Show Me My Opponent: Alabama

WHAT THEY BRING

Wait a minute, Alabama basketball is fun?

It’s gonna hurt to hear this as a Tennessee fan, I’m sure, but you might as well hear it now before you hear it tomorrow night: Alabama basketball is fun now. Was it fun when they had Collin Sexton that one season? Sure, I guess, if you weigh in the fact they were an abysmal watch on his off nights. Other than that…well, I don’t think Alabama basketball could’ve been described as “fun” since the 2004 Elite Eight team. For a decade-plus, it’s been a joyless, inefficient, slow watch that’s pleased nobody; even the Sexton team finished 106th in KenPom’s offense rankings.

This team ranks 37th in that metric, which is their highest ranking in 13 seasons. That’s not what really matters, to be honest. What I care more about is the subjective stuff: is this a fun, loose offense? Do they take lots of threes? Do they take quality shots in general? Even when they aren’t hitting shots, is it still pretty fun to watch unfold? The answers: yes, yes, yes, and yes.

2019-20 Alabama, by my loose and stupid metric, is the most fun basketball team the SEC has to offer. In a year where no SEC team ranks in KenPom’s top 30, this group of weird misfits that will die before they take an ill-advised 17-footer is like Southern basketball Valhalla. I cannot say for sure that Nate Oats will work out permanently at Alabama, but he has solved one of their biggest problems already through 21 games: this is no longer basketball on melatonin.

Kira Lewis, Jr. is the leader

Leading the charge is the still ever-so-young sophomore Kira Lewis, Jr. Similar to a year ago, Lewis still isn’t a knockdown three-point shooter (28-of-94, 29.8%; 33.5% for career),

but no other player in the SEC has attempted as many shots at the rim as he has (137!).

Lewis is far from the most efficient player in the world, but everything Oats wants to do runs through him, especially in ball-screen sets. Lewis is as prone to get to the basket off of these screens as he is to pull up for a three-point attempt.

He’s also been terrific in leading the Alabama transition attack, both as the main scorer and as a distributor.

He’s still prone to taking ugly shots, but stopping Alabama begins and ends with stopping Lewis. Think of Lewis as a more rim-oriented version of what Oats had at Buffalo with Wes Clark circa the 2018 R64 Arizona beatdown.

John Petty reprises his role

It seems like a surprise for some reason, but John Petty is back for another run at it. Always a good shooter, he’s developed into something else entirely this season (66-of-144, 45.8%).

Petty is simply an excellent spot-up shooter, and even getting a hand in his face doesn’t often provide much of a deterration. Leaving him open from downtown…well, you kind of get what you deserve there, no?

Petty still can’t do a ton inside the perimeter in terms of creating his own shot, but he’s flashed a skill at times of being able to get to the rim and score on his own.

New addition: Jaden Shackleford

Unfortunately, his nickname is not Rusty. Third banana is freshman Jaden Shackleford, a low-end Top 100 recruit from last year’s class. For most of the first two months of the season, Shackleford functioned as a sort of super-sub in the Oats system, starting games where Oats wanted to go to a true 5-out motion offense. Now, Shackleford has played his way into a permanent starting role. He’s still primarily a three-point shooter (49-of-147, 33.3%), getting most of his action in spot-up scenarios.

Otherwise, he’s shown an ability to get to the rim in transition and rarely takes what you’d call an out-and-out bad shot. Interesting project, certainly; if I’m continuing the Buffalo comparisons, a little Jayvon Graves-like, though with more obvious potential.

Others of note

Alabama offers four other guys that get 6+ points per game; one of them (Herb Jones, 9.9 PPG) is out, but here are the three others in descending order of total points on the season. Alex Reese starts at center and shoots about five threes per game, hitting 34.5% of them; he’s really crushed opponents when he pops out of ball-screen sets for an open three.

James Bolden has been sick for the last couple of games, but is expected to return against Tennessee. Like most others on this team, he shoots threes (36.8%), but has struggled mightily to connect consistently inside the perimeter.

Lastly, Javian Davis-Fleming is a backup center that got forced into starting again with the Jones injury. He’s the only player in the rotation not named Galin Smith (who rarely shoots, period) that hasn’t hit a three this season. They love using him to cut through the paint for an easy two; he also gets consistently featured in ball-screen sets as the roll man.

Defense is solid-ish

Not as bad as it could be, honestly. Oats’ final team at Buffalo closed its impressive 32-4 campaign with the 31st-ranked defense on KenPom. That might not sound like much to you, but it closed the decade as the third-best defense in the MAC across the 2010s. Not bad! That said, it remains the only good defense in Oats’ 4.5 years to date; his defenses have pretty much always been good at opponent eFG% (four straight top 80 finishes is what it’s looking like), but below average in most everything else. Essentially: Oats likes to limit opponent three-point attempts and force teams to score one-on-one, even if it means a negative one-on-one matchup. It’s a less-extreme form of the Luke Yaklich strategy at Michigan the last two seasons, if you’re familiar. (Tennessee also follows it somewhat.)

Interior defense: fairly solid

Alabama’s doing a good job of blocking a decent amount of shots at the rim (11.9% of attempts, 84th-best) and forcing an opponent FG% that’s right in line with what you’d expect (55.3%, 83rd).

The shots blocked come from guys you’d expect (centers Reese and Smith) and guys you wouldn’t (Petty!). It’s a good interior defense, but not an unbeatable one; LSU went 14-of-22 at the rim against the Tide recently, which was followed by a 17-of-28 effort from Arkansas. Beating this defense inside can be achieved in several different ways: straight-up beating them down the court in transition; using an agile guard to get to the rim; picking them apart pass-by-pass until you have an open guy at the rim.

Perimeter defense: rock solid (typically)

As far as I can tell, Alabama’s perimeter defense is pretty good.

No perimeter defense is unbeatable in this sport, and Alabama lost pretty winnable games against Iowa State (15-of-29) and Kentucky (9-of-15) because those two teams simply hit their threes. Tennessee, realistically, could do the same.

Then again, Tennessee’s best shooter is shooting 38% from three this season. Alabama’s not perfect at guarding the perimeter, but it’s up to the opponent to hit open shots in the first place.

They do have various struggles that are easy to make sense of

The area of opportunity here actually lies in something that gets overlooked: pure volume of shots. Alabama ranks 258th in opponent TO%, 231st in DREB%, and 222nd in FTA/FGA. They’re not going to force many steals, as Oats doesn’t have anyone left over from the Avery Johnson tenure that’s an elite one-on-one defender. His teams have never been great at defensive rebounding, and Alabama’s biggest player being 6’9” in the SEC puts a realistic upper limit on how good they can be.

Lastly: Oats had a pair of teams rank 297th and 319th in Free Throw Rate while at Buffalo. Avery’s final team at Alabama did a decent job of avoiding fouls, but his first three were all below the national average. It only makes sense that guys like Galin Smith (6.8 fouls per 40), James Bolden (6.5), Javian Davis (6.1), and Jaylen Forbes (5.9) would all struggle.

If Tennessee finds a way to get Alex Reese (2.9) into foul trouble, which has only happened a couple of times this season, they’ll be in business.

NEXT PAGE: Avery really had *five* Top 100 recruits on the Collin Sexton team and took ’em to a 9 seed. You gotta be a dingus to think he’s good

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