Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Alabama

OPPONENT #19 Alabama (9-3)
(26-7, Sweet 16 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Coleman Coliseum
Tuscaloosa Torture House, AL
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Alabama -2.5
KenPom: Alabama -2

Torvik: Alabama -3.4

On the surface, Tennessee is drawing an Alabama team heading in the opposite direction as itself. Alabama pulled off two of the best wins anyone has had this season by beating Gonzaga and Houston, then proceeded to get blown off the court by a Memphis team no one thinks is great, almost lost to Jacksonville State at home, then did lose to Davidson at home. Tennessee, meanwhile, led a top 10 Arizona team wire-to-wire and is literally an Act of God away from going undefeated over the last month of basketball.

And yet: this is a road game at a top 20 KenPom team that has beaten Gonzaga and Houston and is coached by possibly the brightest young star in college basketball, all while Tennessee has had COVID rumors swirling around it for the last 24-36 hours. Pardon me if I am alarmist.

Alabama’s offense

Last year, everyone seemed to miss the forest for the trees with Alabama. When you play at the pace they play at – the third-fastest offense in college basketball – people are going to see that you score almost 80 points a game and assume that you are among the nation’s elite at the whole offense thing. Likewise, the average person’s gonna see that you allow 70.1 points per game – barely better than the national average of 70.8 – and assume that your defense sucks. It got to the point that our Basketball Stats Overlord felt the need to comment on it and right some wrongs:

Part of why I include this is that I would like to never hear from Aaron Torres ever again; the bigger part is that the 2020-21 Alabama offense was the significantly weaker unit of the two, clocking in at 30th-best nationally. That’s still very good, but not the elite offense PPG would suggest. All of this goes to say that you should take a look above and realize the following: the real elite Alabama offense under Nate Oats exists in 2021-22.

Take a look at that graphic above: 9th in adjusted offensive efficiency, 31st in eFG%, 25th in OREB%, and worst of all, 5th in 2PT%. Everything Alabama couldn’t do a year ago – consistently score twos, generate offense when they weren’t hitting threes, or avoid blocked shots – seems to have a reasonable answer or fix this year. Excellent news for all of us who just hated to see the underdog Alabama fail to succeed at ANOTHER sport! (You’ll be relieved when you see the defensive section, promise.)

Anyway, this workhorse offense is ran by three main players, with the fourth being the potential swing piece of this whole operation that could potentially turn it into a top-five unit. The obvious starter piece is Jaden Shackelford (16.8 PPG), who has only been at Alabama for 2.5 seasons but feels as if he’s been a member of the team for six years. The same basic things you remember about Shackleford – excellent three-point shooter if streaky (41% this season on 99 attempts), a quality self-creator, good protector of the ball, etc. – are still true. The new piece he’s added this year beyond all of the threes is a terrific floater that’s going down at a 52% hit rate.

It’s just one shot by one player, but this is helping to add a new dimension to Alabama’s rim-and-threes game. The Tide are taking more non-rim twos than they did in the two previous Nate Oats seasons, but they’re hitting them at a 40% clip, with Shackleford sitting at 47%. He’s not the main ball-handler, but he’s Alabama’s best shooter, best all-around scorer, and biggest offensive threat.

The main ball-handler and focus of the Alabama offense is Jahvon Quinerly (14.7 PPG, 4.4 APG), who sits second on the team in scoring but first by a decent margin in Usage Rate. Quinerly uses the ball screens in Oats’ offense to free himself up from downtown; nearly every possession where the ball touches his hands involves a ball screen in some fashion. The strange part of Quinerly’s game is that he’s…kind of a poor shooter. Quinerly hit 43.3% of his 120 threes last year, but went 12-for-48 in a freshman campaign at Villanova and is 19-for-67 (28%) this year. So: he simply chooses to attack the rim better than anyone else on the roster.

Quinerly is 36-for-59 at the rim this season, per Hoop-Math, with exactly one of those makes being assisted. Shackelford is good at driving to the rim but less good at finishing; Quinerly is aces at both and can easily use his drives to attract secondary attention for kickout threes. Shackleford is a clear beneficiary of those, but so is Keon Ellis (12.4 PPG), Alabama’s lone senior starter and the second-best shooter on the team.

