The first conference game at Auburn on Wednesday produced a close and disappointing 62-59 Vanderbilt loss, despite a 23-point performance by Brian Thornton and effective play from Scott Hundley and Jason Holwerda. The Commodores haven't been able to put all the pieces together yet in games against any major opponent. Typically, three players will have strong games but the others won't, and that just isn't enough.
The Alabama Crimson Tide comes into this game with a record of 11-1, including wins over Xavier, Providence, St. Bonaventure, and Oklahoma. The Tide has played three road games, winning at Ohio State 54-48, losing at Utah 51-49, and defeating Oklahoma in neutral Madison Square Garden 68-62. They opened the conference season Wednesday with a 61-51 win over Arkansas.
Looking at the comparative statistics, Alabama is second in the SEC in field goal defense and third in overall defense (points allowed by the opposition). This is a very good defensive team, having held Oklahoma to 62 points, Ohio State to 48, Providence to 61, Xavier to 58, and Utah to 51.
On the other hand, the Tide has had some trouble scoring consistently. They are second in the conference in percentage of free throws made but only tenth in field goal percentage and ninth in three-point percentage. They are sixth in rebounding margin.
The missing piece to Alabama's offensive success could be 6-7 freshman Kennedy Winston of Mobile, Ala. Winston had been expected to take the place of unpredictable Rod Grizzard, who entered the NBA draft, but ran afoul of the NCAA and was ineligible to play until the Arkansas game. Against Arkansas he played just 12 minutes and scored six points, but he was a prodigious scorer in high school.
Senior power forward Erwin Dudley was the SEC player of the year last season. He has a history of starting the season slowly and coming on strong. To date, he is averaging 13.7 points and 10.5 rebounds. Dudley is a consistent workhorse at 6-8 and 260 lbs.
6-1 sophomore point guard Maurice Williams was last year's freshman of the year in the SEC. To date he hasn't been as effective in his ballhandling duties as was expected, with 4.75 assists per game and a less-than-impressive assists/turnover ratio. He is scoring 15.7 ppg, but is hitting only 40% of his shots from the field and 31% of his three-pointers.
6-9 senior center Kenny Walker, of Jacksonville, Fla., has stepped up his point production this season, to 12.2 ppg, and snags six rebounds per game. He and 6-9 freshman Evan Brock, of Roswell, Ga., are the tallest players on the team. Brock is very slender (190 lbs), but 6-8 freshman Chuck Davis is heftier (230 lbs). Both Brock and Davis score about two ppg.
The wings are manned by 6-0 junior Antoine Pettway, 6-3 sophomore Earnest Shelton, 6-2 senior Terrance Meade, and 6-4 junior Emmett Thomas. Pettway, a former walk-on, scores 7.1 ppg and is likely to play about 30 minutes against the Commodores. He is a respectable three-point threat and slashes to the basket effectively.
As to the other wing players, all three are supposed to be outside scoring threats but each has struggled at that range (Meade, 26%; Shelton 30%, Thomas 33.3%). Thomas is scoring 6.3 ppg, Meade 5.5 ppg, and Shelton 5.3 ppg.
Despite the 11-1 record, the Alabama team hasn't overwhelmed any of its major opponents. To date, they have been an unspectacular, grind-it-out, team. Perhaps Winston will, in time, transform the offense.
Alabama has to be favored to beat Vanderbilt, but the Commodores should be able to keep the game close and could steal a major victory if the shots fall just a little better than usual. However, the prediction here is for an Alabama victory of three to seven points.