Happy New Year, y’all! I hope everyone was able to enjoy the holidays to their fullest, and I’m praying that today’s severe weather threats will dissipate with no damage to life and property. Stay safe, everyone.
With that being said, it’s now 2023, and your Alabama Crimson Tide (11-2, 1-0 SEC; Kenpom: 9; T-Rank: 12; NET: 8) finds itself ranked 7th in the most recent AP Poll and looking like one of the top contenders to take home the regular season SEC title. If you haven’t jumped aboard the bandwagon yet, now’s the time. We aren’t making many more stops. The next opponent on the schedule for tonight’s conference home opener is the Ole Miss Rebels (8-5, 0-1 SEC; Kenpom: 71; T-Rank: 79; NET: 89).
It’s been a pretty mediocre season for the Rebs, not that they are used to much else on the hardwood over in Oxford. Still, if Kermit Davis doesn’t get things turned around before the end of the year, this could be the Tide’s last meeting with him at the helm. Outside of the suddenly hot seat for John Calipari, nobody in the conference is feeling the pressure more than ole Kermit. But we’ve seen how people respond in these situations before - nothing is more dangerous than a desperate team looking to salvage its season and save their coach’s job.
And it’s not like the Rebels are without talent. This is very much a ‘take care of business’ game for Alabama at home tonight, but this is a long and potentially desperate conference opponent looking to make a statement, so the Tide needs to bring its best to open up the 2023 calendar year with a win.
POINT 6’4 Amaree Abram (9.1 PPG, 2.2 APG, 2.1 RPG, 100.3 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Matthew Murrell (14.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.5 APG, 97.9 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Myles Burns (7.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.1 APG, 86.8 DRtg)
POST 6’7 Jayveous McKinnis (4.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 92.6 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Jaemyn Brakefield (8.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 97.6 DRtg)
Off the Bench
GUARD 5’9 Daeshun Ruffin (9.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 1.5 RPG, 101.5 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Tye Fagan (1.7 PPG, 99.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 T.J. Caldwell (4.8 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 102.0 DRtg)
POST 6’7 Josh Mballa (4.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 94.6 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Robert Allen (4.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 95.8 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Theo Akwuba (3.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 95.8 DRtg)
Kermit Davis has long employed the strategy of throwing wave after wave of big athletes at opponents, hoping to overwhelm them over the course of the game. This year is no different, as Ole Miss is 15th in the country in Bench Minutes, and 84th in Average Height. This is what made him a very successful mid-major coach, but it hasn’t translated as well in SEC play, as his opponents can often answer that size and depth - this year’s Alabama team being the obvious example of that.
Still, this is a long, athletic team with real talent. Matthew Murrell was a five-star coming out of high school, and he’s been the best player on the team by a lot (38.6%/31.1%/87.8%; 15.8% AST%). His numbers from the field might not blow you away, but he takes over a quarter of the team’s shots and is usually the primary reason why the Rebels win games. True freshman Amaree Abram joins him in the backcourt, and while he turns the ball over as often as he dishes out an assist, he’s the best three-point shooter on the team (40.5%) and is also shooting 90% from the free throw line. Abrams’ days as the starting point guard are likely numbered anyway, as Daeshun Ruffin - who started at point the previous two seasons - is working his way back from an ACL tear that he suffered back in February. Ruffin’s assist numbers are ridiculous (42.2% AST%; nearly a 3:1 Assist-to-Turnover Ratio), as he runs the offense with a high level of efficiency.
The frontcourt is filled with big bodies who can bang on the boards. Jaemyn Brakefield is the best of the bunch. He can score from all over the court (52.0%/40.0%/66.7%), rebound well (12.5% REB%), and even handle the rock. He’s joined by five others who rebound at a double-digit rate - Josh Mball (15.9% REB%), Myles Burns (14.9%), Jayveous McKinnis (12.8%), Theo Akwuba (11.9%), and Robert Allen (11.8%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Win the Rebounding Battle. Much like Mississippi State last week, Ole Miss doesn’t get much done offensively in the halfcourt. Their best offense - outside of Murrell heating up - has been attacking the glass and getting second chance points via offensive rebounds, which they are 14th in the country at 36.8% OREB%. Alabama is right behind them at 16th, but also does a much better job at preventing offensive boards - the Tide allows just 25.9% of opponent attempts to end up with offensive rebounds for the other team whereas Ole Miss is at 30.7%. If Alabama wins the rebounding margin tonight, it’s hard to find a path to an Ole Miss victory.
- Contain Murrell. That path to a Rebel victory almost certainly runs through their All-SEC candidate, Matthew Murrell. Again, his efficiency numbers won’t blow you away, but he’s a dynamic scorer when he is on. With Nimari Burnett still out for some time, and Dom Welch still working his way into the rotation, Alabama’s smaller guards may end up defending Murrell for large stretches of the game. They will need to be ready to rise to the challenge.
- Take Care of the Basketball. I might just have to change this section to ‘Three Keys to Victory - Not Including the Obvious Need to Improve in Turnovers’. Alabama had another 19 turnovers against State last week, which allowed the Bulldogs to hang around despite their anemic shooting display. Ole Miss hasn’t been as good as State in turning opponents over, but they are 51st in Block Rate and 39th in Steal Rate, so they do get after it on the defensive end. Meanwhile Alabama is down to 330th in Turnover Rate. Sheesh.
As mentioned, this is definitely a game Alabama should win - the Tide is listed as a 12-point favorite tonight. Still, Ole Miss is a deep, long team with a couple of very talented players. Their coach is feeling some pressure in Oxford, and nothing washes away an ugly non-conference slate (the Rebels lost to every decent team they played save Florida Atlantic, and even lost to North Alabama just before Christmas) like the start of SEC play. It’s almost like a soft reset to the season.
Just ask Tennessee, who the Rebels had on the ropes for most of the game in their SEC opener last week. The 8th-ranked Vols needed some seriously clutch moments from Santiago Vescovi and company to avoid the upset on opening night. Alabama will need to play its best all year long if the Tide wants to win its second SEC title in three seasons, something that hasn’t been done since C.M. Newton was coaching the program.
That starts at home tonight. The game tips-off at 8:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network.