You’ll also need to know that Ellis really isn’t a frequent scorer – his 16.3% USG% is second-lowest among Alabama’s eight-man rotation – but he is remarkably dangerous at the rim: 21-for-24 this season. Ellis is super efficient as the threat you sometimes lose track of, but the one that always knows how to break you with a well-timed three.

Collectively, these three are making up almost 44 of Alabama’s nightly 82.9 points per game. They represent the majority of the scoring, with all three having varied games that result in offensive success. The fourth piece of this is the most explosive, both good and bad: J.D. Davison (8.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 4.5 APG). Davison’s per-minute numbers are incredible; the only reason he doesn’t start is the existence of Quinerly.

Davison is scoring at a 63% clip at the rim and has flashed a decent stroke from three; he’s also the best passer Alabama has. The problem: he cannot stop turning the ball over, posting a 28.4% TO%.

As of now, once adjusted for luck and schedule, Alabama is nearly nine points worse per 100 possessions when Davison is on the court, with a near-equal impact on offense and defense. And yet: his potential flashes seemingly every game. If he figures it out consistently, it won’t matter how porous the defense is. If he doesn’t…well, ninth-best is still pretty great.

CHART! Will this player hit a three that causes your brain to malfunction? Will a well-timed mid-range jumper break your spirit? Find out.

Alabama’s defense

This is the more enjoyable section to read, Tennessee fans. In the preseason, I imagined Alabama would be pretty much the exact same team: maybe the offense is a hair better, maybe the defense is a bit worse, but this is once again going to be one of the 15 best teams in America. Entering this game #19 in KenPom, they really haven’t underachieved a massive amount; basically everyone in America would kill to beat Gonzaga even once.

Immediately following that game was a battle with Houston, one that Alabama survived but a game that also shows a clear before/after trend with regards to Alabama’s defensive performance.

Before playing Houston (numbers seen are Adjusted Defensive Efficiency):

During and after playing Houston:

That one blip in the middle is a 65-59 win over Jacksonville State where their opponent, one of the best 3PT% teams in America, shot 6-for-25 from deep. There is a serious problem. Let’s see if we can provide a very simple explanation as to what the issue is:

  • First eight Alabama opponents, offensive rim FG%: 105-for-177 (59.3%)
  • Last four Alabama opponents, offensive rim FG%: 57-for-87 (65.5%)

Right! That’s it. I mean, that basically explains it, if I’m being honest. In their three losses, Alabama’s opponents have gone 11-for-14 (Iona), 17-for-19 (Memphis), and 16-for-22 (Davidson) at the rim. In the preseason, I knew Herbert Jones would obviously be a big loss, but I imagined Alabama and staff would find some number of ways to make up for that by season’s end. What I did not see coming was that Alabama would actually miss Alex Reese even more. With Reese on the court last year, Alabama held opponents to a 57.8% conversion rate at the rim – nothing elite, but enough to force many opponents to attempt to shoot over the top of the defense.

That is no longer the case. Alabama was not necessarily an elite two-point defense last year, but they were an elite shot selection defense; it was very difficult to get the shots you wanted against them unless you were UCLA. With Jones (the best defender in the SEC) gone and with no more Reese, Alabama’s two-point defense has taken a huge step back despite actually blocking more shots than a year ago. The problem is that the best shot blocker by a mile is freshman Charles Bediako:

And Bediako is only playing 19.6 minutes per game because he’s averaging 6.6 fouls per 40. Alabama has played 12 games; half of these games have featured Bediako finishing with four or five fouls. Bediako’s presence on the court, at this point, is basically all Alabama has in terms of interior defense. When he’s out there, Alabama is holding opponents to a 58.7% conversion rate at the rim. Again, not elite, but pretty close to the national average. When Bediako is off? That number rises to an alarming 63.6%, which would rank 314th as a full-season rate for any team.

Beyond Bediako, the options at the 5 are…well, deeply unsatisfying. The main backup is Noah Gurley, a Furman transfer that I personally hoped Tennessee would chase before understanding through 12 games why Tennessee indeed did not chase him. Gurley is a fine-enough offensive player, but when your #2 center has one more block than your shooting guard, I think you understand why this isn’t going well. Beyond that, Jimmy Dykes (who I reached out to before publishing to ask for his take) believes the loss of John Petty (who played the 2 & 3) was a huge factor. It makes sense: Alabama was way better at stopping drives to the basket a year ago. This year, they sit in the 29th-percentile in around-the-basket defense, per Synergy.

