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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Liberty

With only one game left before conference play, Alabama closes out the 2023 calendar year in Birmingham for the annual CM Newton Classic

NCAA Basketball: Liberty at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

As the calendar comes to a close on 2023, the narrative of the 2023-24 Alabama Crimson Tide (7-5; NET: 9; Kenpom: 8) is far from determined, but it is starting to come into view. It’s been a weird start to the season for college basketball’s biggest enigma of a team - a barely above .500 squad that finds itself in the top-ten in nearly every advanced ranking system out there. The Tide looks like one of the best teams of the last decade against inferior opponents at home, but then struggles mightily on the defensive end and with offensive consistency for everyone not named Mark Sears against equal or greater competition. Still, Nate Oats’ squad continues to battle in those games, which is ultimately why the NET, Kenpom, etc. all still love Alabama.

I’ve seen some folks around here recently claiming that this team is destined for the NIT, and I know we all got very accustomed to that during the decade-plus that preceded Oats, but that still seems like a worst-case scenario outcome for this team. This is a group full of guys still getting accustomed to both a) playing together and b) playing high-major college basketball. And Oats threw them straight into the deep end with a schedule that included no less than seven likely NCAA Tournament teams before SEC play.

Now, the concern is that Alabama’s issues are either very consistent (defensive lapses, dumb fouls, poor shooting in games against teams that can actually create consistent resistance) or structural (Charles Bediako and Noah Clowney ain’t walking through that door). Those are definitely things to worry about. However, the expectation should be that a lot of the less structural issues can get worked out enough for the Tide to be a top-tier team in the SEC once again. Nobody in the SEC has Zach Edey or Ryan Kalkbrenner on their roster. I still think this team can contend for an SEC title and make noise in March.

With that being said, Alabama has one last opportunity to make some improvements and get a solid win before conference play begins, as the Liberty Flames (8-3; NET: 50; Kenpom: 57) come to Birmingham for this year’s edition of the C.M. Newton Classic. Ritchie McKay’s Flames have been one of the best mid-major programs of the last five years or so, making a couple of appearances in the Big Dance and even advancing in 2019, when they stunned Mississippi State in the opening round. They are accustomed to winning and don’t back down from anybody, so Alabama will get their best shot this Saturday.

The Roster

Starting Five

Colin Porter (#0, SO, G, 5-9): Guard, 5-9, 9.4 PPG, 3.7 APG, 2.2 RPG

Kaden Metheny (#3, SO, G, 5-11): Guard, 5-11, 11.7 PPG, 3.0 APG, 3.3 RPG

Joseph Venzant (#23, JR, G, 6-3): Guard, 6-3, 6.3 PPG, 0.9 APG, 8.2 RPG

Zach Cleveland (#25, SO, F, 6-7): Forward, 6-7, 10.2 PPG, 3.5 APG, 6.1 RPG

Kyle Rode (#22, SR, F, 6-7): Forward, 6-7, 13.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 4.5 RPG

Off the Bench

Brody Peebles (#1, JR, G, 6-2): Guard, 6-2, 10.9 PPG, 0.8 APG, 2.3 RPG

Gabriel McKay (#21, SR, G, 6-2): Guard, 6-2, 3.8 PPG, 0.5 APG, 0.6 RPG

Shiloh Robinson (#33, SR, F, 6-7): Forward, 6-7, 6.5 PPG, 0.6 APG, 4.0 RPG

Zander Yates (#11, SO, F, 6-7): Forward, 6-7, 4.1 PPG, 0.5 APG, 1.2 RPG

Ritchie McKay is a disciple of the Tony Bennett school of deliberately slow, halfcourt-driven offense and disciplined pack-line defense. As a result, Liberty is basically Virginia-lite. They won’t wow you with athletic prowess or sheer, raw talent. Instead, they hone their skills and utilize superior coaching and teamwork to overwhelm their opponents.

That’s not to say that they don’t have standout players though. Kyle Rode is a do-it-all point forward, capable of running the offense (18.6% AST%), knocking down shots (42.0%/40.4%.72.7%), and banging in the post (10.1% REB%). Their diminutive guards can both shoot (Porter: 43.3%/34.4%/68.8%; Metheny: 44.4%/40.0%/83.3%) and dish (Porter: 19.2% AST%; Metheny: 17.3%). Venzant is an elite rebounder, particularly for his size (20.2% REB%). And Brody Peebles gets buckets off of the bench as a sixth man (50.0%/36.2%/92.9%).

But make no mistake, this game will be a clash of styles.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Dictate the Tempo. No surprises here. As I just mentioned, this game might be more about Nate Oats v Ritchie McKay than anything else. If Liberty is able to successfully slow the game down and make it a halfcourt battle, the Flames will have a chance. If the Tide can speed Liberty up though, I’m not sure they can hang with Alabama, in large part due to the next key.
  2. Flex that Talent/Size Advantage. Only in basketball could these two teams take the court of play together and it be competitive. Because getting off of the bus you would favor the Tide by 50. Go back up and check out the size of this Liberty team again. They are 361st in average height according to Kenpom - quite literally the second smallest team in D1 college basketball. They don’t block shots (337th in BLK%), they don’t get to the free throw line with any regularity (349th in Free Throw Rate), and although their rebounding numbers are middle-of-the-road, they got out-rebounded badly by the only comparable team to Alabama that they’ve played when FAU enjoyed a double-digit advantage in their 83-58 win over the Flames. Honestly, as much as Alabama likes to shoot threes - and they’ll have plenty of opportunities against the smaller guards of Liberty - the Tide just needs to get to the rim and take advantage of the largest discrepancy in this match-up, no pun intended.
  3. Defensive Rotations. Now, as much as we would like to believe that Alabama will successfully run the Flames out of the building with talent/size/athleticism alone, there is a reason Liberty can and often does win games like this. The Tide is going to have to guard them in halfcourt sets, and they’ll have to do it for long stretches of time. This is Liberty’s great equalizer. They run sets all day long - tons of off-ball movement, great passing, heavy use of picks - and then work the clock to their advantage and knock down open looks. Alabama’s defensive rotations have to be on-point on Saturday if the Tide wants to keep Liberty at bay.

This will be a unique challenge for Alabama on Saturday afternoon. And we all know how much the Tide has struggled historically in Birmingham. With this being the last game before conference play begins, it’s pretty important that the fellas end non-conference play on the right note, especially since this will be a decent win on the ole NCAA Tournament resume come March.

The game will tip-off at 1:00 PM CST and will be available for streaming on ESPN+ and SEC Network+. If you are in the Birmingham area, come on out to support the guys.