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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Arkansas

The stretch run of the season is officially here, and Alabama is in a two-way race to the finish

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

After an absolutely legendary performance from Brandon Miller on Wednesday night, the #2 Alabama Crimson Tide (24-4, 14-1 SEC; Kenpom: 3; T-Rank: 2; NET: 2) is now just three games and a week away from potentially winning its second regular season SEC title in just three years - truly a return the glory days of Wimp and C.M. However, it’s not going to be an easy path, as the Tide will have to do battle with a trio of NCAA Tournament teams - two of which are trending up in a big way as of late. The first of those is the Arkansas Razorbacks (Kenpom: 15; T-Rank: 17; NET: 15), who come to town for a massive showdown on Saturday afternoon.

Alabama will certainly need to play a hell of a lot better the rest of the way than it did on Wednesday night. Sure, South Carolina shot way above their usual expectation, but that was still a sloppy performance from everyone outside of Miller and Charles Bediako. Careless turnovers, poor shooting, and an overall lack of energy for most of the game nearly led to an upset that would’ve really opened the door for Texas A&M to catch Alabama for first in the SEC. The Aggies have quietly been playing extremely good basketball since the calendar flipped to 2023 - Bart Torvik has them ranked third in the country behind only Alabama and Houston since the beginning of January.

And of course, we all know what follows the conclusion of the regular season. Saturday’s game against Arkansas is the final game of February, which means the madness is about to begin in full force starting next week. As difficult as it may be, Alabama will need to block out the outside noise and get back to playing like the guys were before the circus of this past week if they want to achieve all of their goals for the season.

From Last Time

Three Keys to Victory

Take Care of the Basketball. You were expecting something different? You can see Erik about a refund. Arkansas is 23rd in the country in forcing turnovers (25.3%), and while Alabama has shown some improvement in this category recently, the Tide still ranks 299th in protecting the ball (20.8% TO%). The Hogs’ whole MO is to be aggressive as hell on defense - playing out on your hands and jumping passing lanes, get out in transition, and get to the free throw line. They are constantly attacking on both ends of the court, forcing opponents out of their comfort zones.

Prevent Dribble-Penetration. Speaking of zones, Arkansas has been getting zoned to death recently. With Smith and Brazile both sidelined, the Razorbacks have been awful shooting the ball. If the Hogs aren’t getting downhill and attacking, they aren’t doing much scoring. They currently rank 342nd in the country in three-point shooting (28.7%). It’s their one glaring weakness. Thus, teams have been throwing zones out there - mostly the good ole’ 2-3 - and forcing Arkansas to make jump-shots. Now, Nate Oats pretty much only plays Man-to-Man defense, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s willing to break tendency and throw a zone out there tonight. Either way, Alabama needs to keep the Hogs in front of them.

Fouls and Free Throws. The Razorbacks are currently short on depth. Yet, aggressive play is their style. Now, getting calls on the road isn’t easy, but Alabama is 22nd in the country in FT/FG ratio at 40.9%. If the Tide can exploit Arkansas’ eagerness on defense and use that size to get to the line and get into the Hogs’ bench, it will go a long way tonight. On the flip side, Arkansas’ best offense sometimes is just putting their heads down and getting to the line themselves, as they are 31st in the country in FT/FG ratio (39.4%).

Check out this link to read the full Breakdown for the last meeting

In the previous meeting way back on January 11th, Alabama dominated the second half of the game in Fayetteville and cruised to an 84-69 victory in Bud Walton Arena. The Tide shot a potent 46.3% from the field, including 9/20 from downtown, while the Hogs failed to match with their poor jump-shooting. Alabama was also able to get to the line more than the Razorbacks did, which is quite the accomplishment on the road in the SEC. And though 13 turnovers isn’t ideal, this was around the time that Alabama really started taking care of the basketball more - Nate Oats’ guys are 4th in the SEC in TO% since conference play began.

The game in Fayetteville was exactly the kind of dominant win we’ve come to expect from the Tide this season - despite Miller being held to only 14 points on just four attempts, as Devo Davis did a fantastic job of shutting him down. Mark Sears went off, dropping 26 points and a trio of dimes, while Noah Clowney posted 15 points and 5 boards for the Tide. Those two had arguably their worst combined performance of the season against the Gamecocks, so Alabama will need them to get back into form for this one.

Anything New Going On?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Alabama has had a lot of fun in the national press recently, in case you just returned to the planet today. I won’t expend any more energy on the recent witch hunt of Brandon Miller, but I will say one last time that I hope everyone keeps the victim of last month’s tragic shooting and her family in your thoughts and prayers. That should be where people are putting their time and energy into. Let justice be served in the court of law.

As for the court of basketball, the answer to the header is also a resounding ‘yes’. Arkansas has been great pretty much across the board as a team this season with one glaring exception - they can’t shoot (305th in the country at 31.5% from three). Well, the return of superstar one-and-done freshman, Nick Smith Jr., seems to have helped alleviate that problem. Smith was the consensus #1 overall player in last year’s recruiting class and the gem of Arkansas’ top-ranked 2022 class. However, he’s barely played for Eric Musselman this season, as he’s dealt with a knee injury that he was understandably very conservative with in his rehab.

Smith has been ramping back up for a few games now - he made his official return to the court against Mississippi State a couple of weeks back, but he only logged 17 minutes of game time. His most recent appearance this past Tuesday against Georgia was by far his best in a Razorback uniform, as the 6’5 guard dropped 26 points on 9/14 shooting, which included 5/8 from three-point land. This guy is the definition of a walking bucket and with him now healthy, Arkansas is likely to look more like the team that was considered one of the favorites to win the conference and make a Final Four run.

Even with this game being in Tuscaloosa, it’s going to be a very difficult one for the Tide. Alabama will absolutely need all of its players to get back into form after a poor showing against South Carolina; relying on Miller to be superman isn’t going to end with a ‘W’ in this game - or any other the rest of the way, for that matter.

It’s officially put-up-or-shut-up time for Tide Hoops. With A&M breathing down the Tide’s neck in the race for the regular season title, and nothing but NCAA Tournament-level teams left the rest of the way, Alabama has to be at its absolute best from here on out. This is what we’ve all been waiting for, so let’s see how the Tide closes out this historic season.

The early lines are all over the place due to recent developments from both teams, but Alabama is anywhere from a 4-6 point home favorite from what I can gather. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and tip-off is scheduled for 1:00 PM CST Saturday.