So: there’s no real ball-stoppers, and the one truly great shot blocker is a foul machine. I’d note that while Davidson had more success from downtown, they got open looks from downtown because they were springing open looks at the rim. Check out this off-ball screen they ran to perfection that got an easy two with Keon Ellis as the defender:

None of this is good; if you’re unable to stop teams when going to the rim, what you’ll eventually have to do is either start fouling in an attempt to be more aggressive or restructure your defense entirely, similar to a packline defense. (Or, alternately, you can rely on the opponent’s 18-22 year olds to have an off-night from deep.) For what it’s worth, I still think Alabama does a very good job of forcing tough threes, and it isn’t that frequent that you’ll see a truly open catch-and-shoot three against this defense.

However: all of what made them so great last year feels hard to fix right now. They aren’t forcing the massive amount of runners/floaters they did a year ago. The number of off-the-dribble jumpers being forced is down, as is the number of non-rim twos. The number of attempts at the rim is up. Unless Nate Oats finds a way to get Bediako down to even, like, 4.5 fouls per 40, I’m not sure what the obvious fix is. There’s a legitimate chance this finishes as one of the three or four worst defenses in the SEC (Missouri and Georgia will be pacing the field by miles in this regard), which would have been a hilarious and silly thing to say even six weeks ago. It’s real, though.

How Tennessee matches up

SO: at the time of publishing, everyone on Tennessee’s roster is available for this game. However, for the last 24-36 hours, there have been rumors of various players being out for this game across the normal message boards. (I have seen four different names and personally have zero confirmations.) By the time you read this, a Tennessee player or two could be out of this affair. Or, like a lot of rumors, they just turn out to be rumors and a mostly-vaccinated roster avoids the COVID bug for another day.

Kind of regardless of who ends up available here, Tennessee’s going to have a similar strategy: attack Alabama with drives to the paint and either force Bediako into foul trouble or force a secondary defender to overcommit to break open perimeter attempts. The best part about this is that it’s the exact same strategy Alabama used to defeat Tennessee twice last season, so there you go. If it works, you can say you gave them a taste of their own medicine.

This starts with Kennedy Chandler, obviously. If Chandler is available – and, again, at time of production, he is – Tennessee’s odds of winning this game are improved. Tennessee will need a guard or guards to pressure the rim from start to finish in this one. I don’t think Alabama’s ball-screen defense has been terrible, but it’s been an area of opportunity for various teams to attack and create space. If Tennessee can find a way to do the same in this one, they’ll have a real shot at the victory.

But beyond that, the main goal of this game has got to be putting the ball in your best players’ hands as frequently as possible. That includes Chandler, but it also includes Santiago Vescovi, Justin Powell, and yes, John Fulkerson. Alabama has been one of the worst defenses in the nation thus far at defending basket cuts; Tennessee is a program that’s relied on basket and screen cuts for the entire Rick Barnes era. Chandler, Vescovi, Zeigler, or whoever has got to frequently look for the extra pass. We know that Bediako’s first goal is going to be to block a shot, and he’s a hyper-aggressive defender. An array of ball fakes and extra passes could be exactly what Tennessee needs to bring home a surprise road win.

The good news about however COVID does or doesn’t affect this game is that, in all likelihood, Tennessee’s defensive game plan can more or less be repeated from last year with a few tweaks. In the first battle with Alabama, Tennessee did an excellent job of stopping the actual attempts at the rim (11-for-25), but not the passes out for open threes (10-for-20); in the SEC Tournament game, Tennessee did an excellent job at both (15-for-30, 7-for-28) but fell victim to a poor offensive performance and Alabama’s best player getting three times as many free throw attempts as any individual Tennessee player.

The actual game plan in both was the same, and is sort of the path for beating Alabama: you have to stop the drives to the basket first, and if you do that, then you’ve got to shut down the kickouts for threes. Obviously, that’s far easier said than done; we are talking about an offense that has beaten two of KenPom’s top four teams (and two 2021 Final Four participants) in the last month of play. Two of Alabama’s three losses are more due to poor defensive play than much on the offensive side, but in all three losses, a couple of things have held true:

  1. Alabama has shot 33% or worse from deep;
  2. Alabama has only gotten 32.3% of their shot attempts at the rim in these three games while getting 39.2% of all shots at the rim in their nine wins.

