For the first time since January 5th, 2003, the Alabama Crimson Tide (22-3, 12-0 SEC; Kenpom: 2; T-Rank: 2; NET: 2) is the number-one team in the college hoops world. Let’s take one last minute to let that sink in. Really embrace it. Welcome it into the inner-most part of your soul. Seriously, take a second to reflect.
And now, let’s move forward, because as amazing as it is that Tide Hoops is now the top-ranked team in the country, that isn’t one of the primary goals of the season. The only #1 that matters is being the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is still six regular season games and a conference tournament in Nashville away. And the very next game up might be the toughest game of the entire season, as Alabama heads to Knoxville to take on the top-ten Tennessee Volunteers (19-6, 8-4 SEC; Kenpom: 5; T-Rank: 3; NET: 3).
Not only are the hated Vols a really good basketball team - once again among the absolute best in the country defensively under head coach Rick Barnes - but they are suddenly a desperate one, too. Just two weeks ago, Tennessee dominated fellow top-ten team, Texas, in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and moved up to #2 in the country. Since then, the offense has suddenly gone ice-cold, and the Vols have lost three out of their last four games, with their one win coming against Auburn in a game so ugly only a mother could love it.
That is, of course, another consistent theme Tennessee has displayed under Rick Barnes over the years - erratic offensive performances. Still, that means they simply could be due for a good one tonight, and when the shots are falling for the Vols, they are Final Four - even National Championship - good. Alabama is an underdog tonight for the first time since playing at Arkansas over a month ago, and for only the fourth time this season. There is a reason for that. A desperate team with sky-high potential hosting a hated rival that comes into the building ranked #1 in the country? That’s a scary one to face.
POINT 5’9 Zakai Zeigler (10.8 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.1 RPG, 84.3 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Santiago Vescovi (12.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 84.5 DRtg)
WING 6’6 Josiah-Jordan James (9.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.6 APG, 83.6 DRtg)
WING 6’8 Julian Phillips (9.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, 87.7 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Olivier Nkamhoua (10.7 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 87.1 DRtg)
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’3 Tyreke Key (8.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 90.6 DRtg)
GUARD 6’4 Jahmai Mashack (3.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 82.7 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Jonas Aidoo (4.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 82.1 DRtg)
POST 7’0 Uros Plavsic (5.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.0 APG, 83.8 DRtg)
The Vols are a long, athletic, experienced group full of defensive stalwarts - check out those individual Defensive Ratings. The big question for Tennessee tonight is the status of both of their starting wings, Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips. JJJ has been plagued by injuries all season long, the most recent being an ankle injury that kept him out of the Missouri game this past weekend. Phillips suffered a hip flexor strain in that same game and missed the entirety of the second half.
JJJ is a rare former blue-chip recruit that is now in his fourth season of college ball. He’s never been a great shooter (37.5%/30.1%/90.5%), but his size and athleticism make him an invaluable member of the team, as he defends and rebounds (12.2% REB%) at a high-level and rarely makes mistakes. Phillips was a McDonald’s All-American in this past recruiting class. The likely one-and-done freshman has also struggled with his shot this season (41.7%/27.0%/81.6%), but like James, his overall size, athleticism, and playmaking skills are tough to replace.
If both of those guys do miss, expect Rick Barnes to lean heavily on his bigs. He might have to anyway with Alabama’s size. Olivier Nkamhoua is a bit of a freak - an athletic leaper who can rebound (11.2% REB%), protect the rim (3.9% BLK%), and even stretch the floor with his shooting (54.2%/39.3%/71.2%). He’s probably been Tennessee’s MVP this season. Jonas Aidoo and Uros Plavsic are more traditional centers. The pair of seven-footers are strong rebounders (both at 16.3% REB%), shot-blockers (Aidoo: 8.8% BLK%; Plavsic: 3.9% BLK%) and capable passers out of the low block (Aidoo: 10.5% AST%; Plavsic: 13.7% AST%). This is a huge frontline.
In the backcourt, Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi are veteran guards who really are the difference for the Vols offensively. Ziegler plays the game like an old school, New York area guard. He’s got some dog in him for sure. A streaky shooter (37.2%/31.3%/85.7%) with an elite motor, he’s always got the ball in his hands, and runs the offense at a very high level (35.2% AST%). Vescovi, on the other hand, is very much an international type of guard - big on finesse and technical ability. The crafty Uruguayan has seen his shooting efficiency drop this year (38.8%/35.2%/77.8%), but that hasn’t stopped him from launching over seven three-point attempts per game. When he gets hot, watch out. They make for a quite the duo.
Relieving them will be Indiana State grad-transfer Tyreke Key and second-year defensive-stopper Jahmai Mashack. Key is another guy who is capable of getting hot from beyond the arc (36.1%/36.8%/74.2%), so Alabama will need to be wary of his talents off of the bench. I’d expect Mashack to play out on the wing a bunch if JJJ and Phillips can’t go.
Three Keys to Victory
- Control the Tempo. Alabama is not only #1 in the country in the latest AP Poll - the Tide is also #1 in the country in Adjusted Tempo. Meanwhile, Tennessee clocks in at 248th in the nation. Rick Barnes-led teams want to slow the game down and outwork their opponents in the halfcourt. They will likely put together a similar gameplan to the one Mississippi State utilized in both of their showings with the Tide this year. Additionally, the Vols are elite defensively in the halfcourt. They have the #1 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in college basketball. They are 1st in Effective Field Goal % allowed and 17th in Turnover %. It’s as good of a defense as you’ll see at this level. So, a good way for Alabama to counter that is by getting shots up early in the shot-clock and preventing Tennessee from getting set-up defensively.
- Hold Stong on the Glass. Charles Bediako has a minor meniscus injury that he tweaked in the game against Auburn the other day, so he might not be able to go tonight. If that’s the case, Alabama will really have to rely on the Noahs, both Clowney and Gurley, as well as Nick Pringle in this game. Tennessee is big and physical in the post, and they are currently 2nd in the country in OREB%. Auburn killed Alabama on the glass the other day, which is half of the reason they led for most of the game. Another performance like that from the Tide and Nate Oats’ guys might not be so lucky against this team.
- Free Throws. Tennessee isn’t anything remarkable at either getting fouled (167th in Free Throw Rate) or knocking down shots once they get there (126th at 73.2%), but I just have a feeling this one is going over on expected free throws tonight. SEC-area refs love to show-off in big games, and it should be really physical tonight. Alabama is quite good at getting to the line (31st in Free Throw Rate), but also pretty middling in making those trips count (72.0%), as we witnessed on Saturday. This is a bit of a hunch, but I bet free throws play a big role tonight.
Despite Tennessee’s recent slide, this is the biggest match-up on the SEC schedule this season. The Vols still rank near the top in nearly every advanced metric, and these two should be meeting again down the line in March - either in the SEC Championship Game or the Big Dance itself. Combine that with the Tide’s newly appointed #1 ranking, and you’ve got the ingredients for a crazy atmosphere in Thompson-Boling Arena tonight.
Alabama will need its best performance to come away with a road victory in this one. If the Tide wants to keep that shiny, new #1 ranking, the guys will certainly have to earn it right out of the gates. Tennessee is listed as a 3-point favorite in this trappy spot. The game will tip-off at 6:00 PM CST tonight and will be televised on ESPN2.