After an uneven non-conference performance that left many fans wanting more from this year’s squad, the Alabama Crimson Tide (12-5, 4-0 SEC; NET: 5; Kenpom: 7) has really solidified itself over the course of the past few weeks. Nate Oats’ team currently sits atop the SEC standings with yet another 4-0 start to conference play, in large part because of the development of multiple guys in key roles. Grant Nelson has significantly ratcheted up his defensive performance and willingness to fight on the glass, Mo Dioubate has emerged and has been giving the Tide great minutes in those same two areas, Rylan Griffen seems to be playing more assertively and confidently on the offensive end, and the team as a whole just seems to be playing with much more urgency on the defensive side.
It appears that the Tide may be clicking at the right time. We are about to find out just how true that is though, as Alabama heads to Knoxville, TN today for a showdown with the #6 Tennessee Volunteers (13-4, 3-1 SEC; NET: 6; Kenpom: 6). Believe it or not, Rick Barnes is now in his ninth season on Rocky Top, and, at this point, we know exactly what to expect from the Vols under his watch. They are going to be a tough, experienced group that plays elite-level defense and whose fate is almost always decided on whether or not they can generate enough points consistently on offense. Unfortunately, I regret to inform you that this year’s Tennessee team is arguably his best one yet, rivaling the 2022 and 2019 squads.
This is going to be the ultimate test for the Tide today. If Alabama can find a way to win this one, it will be officially time to start buying into the idea of this team repeating as SEC regular season champs.
Zakai Zeigler: G, 5-9, 10.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 2.2 RPG
Santiago Vescovi: G, 6-3, 7.4 PPG, 2.8 APG, 3.8 RPG
Dalton Knecht: G, 6-6, 18.5 PPG, 1.6 APG, 4.4 RPG
Josiah-Jordan James: G, 6-6, 9.7 PPG, 2.3 APG, 6.9 RPG
Jonas Aidoo: F, 6-11, 11.6 PPG, 1.2 APG, 7.5 RPG
Off the Bench
Jordan Gainey: G, 6-4, 7.1 PPG, 1.2 APG, 1.9 RPG
Jahmai Mashack: G, 6-4, 5.4 PPG, 1.4 APG, 3.1 RPG
Tobe Awaka: F, 6-8, 5.2 PPG, 0.5 APG, 5.2 RPG
Now, I know what you are thinking, how the hell do Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James still have eligibility? It’s a very fair question, as both have been heavily involved in the Tennessee rotation since 2020. It seems like we are just making up eligibility rules nowadays in college basketball. Regardless, both are back yet again for the Vols. Vescovi is a rock-solid guard and a streaky shooter (39.0%/32.4%/82.8%), but when he is on, Tennessee is really tough to beat. JJJ is a former McDonald’s All-American who absolutely looks the part getting off of the bus. In a way, I do have a lot of respect for the guy - most former five-star prospects that don’t live up to the superstar hype would’ve blamed someone other than themselves for it and peaced out, but James has stuck with Barnes and the Tennessee program. And it’s been for their betterment, as he brings a level of toughness and experience that you can’t teach.
Zakai Zeigler is one of my favorite players in college basketball (yikes, that’s now two Vols that I have complemented) - he’s an old school, rough-and-tumble point guard from New York City, the exact kind of kid you’d expect to see wearing out folks on the neighborhood blacktop. With a 31.0% AST%, he’s definitely a pass-first kind of guy, but he’s capable of knocking down shots as well (40.3%/33.7%/75.6%). He also forces about a steal and a half per game with his quick hands and low center of gravity. Down low, Jonas Aidoo has become the latest Rick Barnes big to go from depth piece to stud post player, rocking a 17.3% REB% and 7.7% BLK%.
But the biggest difference with this year’s Tennessee team is Dalton Knecht. The grad transfer from Northern Colorado has been an elite scorer this season (48.6%/41.7%/81.3%), giving Barnes the go-to guy that he has been missing for years in Knoxville. Knecht can really ball too. He’s capable of crossing you over for a step-back three or cooking you in the paint with some dirty post moves. As of this moment, he and Mark Sears are pretty much locked into a two-way battle for SEC Player of the Year.
Three Keys to Victory
- Contain Knecht. As I was just mentioning, this cat can play. I would expect Oats to throw a lot of bodies at him defensively. All of those minutes off of the bench that Little Mo D has been getting? Yep, those will likely be focused on stopping Knecht. Grant Nelson has size on Knecht, and his defensive performances have been significantly better as of late, so I could see him matching up with Knecht as well. But I think Rylan Griffen will probably spend the most time on him. Whoever it is, they need to play really well defensively to slow Knecht down. If Alabama can force Tennessee to rely on their other guys to score, we all know how much that slows down the Volunteers offense.
- Be Strong with the Ball and Match Tennessee’s Toughness. Alabama has improved in a lot of areas since SEC play began; however, the one area that’s gotten worse is taking care of the basketball. In conference play, Alabama is 13th in the league in TO%, coughing up the ball on over 1/5th of all offensive possessions. It’s been really sloppy. Tennessee has only been merely good at forcing turnovers this season, but they play a really physical and tough style of defense, and knowing how often the whistles get swallowed when the Tide has played in Thompson-Boling Arena in recent years, I wouldn’t expect Alabama to get bailed out on hand checks today. Take care of the ball and be strong going towards the basket.
- Control the Pace and Let it Fly. Tennessee isn’t exactly a plodding team, but they absolutely prefer to make this a halfcourt game. Not only are they an elite defensive unit in the halfcourt, but they can get into foul trouble when playing in transition, and they aren’t a very deep team - only eight players log double-digit MPG. Alabama needs to push the pace and get looks early in the shot-clock. The Tide is absolutely at its best when it’s getting open looks from the perimeter for guys like Sears, Latrell Wrightsell, Sam Walters, and Aaron Estrada. If Alabama is to come out of Knoxville with a victory today, the three-ball is going to have to be falling.
This is a massive Saturday SEC showdown. There is a clear top-four in the league this year - Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, and Tennessee - so whenever any combination of these teams gets together, the whole league is going to take notice. Alabama and Tennessee are up first in Knoxville today. Can Alabama get a season-defining road win against one of Rick Barnes’ best Tennessee teams?
The game will tip-off at 1:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPN2. The Tide finds itself as a rare 4.5-point road dog.