Alabama vs. Tennessee preview: Keys to victory for the Tide

In Features by Philip Williams

Alabama and Tennessee’s Saturday matchup will showcase two of the SEC’s best defenses.

Tennessee is currently KenPom’s 4th rated defense in the country in terms of efficiency while Alabama boasts the best defense in the conference during SEC play.

With Auburn’s Wednesday loss to Texas A&M, Tennessee (18-5, 9-2) suddenly has more to play for than just seeding in the NCAA tourney. The Vols are only a game back of Auburn atop the SEC standings and will be favored to win each remaining game on their schedule, including their next tilt with Alabama.

So, the SEC regular season championship and a No. 1 seed are within the grasp of Rick Barnes’s squad.

Meanwhile, Alabama is fighting for its NCAA lives after a road loss to Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide (15-9, 6-5) need at least three wins in their last seven games to secure a bid, but the road isn’t easy. Only their game vs. LSU next week will be against a team that has an RPI of greater than 50.

Here’s what the Crimson Tide must be able to do to beat one of the conference’s best teams on Saturday.

Make some 3’s

In its last three games, Alabama is shooting an abysmal 22 percent from 3-point range.

Otherwise, Alabama hasn’t played all that bad. Its defense has been good enough, and the Crimson Tide have hit enough free-throws to win.

If Alabama had only shot a respectable 30 percent from 3-point land against Mississippi State, then it would have easily secured a victory. Clearly, the Tide need a few more shots to fall from the arc.

Both of the Tide’s biggest wins this year have come when the team has been successful from deep; Alabama shot 42 percent against Oklahoma and 44 percent against Auburn.

John Petty, who is often the catalyst for Alabama’s biggest victories, hasn’t been effective lately. Even if you include the Auburn game in which he had eight makes, Petty is only shooting 32 percent from long range in SEC play. That’s not what you are looking for in your primary spot-up shooter.

No Alabama player shoots in the 40 percent range. The league’s best teams–Tennessee for example–have three or more players that accomplish that feat.

It will be vitally important for the Tide to knock down their open 3-point attempts in this game, especially against a defense as tough as Tennessee’s.

Keep Grant Williams in check

The 6’7 (listed at 6’5 last season) sophomore doesn’t have the prototypical length of a dominating inside force, but he makes up for his lack of height with brute strength.

At 241 pounds, Williams creates space as well as anyone in the league.  His game is similar to Georgia’s Yante Maten’s game before the senior became so adept at shooting from outside.

It won’t be surprising at all to see Alabama double down on Williams to try and get the ball out of his hands each time he touches it, but the Tide need to make sure that they don’t foul him.

Williams is especially proficient in getting to the free-throw line. He’s shot double-digit free-throws three times already during SEC play. When he does get to the charity stripe, he makes teams pay—Williams has shot 77 percent from the line in conference play.

For Alabama to win, it’s going to have to keep Williams off the boards, off the line and away from the basket.

Sexton needs to have a big game

When you have a player that is a projected lottery-pick, opposing teams live with the dread that the player can explode for a monster game at any time.

Collin Sexton is that type of player.

Sexton has been good for Alabama lately, posting 17 or more points in each of his last four games. However, it’s been a while since Sexton had a game where he seemed unstoppable. Almost all of his most impressive offensive games came in the non-conference portion of the year.

There have been glimpses since—a step back jumper here, an acrobatic spinning layup there—but Sexton hasn’t put together the complete package recently.

The 6’2 guard has only shot 27 percent from 3-point land in SEC play.

He’s had games where he got to the line a dozen times or has made crafty moves around the basket, but I think Sexton is due for a game where he goes bananas.

Before long, he is going to put a complete game together complete with relentless drives to the basket, a barrage of 3-pointers and an ample number of free-throws.

It may not be Saturday, but soon, the elite talent and athleticism of Sexton will come through, resulting in a 30+ point game and an Alabama victory.

I’m a librarian and junior high boys basketball coach. My obsession with SEC basketball has grown so ludicrous that I won’t take another varsity hoops job because I’d miss almost all of conference play. I cover general SEC for Southeast Hoops.