Wow, what a day in Nashville on Friday. That was easily one of the best single day experiences I’ve witnessed in my 20+ years of watching the SEC Tournament. It all began, of course, with the 4th-ranked and top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide (27-5, 16-2 SEC; Kenpom: 3; T-Rank: 2; NET: 2) putting together its most complete performance in nearly a month, emphatically easing the concerns of Tide Hoops fans everywhere with a dominant 72-49 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The shots were falling again for everyone outside of Mark Sears and Rylan Griffen - who Alabama will need to round back into form if the Tide hopes to accomplish its ultimate goals - and the effort and energy level on both ends of the court were back to what we had seen for most of the season. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
Immediately after the Tide’s triumph, Alabama fans who stuck around were treated to Tennessee falling - yet again - to the Missouri Tigers (24-8; 11-7 SEC; Kenpom: 51; T-Rank: 57; NET: 48) in the second game of the afternoon. It was an epic back-and-forth between two clashes in styles, but the Tigers made the big plays late to close the game out on a 10-2 run and send the Vols packing early. Dennis Gates is one of many coaches in the conference who has done an unbelievable job this year. He took a hodge-podge of graduate transfers and made them a lock for the NCAA Tournament and now just a win away from making their first ever appearance in the SEC Championship Game in Year 1 of his tenure. Mizzou immediately rewarded him with a contract extension after the game. Pretty remarkable to think he was coaching Cleveland State this time a year ago.
Anyway, unlike many of the recent slogs Alabama has been through, today’s game promises to be much more free-flowing. Missouri’s style under Gates aligns a lot more with Nate Oats’ - the Tigers like to spread things out and open up the floor while pushing tempo at all times. In that regard, Alabama will be playing a lite version of itself - both figuratively and literally, as Mizzou is one of the smallest teams in the country.
We were this close to having an exact replica path to the SECCG as the Tide did just two years ago - but alas, Tennessee had to perform their annual March choke-job a week earlier than usual. That’s not to take anything away from Missouri though. This team plays hard and loose, very similarly to the Vanderbilt Commodores, who are also suddenly playing on the biggest stage that the SEC provides. Mizzou has absolutely nothing to lose, and they play like it.
In the previous meeting between these two programs back in January, first team All-SEC big man and noted Tide killer, Kobe Brown, was a late-scratch and ended up sitting out as Alabama rolled to an 85-64 win in Columbia, MO. With Brown out, Missouri simply couldn’t hang with the Tide’s superior size and athleticism, as Alabama outrebounded the Tigers by 11 and got to the rim and the free throw line at will. The Huntsville native will be in action today though, and he’s absolutely bullied the Tide in the past. Granted, Alabama didn’t used to have the elite size that it does this year, but still. It’ll be a totally different game with Kobe going.
Expect Mizzou to be extremely aggressive on the defensive end. The Tigers are 6th in the country in TO% and 2nd in STL%, as they try to avoid the glaring size concerns in the paint by simply preventing teams from getting there in the first place. Offensively, Dennis Gates has his guys play out on the perimeter a lot. It’s not uncommon for them to go 5-Out even with Kobe in the game, who is a 45.5% 3P% shooter in his own right.
Three Keys to Victory
- Flex that Size Advantage. Even with Kobe Brown playing in this one, Alabama should have a massive edge on the glass and in the paint. Missouri is the second-worst team in all of college basketball in OREB% allowed, and their 2P% allowed is 233rd. Despite Charles Bediako going full-on Angry Chuck in the quarterfinal against Mississippi State, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his role diminished in this one, as Alabama will likely “go small” frequently with Noah Clowney playing the five and Brandon Miller manning the four to keep up with all of Mizzou’s guards. So, Clowney and Noah Gurley will need to be ready to dominate the low post and hold-up against Brown, who does have some good post moves.
- The Three-Point Line. I fully expect Mizzou to try to fill it up from the perimeter in this game. The Tigers are a good shooting team at 36.3% from downtown, and I anticipate them trying to avoid Alabama’s third-rated defense by getting out in transition and letting it fly from long-range. On the flipside, hopefully we witnessed the return of the Tide’s three-point shooting prowess yesterday, because for a team that shoots as many of them as Alabama does, they need to be connecting on them. The looks have been there, the execution just needs to follow.
- Take Care of the Basketball. As mentioned, Missouri is going to try to turn the Tide over all day this afternoon. They seriously exploited Tennessee in this regard Friday with the Vols’ point guard, Zakai Zeigler, out with injury; Mizzou turned the Vols over 14 times. This is how Missouri makes up for its constant deficit on the glass, by getting more possessions and shots via turnovers. If Alabama can prevent the Tigers from getting much from said turnovers, the Tide should be able to significantly outpace Mizzou in shot attempts with its advantage in rebounding.
As of this writing, I haven’t heard anything further about Dom Welch’s status for today. He busted his tailbone pretty good yesterday, so I wouldn’t expect to see him back out there in Nashville this weekend, to be honest. The good news is that the Tide’s dominating performance against State allowed them to play everyone on scholarship and properly manage each player’s minutes. So, everyone else should be well rested still.
Alabama is listed as an 8.5-point favorite today. The game will tip-off at noon on ESPN again. If you can make it on up to Nashville, it’s the perfect venue for this event, and there are a lot of tickets available on the secondary market from sad Kentucky and Tennessee fans.