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Bama Basketball Breakdown - Emerald Coast Classic: Ohio State

Alabama faces its first true test of the season, as it begins its holiday tournament in Destin, FL

NCAA Basketball: Emerald Coast Classic-Western Michigan at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope that you all are still recovering from a food coma brought on by a bountiful feast shared with loved ones yesterday and are ready for another fun holiday tournament to begin with Tide Hoops tonight. This year, the 17th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0) is in Destin, FL for the Emerald Coast Classic. It’s certainly not in the same tier as the likes of the Maui Invitational or the Battle 4 Atlantis, tournaments that the Tide has participated in recent years under Nate Oats, but the Tide should get a pair of stout tests in the Sunshine state this weekend.

That begins Friday night with the Ohio State Buckeyes (3-1). Chris Holtmann’s squad enters the 2023-24 season coming on the heels of one of the worst years Ohio State has seen in decades, finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2004. However, this team should be in for a nice bounce-back season, as Holtmann has recruited really well the past few years and brought in a lot of experience via the transfer portal this offseason. The Buckeyes lone loss of the 2023-24 campaign thus far came against fellow SEC-brethren and 14th-ranked Texas A&M in a competitive 73-66 battle in Columbus.

Now, whether or not Ohio State ends up being a legitimately good team or not, this is still far and away Alabama’s biggest test of the young season. Blowing out every single team the Tide faced the first two weeks was fun and all, but the guys don’t need to let that go to their heads - there are much bigger prizes and significantly better opponents remaining. The Buckeyes represent the start of that step-up in competition. If you are just now joining us for the 2023-24 Tide Hoops season, make sure to read my season preview piece before moving forward - it’ll get you caught up on the significant changes from last season’s historic team (and I did a pretty good job of prognosticating, if I do say so myself).

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’2: Bruce Thornton - 15.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 1.5 RPG

GUARD 6’4: Roddy Gayle - 14.8 PPG, 4.0 APG, 6.8 RPG

WING 6’6: Evan Mahaffey - 3.8 PPG, 1.0 APG, 3.5 RPG

WING 6’7: Jamison Battle - 11.3 PPG, 1.5 APG, 4.8 RPG

POST 6’11: Felix Okpara - 4.8 PPG, 0.3 APG, 4.8 RPG

Off the Bench

GUARD 6’2: Dale Bonner - 5.0 PPG, 1.5 APG, 2.5 RPG

WING 6’6: Scotty Middleton - 5.5 PPG, 1.0 APG, 3.0 RPG

WING 6’6: Devin Royal - 1.5 PPG, 0.3 APG, 2.0 RPG

POST 6’8: Zed Key - 11.8 PPG, 0.0 APG, 7.3 RPG

As I mentioned before, Ohio State had a pretty terrible season last year, but the silver lining is that it did bestow then-freshmen guards Bruce Thornton and Roddy Gayle with a ton of meaningful experience. Now, their efficiency numbers may not be great thus far this season - what playing a Buzz Williams defense does to player - but make no mistake about it, both of these guards are very good scorers (Thornton: 39.1%/38.1%/81.0%; Gayle: 54.5%/30.8%/50.0%) who will test the Tide’s perimeter defense like no one else has this season. Baylor transfer Dale Bonner is a limited player in a lot of ways, especially athletically, but he can absolutely shoot the ball as well (40.0% 3P%), so this backcourt can be quite dangerous on the offensive end.

In the frontcourt, the two transfer starting wings have brought a lot more physicality to the Buckeyes rotation. Evan Mahaffey played his first season at Penn State last year, where he was known as a slashing, hard-nosed forward. His Defensive Rating (DRtg) is the second-best on the team this year at 91.8, and easily the best of the non-bigs. Holtmann basically brought him in to be a defensive stopper. Jamison Battle - formerly a multi-year starter at Minnesota - is a bit bigger than Mahaffey, but he’s more effective on the offensive end of the court, capable of stretching the defense from range or getting into the paint with the big boys (41.0%/39.1%/66.7%).

Zed Key and Feliz Okpara, the two big men on the team, are an interesting duo. Okpara technically gets the start due to his near-seven-foot size and potential, but the sophomore is still a bit raw as a player, particularly on offense, where he’s mostly utilized as an above-the-rim finisher (57.1%/0.0%/50.0%). Defensively though, he’s a shot blocking extraordinaire with a ridiculous 17.4% BLK rate and a team-leading 88.4 DRtg. Key has been around for a while now, as this is his fourth year in the program, and he’s just really solid. He does everything you want from a post player quite well - 59.3% FG%/18.0% REB%/4.2% BLK%/93.8 DRtg.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Push the Pace and Exploit the Defense. Ohio State is a lot like many Big Ten teams - slow and lumbering. The Buckeyes are 287th in Adjusted Tempo and are currently 323rd in the nation in average defensive possession length. Unlike the more elite units of the B1G though, the Buckeyes have not been very good on defense. They’ve improved a bit from last year’s horrendous showing, when they ranked 103rd in the country in Defensive Efficiency, but this is still not a team that wants to try to keep up with an elite offensive team that goes up and down the court all night, like Alabama does.
  2. Defend the Perimeter. The Buckeyes may not be the best shooting team Alabama will face this year or anything, but between the three guards and Battle, they’ve got four guys who can get hot and light it up from outside. Not exactly a recipe conducive to a Tide victory if Alabama isn’t ready to contest looks from the perimeter. I’m particularly intrigued to see how guys like Grant Nelson and Jarin Stevenson perform against Battle, who can really shoot it when he is on.
  3. Keep Cooking. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting the ball in the basket. Alabama’s offensive explosion to start the season has been unbelievable. Averaging over a hundred points per game, the Tide is leading the nation in both Effective FG% (66.2%!!!!) and 3P% (48.9%). That’s obviously not sustainable, but if the Tide keeps scoring remotely close to those numbers, they are going to be incredibly difficult to beat. As mentioned, this is the first team that can provide any kind of resistance to the Tide’s offense, so let’s see how Alabama can respond.

It should be a fun one tonight. I know Nate Oats and the fellas are ready to take on a high-major opponent for the first time this year. Let’s see if the early returns of the Tide’s elite offense can continue even with the step-up in competition. Ohio State is a team with a lot of variance this season - they could end up being anywhere from the bottom of the Big Ten again to a legitimate NCAA Tournament team - but they absolutely do have some good, young talent and, even though he’s under a lot of scrutiny right now, I think Chris Holtmann is one of the better offensive coaches in college basketball.

Alabama is listed as an 8.5-point favorite as of this writing, and that certainly feels right, but if the Tide keeps shooting it like they have so far this season, that won’t be nearly enough points. The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST and can be found on CBS Sports Network. Oregon-Santa Clara will follow, with the winners meeting at the same time again Saturday.