The Bruins are coming off one of the most impressive performances of the entire tournament's first round as they "put on a clinic," according to Digger Phelps, in annihilating Belmont University, 78-44. The Tide defeated 7th-seeded Marquette in one of the more entertaining first round match-ups, 90-85.
The Bruins have now entered very uncharted territory as only one member of the current squad, Cedric Bozeman, has been this far in an NCAA tourney and that was back in 2002, and Bozeman was hurt at the time. The glare of the lights and the inevitable expectations are now going to squarely be on the Bruins. How will the young team with little post-season experience handle the inevitable pressure?
Alabama is coached by former UCLA assistant Mark Gottfried. Gottfried was one of the primary assistants on the staff of former Bruins' coach Jim Harrick when the Bruins won the 1995 national title. Within a few weeks of that win over Arkansas, Gottfried returned to the South to take over at Murray State. Man, talk about timing: shortly after accepting the Murray State job, UCLA fired Harrick and hired Steve Lavin. It's probably safe to assume that had Gottfried still been a UCLA assistant when Harrick was let go that he, not Lavin, would have taken over the reins of the Bruin program. As it is, UCLA was able to replace Lavin with Ben Howland while Gottfried has been fairly successful in his stints at Murray State and now Alabama, which he took over for the 1998 campaign. In all honesty, though, the Tide hasn't really taken off under Gottfried. The Tide's NCAA Tournament record since Gottfried arrived is 4-5. The Tide got three of those wins in 2004 when they made an improbable run to the Elite 8. Other than that, ‘Bama's record is 1-4 and that one win was on Thursday. Now, I know that Alabama is a football school, but with the kind of athletes and players that Gottfried, being a very good recruiter, has been able to attract to Tuscaloosa, one would think that they would have had more success on the national stage than that. There are some things in Gottfried's favor, though. First, his Elite 8 run is further than Coach Ben Howland has ever been in an NCAA Tournament, and, of course, the past does not dictate how Gottfried's team will play today. However, there are some connections between the past and present.
Gottfried has always chosen to have his teams run whenever possible, and even when it has been improbable. To this end the Tide ostensibly runs a motion offense, but there is a lot of one-on-one play and a great deal of improvisation. The Tide average almost 14 turnovers per game and that was against teams that don't apply the same kind of defensive clamps that ‘Bama should expect to see today. Just look at the last six minutes of the game with Marquette: Alabama had 6 turnovers in that span and that is solely what let the boys from Milwaukee back in the game. With the type of players that ‘Bama has, the more loosey-goosey style of offense that they play actually is pretty effective. The Tide try to get the ball inside to one of their big posts right away in their half-court set. If that isn't there, then the offense breaks down into a series of ball screens so that ‘Bama's guards and wings can either get into the lane or shoot the three. This has been the calling card of Gottfried's teams since he arrived at Alabama. That kind of run-and-gun style is good if you are coaching at a smaller conference school, but at a major school like Alabama, there really needs to be more of a philosophical foundation to build on, like Duke's offense or UCLA's defense.
Speaking of defense, Alabama has typically played man-to-man throughout Gottfried's tenure. But his version of man defense is very different than Howland's. The Bruins tend to bump cutters and play lane-denial defense so that many shots have to come from the outside. When dribble penetration works, the Bruins funnel the driver to the middle where help is waiting. When done right, this is a very dispiriting defense -- just ask Belmont. The Tide has played a more gambling, ball-denial defense that is predicated on speeding the game up and forcing turnovers. When those turnovers aren't forthcoming, the Tide has given up a lot of points. However, ever since losing leading scorer Chucky Davis earlier in the year to a knee injury, Gottfried has been forced to scale back his "pressure" defense and has even been forced to play some zone each game to keep certain players from either foul trouble or from being fatigued. This has made the Tide a better team as they now perhaps play defense better than at any previous time in Gottfried's tenure.
In the backcourt, Alabama starts sophomore Ronald Steele (6'3" 185lbs.), and he is probably the best pure basketball player on the Tide. He averages 13.8 PPG as well as 4.1 APG and 3.7 RPG. He is very good, but his 41% field goal percentage also suggests that he takes some really bad shots. He took a few against Marquette, and the Golden Eagles didn't play stellar defense. Steele is very athletic and likes to get into the lane. If he can't get into the paint, he can also be deadly from beyond the arc. The Bruins will probably match Arron Afflalo on him and have Afflalo play his normal defense. It's pretty certain that Steele as a player and the Tide as a team haven't seen the kind of help defense that they will see this evening. Finally, Steele has averaged over 40 minutes per game the past month. He has been on the floor every second of every game, including OT, that the Tide has played since the end of January. He looked a bit tired at the end of the Marquette game. He will tire today if the Bruins play their typical physical defense, and that could be a significant factor.
