Women's Basketball Scouting Report: Alabama

The Vanderbilt Commodores and the Alabama Crimson Tide both fought hard on Thursday night in the SEC... the Crimson Tide a little too literally. Nevertheless, both teams earned narrow blue-collar victories in games played in the low 50s. Defense won't be an issue for either team. The offensive end of the floor will separate these teams... if, that is, any separation emerges in the first place.


Remember when Vanderbilt hung 78 points on Mississippi State? That game seems so long ago, and it stands out because of how aberrational it is within the course of the past two weeks of SEC competition. Vanderbilt’s offense has generally ground to a halt, but against MSU, it flowed like a river. With a 55-53 slog in the rearview mirror against Arkansas, Vanderbilt’s attention now turns to Alabama, winner of a 51-50 slugfest – and boy, was it ever a slugfest – against Auburn on Thursday night.

A nasty, ugly brawl received national attention, but casting aside that event, it remains that Alabama and Auburn, in the basement of the SEC, played a close game because neither team could do much of anything on offense. The nail-biter was very different from a game that’s close because both teams push each other to be excellent. Alabama managed to carve out one more point, and so the Tide moved to 1-5 in the SEC while Auburn sank to 0-6. It would be nice to think that Vanderbilt can march into Tuscaloosa and put a 15-point thumping on the Tide, but Vanderbilt really doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt on that score… emphasis on the word SCORE.

The Commodores held Arkansas without a field goal for the final 12:26 of Thursday night’s home game. They held the LadyBacks without a single point for a stretch of 9:34, and limited Jimmy Dykes’ team to one point in a span of 11:46.

Vanderbilt won by two. Two. With THAT kind of defensive performance.

Winning beats losing any day of the week, but with the way VU’s offense is playing, nothing should be considered certain about this tussle with the Tide. The Dores would like to think so, but that’s really neither here nor there. Melanie Balcomb’s team, whether favored or not, needs to show that it can piece together a solid offensive performance on the road. Performance, not any predictions or “shoulds” or “ought-tos,” is what counts.

ALABAMA AT-A-GLANCE

The Crimson Tide had been getting trounced in SEC play until the win over Auburn. All five SEC losses occurred by double figures. The Tide averaged 57 points in those five games. This is a team with very few resources. Its best hope is to drag Vanderbilt into a messy game and close out on the boards as well as it possibly can. There’s not a lot of mystery to this matchup in the sense that Vanderbilt is highly susceptible to being drawn into a slog. Alabama knows it needs to match VU in terms of effort plays and getting to 50-50 balls, and then see where it can create positive points of differentiation.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Briana Hutchen –
Senior, 6-1; 2014-15: 7 points per game, 6 rebounds per game

Hutchen did not hit a field goal against Auburn, which can – on one hand – create the impression that she’s not someone to be taken seriously. Then again, it’s very much in the nature of sports for athletes to follow one bad game with a far better performance the next night. This is what Vanderbilt has to watch for against Hutchen.

Forward – Nikki Hegstetter – Junior, 6-2; 2014-15: 5.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg

You will notice that each of Alabama’s first two frontcourt players average at least 5.7 rebounds per game. This team employs a three-forward, two-guard starting lineup, so it’s a team with a little more size in its starting five, though not as much quickness. Blockout technique will certainly be tested in this game – Vanderbilt has to be ready to fight for every rebound.

Forward – Ashley Williams – Sophomore, 6-0; 2014-15: 13.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg

Williams does not shoot any threes. She hits only 48 percent of her foul shots. Those two realities should not describe a player who is by far a team’s best scorer, by 4.6 points over the second-best scorer (who averages 9.1 points per game). Those realities should not describe a team’s only double-digit scorer. Yet, they do. It is simultaneously impressive and discouraging (for Alabama) that Williams manages to post nearly 14 points per game without a three-point game or a foul-line shooting touch. This speaks to Alabama’s limitations, but it also shows how much of a force of nature Williams has become as a sophomore. If she can polish her foul shooting in the coming years, she could be a remarkable player by her senior season.

Guard – Karyla Middlebrook – Freshman, 5-7; 2014-15: 6.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.8 assists per game

Middlebrook, in 35 minutes against Auburn, attempted only six shots. She doesn’t look for her offense, and as a freshman on a team that struggles to score, she faces a situation in which she doesn’t feel comfortable trying to take over, probably because she doesn’t trust her own shot. If she was a more natural or instinctive shooter, she would be more authoritative, but she’s not there yet. Vanderbilt has to make Middlebrook feel as uncomfortable as possible in this game.

Guard – Hannah Cook – Freshman, 6-0; 2014-15: 9.1 ppg, 3 rpg, 1.4 apg,

Cook is more willing to shoot the ball… but she was 0-for-9 from the field in 28 minutes against Auburn. She’s a 27-percent 3-point shooter, and she hits under 60 percent of her tries from the line. You can plainly see why Alabama uses three forwards and two guards in its starting five. It is worth it to pursue rebounding more than instant offense, because both of Alabama’s starting guards just don’t shoot well.

Bench

One bench player for Alabama won’t play in this game: Breanna Hayden, suspended for two games due to her central role in Thursday’s brawl against Auburn. It will therefore be interesting to see if Alabama coach Kristy Curry lengthens her bench by going to seldom-used Quanetria Bolton and Sharin Rivers. Neither Bolton nor Rivers played more than eight minutes against Auburn. Bolton averages 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, Rivers 3.3 points per game. The two regular bench players who will likely get more minutes in Hayden’s absence are guards Khadijah Carter and Meoshonti Knight. Carter averages 1.5 points per game, Knight 8.3 points and 2.9 boards. Knight becomes a player for Vanderbilt to watch in this contest.

Keys to the Game

1) Possessions.
This is not a new key, but it’s entirely germane to this game and its dynamics. Getting extra possessions, giving away fewer possessions, and preventing a low-output Alabama offense from getting any cheap baskets must all be paramount points of emphasis for Balcomb and her coaching staff.

2) Energy. This is an early-afternoon tip-off on the road. It’s the kind of situation that can very easily witness a flat performance. Vanderbilt should win this game if it is fully invested in each possession. If it lacks intensity, it could very well lose. Being on top of the situation – fully engaged in every movement and action – is one of the most important things VU can do to win in Tuscaloosa.

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