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Bama Basketball Breakdown: Vanderbilt

Alabama opens up SEC play in the house of horrors that is Memorial Gymnasium

NCAA Basketball: Vegas Showdown Third Place Vanderbilt vs Arizona State Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

With 2023 and non-conference play now officially behind us, the Alabama Crimson Tide (8-5; NET: 5; Kenpom: 6) will look to defend its SEC crown as it attempts to win the regular season title for the third time in four years. Tide Hoops hasn’t accomplished a feat like that since C.M. Newton led ‘Bama to three straight regular season championships from 1974-1976. Despite an up-and-down performance in the out-of-conference portion of the schedule, Nate Oats’ squad has as good of a chance as anybody within the conference of cutting down the nets come March - the Tide is currently the highest ranked SEC team by most advanced ranking systems. It helps that the team is coming off of its best performance of the season by far, as they absolutely dismantled a good Liberty team as if they were Mercer or somebody.

Still, there is a lot of improvement left to make for this Tide team, particularly on the defensive end. And you certainly don’t win any games or titles because an algorithm thinks that it’s a likely outcome, so Alabama will need to make some strides if the guys do want to win another SEC Championship. That starts this Saturday against the Vanderbilt Commodores (5-8; NET: 268; Kenpom: 207). The bad news is that the game will be played in the clown carnival that is Memorial Gymnasium. The good news is that Vandy is dreadful this season. Jerry Stackhouse seemingly had things trending upward for the ‘Dores the past couple of years, but that’s all come crashing down after some key players graduated and/or transferred this past offseason. You really couldn’t have asked for a softer start to conference play.

Can Alabama begin its title defense in strong fashion on Saturday?

The Roster

Starting Five

Ezra Manjon: G, 5-11, 16.5 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.0 RPG

Tyrin Lawrence: G, 6-4, 13.1 PPG, 2.3 APG, 5.0 RPG

Evan Taylor: G, 6-6, 9.1 PPG, 0.3 APG, 4.0 RPG

Tasos Kamateros: F, 6-8, 6.7 PPG, 0.1 APG, 2.1 RPG

Ven-Allen Lubin: F, 6-8, 10.9 PPG, 0.3 APG, 5.4 RPG

Off the Bench

Paul Lewis: G, 6-2, 4.3 PPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 RPG

Isaiah West: G, 6-2, 3.5 PPG, 0.7 APG, 1.2 RPG

Jordan Williams: G, 6-3, 1.8 PPG, 0.8 APG, 1.3 RPG

Jason Rivera-Torres: G, 6-7, 7.2 PPG, 0.5 APG, 3.1 RPG

JaQualon “JQ” Roberts: F, 6-8, 1.0 PPG, 0.3 APG, 2.2 RPG

Carter Lang: F, 6-9, 2.8 PPG, 0.4 APG, 4.5 RPG

Now, while Vanderbilt was already lacking in the talent department to begin with, the rash of injuries they have experienced thus far this season has really wrecked any chance they had at being successful early on. Between injuries and Stackhouse just trying to find a rotation that works, they have started 10 different players this season. Colin Smith, who was expected to take on a big role in the frontcourt for Vandy this year, is done for the season after tearing his Achilles a few weeks back. Ven-Allen Lubin - a significant pull out of the transfer portal from Notre Dame - is questionable for Saturday’s matchup, as he’s been dealing with a groin injury for a couple of weeks.

Even the two best players on the roster - the starting guard duo of Ezra Manjon and Tyrin Lawrence - have missed a combined six games, playing together only seven times this year. So yeah, Stackhouse has had his hands full trying to figure out how to make a team already destined for Sad Wednesday play competitive and competent basketball with any consistency. Now, the ‘Dores did nearly upset #15 Memphis right before Christmas, so they’ve seemingly improved from the team that lost to Presbyterian and Western Carolina earlier in non-conference play. And the Manjon-Lawrence duo is nothing to mess with. Still, this Vanderbilt team much more closely resembles the likes of South Alabama and Arkansas State than it does Arizona or Purdue. Heck, Liberty would likely be a double-digit favorite on a neutral court.

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Avoid Memorial Magic. The game being played in the house of horrors that is Memorial Gymnasium is probably the #1 thing that Vanderbilt has going for it in this matchup. Memorial Magic is a real thing, and not in the way that Jordan Hare Voodoo works. There are real, tangible reasons why it's a tough place for opposing players to succeed in - the shooting sightlines are abysmal, the raised floor is goofy and awkward, and the benches being under the basket make it to where the coaching staff is basically incapable of coaching their team up when the ball is on the other end of the court. Considering only three guys on the squad have played there before, it’s definitely a concern for Alabama.
  2. Limit the ‘Dore’s Dynamic Duo. As mentioned, Vandy may be struggling hard this year, but it certainly hasn’t been the fault of their two starting guards. Manjon has been one of the better backcourt players in the conference, at least on the offensive end (47.2%/40.9%/88.3%; 32.4% AST%), and Lawrence has been heating up in recent games as his foot injury has continued to heal (38.0%/30.0%/88.3%; 18.1% AST%). The Commodores’ path to victory pretty much relies on these two playing well, so it is imperative that Alabama’s guards don’t lose them often on the defensive end.
  3. Rack Up on the Three-Point Margin. If the guys can overcome the horrid sightlines of Memorial Gym - as well as their tendency to go stone-cold for halves at a time on the road - the three-point opportunities are going to be there. Vanderbilt is 352nd in the nation in 3P% allowed. Teams are shooting nearly 40% on average against them, an insane rate. Out of all of their bad numbers this season, that is truly the most problematic one for them. If Alabama shoots the way they are capable of doing, this could be a rout akin to last year’s 101-44 beatdown in Tuscaloosa.

The hunt for another SEC title begins now. After a non-conference slate that tested Alabama to its limits, the Tide is certainly ready for battle in conference play. Can Nate Oats accomplish a feat not seen in Tuscaloosa in nearly five decades with a third regular season title in four years? We’ll begin to find out on Saturday.

The game tips-off at 2:30 PM CST and will be televised by the SEC Network.