Quick Programming Note: In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been a bit out of pocket recently - shoutout to Josh, Erik, and (of course) Roger for filling in the past week - as I had my busy season at work followed by a trip out of the country, which was then further complicated by the ice storm here in Alabama. For those reasons, this will be a shortened edition of the Breakdown, but we’ll be back to our regular schedule starting with this weekend’s showdown with Tennessee. Thanks for reading!
Coming off of its biggest win of the season, the Alabama Crimson Tide (11-5, 3-0 SEC; NET: 4; Kenpom: 6) returns home tonight for one last conference match-up before it begins a brutal back-to-back against #6 Tennessee and #13 Auburn in what could end up going a long way in determining whether or not the Tide can defend its regular season SEC crown. The road victory in Starkville this past Saturday really can’t be overstated - not only is Mississippi State a potential NCAA Tournament team and a Q1 win on the Tournament team sheet, but finding a way to finally win one of these close games against a good team - especially one that’s uniquely built to give Nate Oats’ squad fits - was so important for this team. That’s the kind of win that makes a major difference in a team’s confidence, and it could be one we look back on as making the difference in some sort of seed-line, whether that be for the conference tournament or the Big Dance.
As for tonight though, the Missouri Tigers (8-8, 0-3 SEC; NET: 119; Kenpom: 105) come to Tuscaloosa in an obvious trap spot. Not only is this game sandwiched between the three crucial battles I’ve already referenced, but Mizzou is desperate to finally get in the win column in SEC play, and I can guarantee you that they will bring their best effort tonight. The honeymoon is over for second year coach, Dennis Gates, who led the Tigers to a surprising top-five finish in the SEC and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament last March. They even gave the Tide the best battle it faced in Nashville.
Gates was able to orchestrate that quick turnaround for Mizzou in large part because he brought in a ton of veteran transfers in the portal, who had played a lot of college ball and understood what it took to buy in and win basketball games. The downside to that, of course, is that most of those guys ran out of eligibility, and Missouri’s sudden emergence as a real recruiter at the high school level in the NIL era hasn’t exactly started bearing any real fruit on the hardcourt yet - they do have the #4 class in the country as of right now for 2024, though.
As for this year’s team, they are overly reliant on guard play. Sean East has been a beast for them at point guard, averaging the 7th-most PPG in the league at 17.1 and assisting others at a 23.2% AST% clip. He’s been downright elite from the perimeter, shooting 51.1% from distance - top-ten in the country. He’s joined in the backcourt by fellow upperclassmen - and former transfers - Nick Honor and Tamar Bates, who both also average double-digit figures on strong shooting numbers (Honor: 10.3 PPG on 36.9%/38.6%/80.8%; Bates: 10.8 PPG on 53.1%/48.7%/91.9%). Caleb Grill - who torched the Tide for 27 points on 7/12 shooting from beyond the arc way back in December of 2020 when he played for UNLV - has been sidelined with a wrist injury for about a month now and is not expected to play tonight.
In the frontcourt, Missouri really lacks much size or depth. 6’6 Noah Carter and 6’8 Aiden Shaw get all of the minutes in the paint for the Tigers in large part because 7’5 Connor Vanover - who Tide fans might remember from his time at Arkansas - is Charmin soft in the post. Carter (6.0 RPG on 12.1% REB%) and Shaw (3.9 RPG on 13.3% REB%) do an admirable job of hitting the glass, but neither bring a whole lot of offensive game to the court. Carter is capable of playing out on the wing and does bring a lot of hustle and some needed physicality to the court for the Tigers.
Three Keys to Victory
- Chase the Tigers off of the Arc. Mizzou’s three-point shooting numbers as a whole won’t blow you away (33.2%), but they are capable of getting hot from multiple guys. And you know Sean East is going to absolutely bring it. If the Tigers are to make this one a game tonight, look no further than their ability to knock down the trey.
- Attack the Glass. Dennis Gates’ squad is dreadful on the boards, particularly at preventing second chance points and opportunities for their opponents on the defensive glass. They are allowing an OREB% of 34.0% - 323rd in the country. Alabama hasn’t been elite on the boards, and the Tide has had its issues with interior post play as well, but Nate Oats’ team as a whole is much bigger and more athletic than the group Mizzou will be fielding.
- Take Care of the Basketball. This is probably the one area defensively where Mizzou is actually good. They force a turnover on 20.7% of possessions - 40th-best in the nation. Which makes sense for a team led entirely by its guard play. Alabama has been quite sloppy with the ball at times. If the Tide comes into this one looking ahead to the big matchups coming up, Mizzou will be happy to take the ball from them and pull off the stunning upset in Tuscaloosa.
The game tips-off at 6:00 PM CST and will be televised on the SEC Network. Alabama is favored by 14.5.