First things first: you have to find a way to stop Jahvon Quinerly from getting to the basket at will. Memphis was able to do this by cutting off driving lanes with their length and general pack-it-in style, but that’s pretty much it among the Alabama opponents so far. Tennessee doesn’t have that length, but at very worst, this is one of the three best defenses in America and one that ranks 17th in opponent rim FG%. (Alabama: 271st.) It will take quite the effort, but if Tennessee was able to hold Arizona’s offense down as long as they did, it’s plausible to think they could give Alabama some struggles in a similar fashion.

If you’re somehow able to be the first team all season to hold Alabama below 57% at the rim, that alone will deserve a hearty congratulations. Yes, Tennessee held Alabama to 44% and 50% in their two battles last year, but this is a superior offense to last year’s version. Anyway: great. You did that part of the job. Now stop the barrage of threes that comes with every Nate Oats offense.

The good thing about this particular Alabama team: so far, they’ve been just okay at generating open catch-and-shoot threes. (Bolded and italicized because, well, Battered Vol Syndrome.) Synergy rates their offense as being precisely at the national average with a 55/45 Guarded/Unguarded rate, and even with the help of taking relatively few off-the-dribble threes, the drives inside seem to be working more for high-end finishing than for the purpose of generating the threes they desire and love. So far, Tennessee’s been good at forcing tough catch-and-shoot threes and excellent at forcing poor off-the-dribble attempts. Again: anything can happen. But I feel better about closing out on Shackleford, Ellis, etc. than I do keeping Bediako and Quinerly (and Ellis) off the scoreboard at the rim.

We’ll see.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Can Tennessee turn the shot volume battle into a blowout? Here are two numbers: +6.8, -1.1. The first is Tennessee’s season-long turnover margin; the second is Alabama’s. Considering Tennessee has also posted a superior per-100 possession rebounding percentage, Tennessee heads into this game expecting to get the equivalent of 7-10 extra possessions. (Tennessee ranks 12th nationally in OREB% on missed threes, per KenPom.) They won in Tuscaloosa in early 2020 despite getting outshot by 18% because they generated 17 extra possessions via turnovers and OREBs. They may not need 17 in this one, but can you at least get halfway to that number?
  • How many rim attempts does Alabama have at halftime? If it’s 10 or fewer, Tennessee’s in good shape.
  • How close is this game ten minutes in? In their three losses, Alabama either trailed or led by one point a quarter of the way through; they also trailed to Jacksonville State for quite a while in a tight win. In Tennessee’s two losses: down by 12 and down by 1. Split this game into four, win the first quarter.

Key matchups

Keon Ellis vs. Josiah-Jordan James and Justin Powell. These two are technically splitting time at the 3, though JJJ gets more minutes on an average night on the whole. Anyway, this is a weird one: Ellis barely cracks 8 field goal attempts a game and isn’t even the third guy most people think about offensively. However: he is Alabama’s best non-Bediako defender and rarely gets in foul trouble. The goal here: hold Ellis to 12 points or fewer, limit his impact on the boards.

Jaden Shackleford vs. Santiago Vescovi. Vescovi may (not sure yet! COVID!) have to take on a larger impact in this one, but he’s already got a full plate. Shack has been Alabama’s worst defender among their starting five, but no one on the team can shoot like he does and that floater is devastating if you’re able to keep him from getting to the rim. Vescovi’s job: deny, deny, deny.

Jahvon Quinerly vs. Kennedy Chandler. I picked Quinerly as my preseason SEC Player of the Year; he’s been a hair disappointing. I also do not care, because Quinerly is one of five SEC point/quasi-point guards in the entire conference (Chandler included) that can score frequently and efficiently at the rim. (The others: Pippen, Sahvir Wheeler, Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar.) This is a huge task for Chandler and an important proving grounds to show how well he can handle NBA-level opposition as a defender.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the shot volume battle and generates the equivalent of 6+ extra shots;
  2. It is proven meaningless because neither team shoots well despite there being a billion possessions and because Coleman Coliseum is a house of horrors;
  3. Alabama 74, Tennessee 71.

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