Scouting Report: Alabama

The people who say that college basketball is largely meaningless until the NCAA Tournament arrives are people who watch the NBA or find other things to do with their lives during January and February. You can't look at this Thursday's Vanderbilt-Alabama battle (6 p.m.,ESPN2) and dismiss its significance. This game matters in a very big way for both teams.


Here's the simple truth about the Commodores' commute to Coleman Coliseum, culminating in a Thursday night showdown against the Crimson Tide: With Mississippi State awaiting on Saturday, Vanderbilt – thrust into one of the SEC's grueling Thursday-Saturday two-fers – has to split this next pair of games. Given that Mississippi State will be comparatively fresher than Vanderbilt, and given that Mississippi State is a more likely NCAA Tournament club than Bama at this point, Dores-Tide is very much a bubble game. Yes, it's not a bubble game the way last year's Georgia-Alabama SEC quarterfinal was, but it IS still a bubble game, a contest that will give a precious added ounce of leverage to the winner as SEC bracketology unfolds. If Vanderbilt wants to remain on track for an NCAA bid and continue to diminish the ugliness of its bad losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State, a win in Tuscaloosa would come in handy.

Don't you dare suggest that January college basketball means nothing.

ALABAMA AT-A-GLANCE

If you were to compare Alabama's and Vanderbilt's resumes, you'd find two teams with very even profiles, but not necessarily similar ones. Alabama doesn't have Vanderbilt's bad home-court losses (the two mentioned above against Cleveland State and Indiana State). Like VU, coach Anthony Grant's team owns a pair of good losses. Whereas the Commodores dropped decisions to Xavier and Louisville, Alabama fell to Georgetown and Kansas State in addition to Dayton. You might call Dayton a bad loss, but then again, the Flyers recently won at Temple and reminded America that their capacity for dreadful face-plants is matched by their ability to rise to the moment against big-name opponents. For now, VU's Cleveland State setback is a worse loss than Dayton is for the Tide.

In terms of quality wins, Vanderbilt has the best one on the board. Alabama cannot trump the Dores' takedown of Marquette in Milwaukee. However, the Tide have a better collection of non-conference wins: Virginia Commonwealth and Wichita State are nice scalps to claim, and Grant scheduled wisely by going up against power-conference teams he felt he could beat… and did: Maryland and Oklahoma State. If you put Bama and Vandy side by side, it would be incredibly difficult to make a call right now. That's the biggest reason why this game is so important.

Starting Lineup

Forward – JaMychal Green –
Senior, 6-8, 240 2011-12: 14.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.0 blocks per game

Green is not a prolific or frequent shooter with much of any range – he's a near the basket player and a blue-collar guy Alabama relies on for rebounding and defense. The Tide also want this veteran to provide the second-chance points Alabama relies on. Green stands out as the one upperclassman in the starting five for the Tide. This makes him the man Vanderbilt needs to monitor at crunch time.

Forward– Tony Mitchell – Junior, 6-6, 220; 2011-12: 14.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg

Mitchell will occasionally shoot the three, but he hits only 33 percent of his tries from long distance; Vanderbilt would be happy to keep him away from the basket. Mitchell is an explosive leaper and the main "posterizer" on the Tide's roster. The Dores have to watch backdoor cuts and other set plays for him coming off screens. Mitchell rarely gets to the line, averaging under three foul shots per game, and when he gets to the line, he's a 60-percent shooter. If he's within three feet of the basket and nobody's in particularly severe foul trouble, give a hard but clean foul and make him hit two charity pitches in order to get his two points.

Guard– Levi Randolph – Freshman, 6-5, 185; 2011-12: 6.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg

The "R" in Randolph can also stand for "reticent." Randolph is indeed a reluctant shooter who doesn't look for his own offense; he is clearly on the floor to provide defense and rebounding at his position on what is generally an undersized ballclub that needs elbow grease and hustle points to thrive.

