Yesterday I got the pleasure of being inside Coleman Coliseum to watch the Alabama Crimson Tide (17-9, 6-6) get an absolutely crucial 62-50 win over the Tennessee Volunteers (14-13, 6-6) without three starters.
The shorthanded Crimson Tide entered the game without their two leading scorers, JaMychal Green, and Tony Mitchell, who remain suspended. It was the third straight missed game for Green, and the fourth for Tony Mitchell. Anthony Grant announced at his Friday news conference that he would talk to both Green and Mitchell in the upcoming week, so the hope is they both will be back and suited up for the huge week coming up for the Crimson Tide.
If that wasn’t bad enough, freshman forward Nick Jacobs, the best remaining inside scorer without Green and Mitchell, was unable to play against Tennessee due to a mouth infection. That left Alabama extremely thin in the post heading into their game against Tennessee Saturday afternoon with sophomore’s Moussa Gueye and Carl Engstrom the only available front court options.
Also, sophomore point guard Trevor Releford was seen on crutches around campus during the week, and he wasn’t able to start the game with freshman Trevor Lacey taking his place at the point.
Couple all that with the fact that Tennessee was red hot entering this game with four straight victories that included a road win over Florida, and it was easy to see why some Alabama fans were pessimistic about this outcome.
Despite all the factors working against the Crimson Tide, Alabama defeated Tennessee 62-50 in front of a strong crowd at Coleman Coliseum. Alabama entered the game with back-to-back losses in desperate need of a victory to keep their hopes alive of making the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately, Tennessee entered the game with a below 100 RPI. The Vols are much better than their RPI shows though.
A big reason for the Tide’s success was the play of Trevor Lacey, who made the start at point guard. Lacey led the team with 18 points and 4 steals as he finally looked like the five star recruit everyone thought he was. Lacey did the majority of his damage from the free throw line, connecting on 9-of-12 of his shots from the charity stripe. Lacey was extremely aggressive in attacking the basket.
While Trevor Releford did not start, he did come off the bench to play 27 minutes and score 13 points. Releford’s energy was a huge boost for the Crimson Tide off the bench, especially in the first half. Along with his 13 points, Releford grabbed 3 rebounds, and added a pair of steals.
Andrew Steele had his typical stat-sheet stuffing kind of afternoon against the Vols. Steele was only 2-of-7 from the floor, but he still scored 10 points to go along with 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals. Steele isn’t a guy that is going to score 20 points a night, but he has the ability to score and use his strength to attack the basket, and he’ll do all the little things to help you win games.
One of the biggest reasons for the Tide’s success against Tennessee was the play of Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye, who both played extremely well. Engstrom gave Alabama a solid contribution on the offensive end with 7 points and 7 rebounds in 23 minutes. Moussa Gueye made his first career start for Alabama, and was a defensive force in his 16 minutes of action.
He only scored 2 points on a pair of free throws, but he locked down the lane with 6 blocked shots. Grant switched between Engstrom and Gueye the entire game until the final minute.
My confidence in this team has grown over the last couple of weeks, and if the team can get back both Green and Mitchell soon, I think they are going to be really tough to beat down the stretch, and into both the SEC and NCAA Tournament tournaments.
If you want to look at the bright side of the suspensions, it has allowed other players get big minutes, and helped build their confidence moving forward. If Green and Mitchell come back with a renewed sense of urgency and play to their capabilities, I believe this Alabama team can be really good.
Making the NCAA Tournament is far from a certainty at this point, but Alabama was a 10-seed in Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracketology update for ESPN.
After the win over Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, Alabama moves forward into a huge week. The Tide has a big 48-hour stretch starting on Thursday night in Fayetteville at Bud Walton Arena against NCAA bubble team Arkansas. They beat Arkansas 72-66 at Coleman Coliseum on January 28th.
Then, on Saturday evening Alabama heads back home to Tuscaloosa to take on what is more than likely to be a desperate Mississippi State team who has been free-falling as of late. The Bulldogs have dropped three straight games to subpar opponents in Georgia, LSU, and Auburn, and the Bullies host #1 ranked Kentucky on Tuesday before traveling to Coleman on Saturday.
Alabama lost the first meeting against Mississippi State in Starkville 56-52, and that loss sent the Tide into a tailspin as the team dropped four straight.
After these two big games, Alabama finishes the regular season out with a home game against Auburn, and then travels to Ole Miss to finish things out on March 3rd. A 3-1 mark during this stretch should put Alabama in good shape for an NCAA at-large bid. That would put them at 9-7 in the SEC, and would likely be good enough for fourth place in the conference, which would give them a first round bye in the SEC Tournament.
A 2-2 mark in their final four would probably mean Alabama has to play in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and they would probably need a win to keep from sweating things out on Selection Sunday.
In any case, all this hinges on head coach Anthony Grant’s decision in the upcoming week as he decides whether or not to reinstate JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. If Alabama is going to finish the season strong, they are going to need both of those guys.
Here’s to hoping they are both reinstated, and Alabama finishes well enough to avoid any bubble talk.