilliance on offense - is that the Tide finally stopped turning the ball over and kept the ‘Dores off of the glass. Funny how much a difference ball security and rebounding make, huh? South Carolina is 349th in the country in offensive turnover rate, but 60th in forcing turnovers themselves. The ‘Cocks are 19th in OREB%, but 326th in giving up offensive boards. So, if Alabama can play a clean game by taking care of the basketball and keeping the Gamecocks off of the glass on the defensive end, everything else should fall into place.
This is a low-key big game for the Tide, simply because a win will move Alabama alone into fifth place in the SEC. Additionally, a win keeps the Tide in-line for a 5-or-6 seed in the NCAA Tournament with just two regular season games left to play. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to send the graduating fellas out with a nice victory on Senior Day. So, get to Coleman Coliseum tonight and help the guys get this win.
The game will tip-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.