Guard – Trevor Lacey – Freshman, 6-3, 200; 2011-12: 7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg

There's not too much here to differentiate Lacey from Randolph, his backcourt teammate. One can begin to see why (and how) Mississippi State and multiple non-conference opponents – Georgetown, Dayton, Kansas State – were all able to contain what is not a terrifically diverse Crimson Tide offense (insert football joke here). Alabama averaged 56.5 points per game in its four losses to those four teams, never scoring more than 62 points per contest. You win by grinding down Alabama and turning defense into offense. It's that simple.

Guard – Trevor Releford – Sophomore, 6-0, 190; 2011-12: 12.5 ppg, 3.2 apg, 2.8 rpg

Releford gives Alabama the degree of cohesion it possesses at both ends of the floor. Releford – like everyone else on the Crimson Tide roster – is not a good pure shooter. He's only 8 of 32 from three-point range this season. However, the fact that Releford has taken only 32 treys shows that he is judicious in his shot selection; he doesn't take his team out of possessions by throwing up a quick hoist early on the shot clock. Releford is 67 of 106 as a two-point field goal shooter, a mark of efficiency and prudence that Grant has to love from his second-year floor general. Releford hits 87 percent of his foul shots as well, making him a player the Tide can trust in late-game situations if he doesn't give up the rock. Also note that Releford, despite his lack of size, is usually able to grab about three boards per game. This team competes on the glass at every position.

Bench

Grant used a seven-man rotation against Mississippi State last Saturday, turning to Nick Jacobs and Andrew Steele for extended minutes off the bench, and no one else. Earlier in SEC play, tweener guard Rodney Cooper, at 6-6, got his feet wet as a freshman, and one would think that he'll be called upon this Thursday by Grant. Alabama will need more bodies on Thursday because the Tide must then turn around and play an early Saturday game at Kentucky. An eight- or nine-man rotation seems like a requirement, not an option, for Alabama's coaching staff in the coming days. The simple thing to note about all three players highlighted above is that they average at least 2.5 rebounds per game. It's so conspicuously apparent that Alabama is is a gang-rebounding team which relies on muscle and work ethic, not shotmaking skill, for every bread crumb of success it seeks. This point can't be established enough in the days before tip time in Tuscaloosa. Every Vanderbilt player has to bring a hard hat to Coleman Coliseum, because he'll need to be prepared to help on the glass. Early run-outs are not advised off Alabama misses in this tilt.

Keys to the Game

1) Rebounding and more rebounding.
Alabama's commitment to protecting the glass is evident. Vanderbilt must crash the party – and the boards – thereby limiting the Tide's possessions and thereby applying even more pressure to each Alabama trip down the floor. If Vanderbilt can rebound well, especially at the defensive end of the floor, it can put the squeeze on the Tide and cause Anthony Grant's group to play a nervous and panicky brand of halfcourt offense which will suit the Dores quite nicely. It's also worth emphasizing that Alabama's best offense will sometimes be a missed shot; Vanderbilt has to choke off that line of attack from the Tide. Establishing the ability to rebound and deny Alabama second-chance points will likely cause the Tide – even at home – to shoot the ball with diminishing levels of confidence as the game wears on. You might be tired of how the keys to the game in these previews are almost always defense- and rebound-oriented, but those are the areas where VU must ruthlessly and relentlessly focus its energies in order to become a more complete team, the kind of team that can grind out a 62-58 win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

2) Contest every shot. Don't allow Alabama players to see the ball go in the basket, which is the basic path to confidence and high performance for any team that's struggling at the offensive end of the floor. Vanderbilt obviously wants to confine the Crimson Tide to the perimeter, but this naturally can't be taken too far; the Commodores need to make sure that even while they seal off dribble penetration in the lane and force Bama to take jumpers, those jumpers can't be wide open looks. As long as VU completes its defensive rotations by getting a raised arm in front of the shooting hand of each Alabama player, the Dores can say that they're fully executing their desired game plan. Failing to close down on a shooting hand, though, could give the Tide the space – and with it, the confidence – they need to win on their home court.

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