At the other guard spot will be freshman Brandon Hollinger (5'11" 170 lbs.). Hollinger is not really a point guard,with those duties handled by Steele. In fact, Hollinger wasn't supposed to play much, if at all, this season, but Chuck Davis' injury and the sub-par play of some other returnees has thrust Hollinger into about 16 MPG. He isn't the quick, jitterbug-type point guard that has bothered Jordan Farmar all season. In fact, Hollinger isn't really part of the Tide's offense. If Hollinger plays a lot, that helps Farmar as he will actually be able to provide more help than usual and the team won't have to help him as much. Now, Alabama is more of a one-post, three-wing, one-guard team.
The two key reserves for the Tide are senior Jean Felix (6'7" 205 lbs.), and freshman Alonzo Gee (6'6" 215 lbs.). They both average over 8 PPG and 3 RPG and they can both shoot the three. Felix showed some extreme streakiness against Marquette, making 8 threes and scoring a career-high 31 points, but it'd be highly unlikely that he could re-produced that again. Both Felix and Gee are very undisciplined. Felix in particular is just as apt to destroy the Tide's offense with poor shot selection (which is as good as a turnover), as he is to shoot 8-11 from behind the arc as he did on Thursday. The worry is that both of them have a lot of size and length and will cause some match-up headaches for Farmar because of his 6'2" frame, and Darren Collison because of his 5'11" height. This may mean some extended time for both Farmar and Collison on Steele and that isn't a good match-up for the Bruins.
Up front the Tide start junior Jermareo Davidson (6'10" 220 lbs.) in the post. Davidson is the team's leading scorer at 14.1 PPG and leads the team in rebounding at 9 RPG. But when Davidson has played either long, athletic centers or really strong ones, he has come up on the short end of the stick. Now, ‘Bama beat both Florida and LSU, but both games were in Tuscaloosa and Davidson was outplayed by Florida's Joakim Noah and LSU's Glenn Davis. Davidson will probably Ryan Hollins,who has the athleticism and length to bother Davidson. Even if Hollins gets into foul trouble, the Bruins can come after Davidson with waves of big men. After Davidson, the Tide doesn't have much.
At the forward spot will be freshman Richard Hendrix (6'8" 265 lbs.), and he could be the key to the game. If UCLA's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and to a lesser extent Alfred Aboya, can continue their excellent play then they will wear out Hendrix by the half. Alabama is an athletic team, but Hendrix is not one of the athletic players. Imagine him chasing the Prince up and down the floor logging all that weight. Luc and Aboya have such a clear quickness and athletic advantage here. Now, Hendrix does board well (8 RPG), and he will score if given the ball on the low block (55% FG %), but that's about what Hendrix brings.
The final starting spot goes to senior Evan Brock (6'9" 205 lbs.). Brock can shoot the three, but that's about all he does. He doesn't like to get into the paint to mix it up so Bozeman should be able to match up with Brock. Brock rebounds very poorly for his size (2.7 RPG), and that may allow Bozeman to be more of an offensive force.
If ever there was a game about "team" play, this is it. Many experts have been writing and questioning (as have some BRO posters) how the Bruins will match up with the Tide. I think people should be asking how the Tide will match up with the Bruins. What will happen when the Tide starts to tire? How will ‘Bama respond when the shots they hit on Thursday won't fall today? How can Alabama stay with the Bruins when the Bruins start playing their efficient offense? UCLA won on Thursday by 34 and Afflalo and Farmar combined for only 15 points. Think one or both might go off tonight?
Here's how the game could go: ‘Bama will take an early lead as they start fresh and hit some open jumpers. They can and will take advantage of their overall athleticism. The Bruin defense will keep the game close so that at the half it will be about 3-5 points either way. In the second half things will change as ‘Bama gets tired, frustrated and just plain worn out. The score will end up close, but remember this: ‘Bama barely, and I mean barely, beat a mediocre Marquette team (and that assessment is based on watching a great deal of Midwest college basketball) that really had an off day. Why? Because when push came to shove, Alabama returned to their more undisciplined ways and it almost cost them. In fact, against disciplined, half-court teams this season, Alabama has not faired well at all. They lost to Temple (who UCLA beat), NC State and South Carolina, all teams that tend to run their offenses and defenses in a very controlled and disciplined fashion. Bruin fans should make travel plans for Oakland.