Show Me My Opponent: Alabama (#2)

WHAT THEY BRING

A just-as-fun offense, but the team as a whole’s sagged

When this was originally written back in early February, I said the following about Alabama basketball, 2019-20:

“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. . . . 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.”

Amazingly, on March 12, I don’t actually have to adjust the offensive efficiency ranking, which is still 37th, but Alabama couldn’t hold up the win-loss proportion of my Fun Team metric. After blowing a double-digit lead at home to Tennessee, Alabama proceeded to lose five of their final nine games, going from potential bubble darling to “are we sure they’re an NIT team?”. Alabama, at 16-15, can technically make the field of 32 at 16-16, but I can’t imagine anyone would waste much time caring. Barring a miracle win over Kentucky in the hypothetical quarterfinals, you’re probably looking at Nate Oats taking the Tide to a 6 seed in the NIT and traveling to, like, Rhode Island. Not great! (Then again, Tennessee’s own position of getting a 4 seed and hosting Tulsa or Syracuse is also a real bore.)

Anyway, as you’d guess from an offense that held steady in KenPom since Tennessee last played them, the offense has largely been fine over the last month-plus. Torvik ranks it at the tail end of his top 30 over their last ten games, and the offense was legitimately great at certain times: 1.172 PPP in an overtime win at Georgia, 1.186 PPP in a home win over LSU, 1.345 PPP against Ole Miss, etc. But you probably know this team now for almost entirely giving up on two-point shots at times, attempting 59 threes against Auburn and 44 against Texas A&M. They still aren’t a great shooting team – just an above-average one – but I do appreciate that they really do let it fly.

Kira Lewis, Jr. is still the leader

Leading the charge is the still ever-so-young sophomore Kira Lewis, Jr. 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. Oh, and Lewis seems to be learning how to shoot threes, as he’s hitting 47.5% of them from February onward.

Jaden Shackleford got a lot better late in the year

The second-best player Alabama had over the final ten games was Jaden Shackleford, a freshman who really seems to be finding his way. From the Tennessee game onward, Shackleford averaged over 18 points per game, with a heavy dose of threes (35.7% on season, 39.8% last ten).

Obviously, Shackleford is going to get a ton of looks out of spot-up situations, whether created by himself or by Lewis. 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.

John Petty’s still here, but hasn’t looked all that great lately

A guy who struggled some down the stretch of the season: John Petty. 12.3 points per game is fine, but it still seems like Petty is always a few steps away from being a player that anyone would want on their team. He’s still an excellent shooter – 44% from downtown on the season, 38.8% in the last 10:

But he’s gradually become the third banana in the offense in a year where it felt like he was poised to be The Guy. Petty still can’t do a ton inside the perimeter in terms of creating his own shot, and that seems like a serious upper ceiling on what he can be at Alabama.

Everybody else of note

Alabama ended the season with four additional players getting 6+ points per game. Here they are, in descending order. Alex Reese, the center, started for the majority of SEC play before randomly getting benched for Galin Smith in the finale against Missouri. He takes nearly six threes per game and hits 30% of them.

James Bolden gets the most run at the 2-guard spot and occasionally serves as Lewis’ backup. Like most others on this team, he shoots threes (34.4%), but has struggled mightily to connect consistently inside the perimeter.

Herb Jones didn’t play earlier this season against Tennessee, but he’s not a threat anywhere but the rim – 58.9% there, 8-for-41 everywhere else. Lastly, Javian Davis is a center that played 5 minutes (Texas A&M, Feb. 19), 20 minutes (Vanderbilt, Mar. 3), and 31 minutes (South Carolina, Feb. 29) in SEC play. His main skill is drawing an insane number of fouls when he’s in the game.

The defense took a shocking nosedive

I mentioned that the offense really hasn’t had much fall-off at all down the stretch, even if it’s become a little limited. However, the defense has been hot garbage.

All of Alabama’s final nine opponents topped 1+ PPP, with six of the nine getting to 1.1+ PPP. You can’t blame this on hot three-point shooting (33.2% by opponents), overly bad free throw luck (74.3%, though this does rank 263rd), or a random run of good offenses. Of Alabama’s final nine opponents, only LSU (4th), Mississippi State (19th), and Auburn (34th) ranked in the top 50 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings. Honestly, giving up 1.22 PPP to Vanderbilt in the year 2020 should be a punishable crime.

No rim protection to speak of

So, what changed? Well. Alabama was doing a pretty good job of making life tough inside the perimeter…until they weren’t.

At the time of the Tennessee game, Alabama’s FG% allowed at the rim ranked 83rd nationally. That’s fallen all the way to 179th – again, in just ten games – and even includes Tennessee’s pedestrian 13-for-24 performance on February 4th. Alabama isn’t blocking as many shots at the rim as they once were, which means fewer attempts at the rim are properly contested, which means they’re giving up more easy buckets than you’d expect.

In particular, Alabama has gotten absolutely smoked in transition this year, ranking in the 10th-percentile defensively; they’re also in the 44th-percentile on cuts, which Tennessee runs all the time in the motion offense.

Perimeter defense seems fine

As noted before the last game, 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. Tennessee got several good looks against Auburn that simply didn’t fall, along with several that did.

The biggest drawback is that they don’t rebound and they foul a lot

Seems bad. Four of the last ten Alabama opponents have posted Free Throw Rates of 50% or higher, and it’s absolutely worth remembering that Tennessee got 32 free throw attempts at Alabama just over a month ago.

Alongside that, Tennessee crushed these guys on the boards last time and it was a major reason why they won.

Missouri, a fine and above-average rebounding team, got 15 offensive rebounds in a 69-50 win last weekend. I’d feel at least a tinge of embarrassment as a previewer if Tennessee can’t get to the 30-35% range in this game.

NEXT PAGE: So I think we’re gonna do the social isolation thing soon. In that event: have you all heard the new Reply All yet? Oh my goodness, incredible. The key of this is that basically everyone born between the years of 1981 and 1994 could have had this exact same event happen numerous times. There’s a specific part in there about how songs get “lost” that I hadn’t thought about much because it’s been so long since I listened to the radio but it’s absolutely true. There’s got to be numerous songs played on 102.9 and 98.5 in Middle Tennessee that are totally lost to time. Here’s one!

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