With the calendar set to flip to 2019 tomorrow at midnight, the Crimson Tide (8-3) hit the road one last time before they ring in the new year. With only one other non-conference game remaining (at Baylor in the Big 12 Challenge the last Saturday in January), Alabama is only a game away from conference play. At 8-3, things could certainly be better, but honestly, despite some ugly performances at times, Alabama isn’t sitting in a horrible position. If the Tide can win both road games in Texas, a 10-3 non-conference record against a solid slate will put Avery Johnson’s team right in the mix for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, provided that they can play above .500 ball during the conference season.
Here’s the bad news: Stephen F. Austin (7-4) is exactly the kind of team you don’t want to see on your schedule. Good enough to beat you, but bad enough that it will be an ugly loss on the resume. Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Lumberjacks have been one of the best small conference teams in college basketball the past 5 years. Coming off their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons, playing at their place seemed like a great opportunity for Alabama to snag a road win against a team that would end up with 25+ wins, a high RPI, and an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Unfortunately, the Lumberjacks got off to a slow start this season, losing to both Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe, and getting blown out by a disappointing Miami team and a surprisingly good San Francisco team. Heck, four of their seven wins are against teams that aren’t even among the 353 schools in Division-1. They’ve turned things around recently though, including pulling off an upset win over the aforementioned Baylor Bears. It appears they have gotten things back on track, just in time for the Tide to roll into town.
In other words, what appeared to be a great opportunity for Alabama to get a good road test and potentially snag a nice non-conference win has turned into a tough road test with no benefit to the resume. This is a massive landmine.
POINT 6’2 Shannon Bogues (17.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG)
GUARD 6’6 Kevon Harris (13.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.8 BPG)
WING 6’6 Nathan Bain (6.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.8 SPG)
WING 6’7 Davonte Fitzgerald (12.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.8 SPG)
POST 6’8 Karl Nicholas (7.2 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG)
GUARD 6’3 Jock Hughes (3.7 PPG, 1.7 RPG)
GUARD 6’2 Oddyst Walker (1.5 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.8 APG)
POST 6’8 Mitchell Seraille (5.3 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 0.9 BPG)
POST 7’0 Jovan Grujic (2.8 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
The biggest issue for the Lumberjacks this season has been the injury bug. T.J. Holyfield, considered one of the favorites for Southland Player of the Year, was ruled out for the season right before the opening game. Then, starting point guard Aaron Augustin suffered an elbow injury that has had him sidelined for most of the season thus far. Returning starters Bogues and Harris have had to carry this team on the offensive end. Bogues just may end up winning the conference’s player of the year award the way he is shooting the ball (45.6%/42.5%/84.0%) and distributing (28.4% AST%).
Bain has done a nice job stepping up as a shooter as well (60.4%/55.6%), though his attempts are limited because he isn’t very good at creating separation. And his free throw shooting has been horrible (47.4%). Fitzgerald has started every game this year and gives the ‘Jacks a long option on the wing that can really slash.
This team wins with defense though. As a branch of the Bob Huggins coaching tree, head coach Kyle Keller utilizes the press-til-they-break strategy that frustrates the hell out of their opponents. They are long and play the game with a high basketball I.Q. It’s what has made the program so successful for years now. With the issues they’ve had keeping their most talented players on the floor, they’ve really had to rely on scheme over skill.
- Take Care of the Basketball. This is an obvious place to start. If Alabama wants to avoid the landmine in Nacogdoches, they have to take care of the ball. Again, the Lumberjacks thrive off of turning people over. When they beat Baylor a couple of weeks back, they turned the Bears over 18 times for nearly half of their 59 points. Kira Lewis has been awesome so far for the Tide, but he’ll be really tested tonight. Alabama needs him to focus on taking care of the ball.
- Work the Ball Inside. Stephen F. Austin may be a heavy press team, but they are also typically very stout in half-court defense as well. They rotate well and keep opposing players in front of them. Against teams like Alabama, they are perfectly happy letting them shoot jumpers all game. Donta Hall and Galin Smith don’t have much in the way of a true post game offensively, but they’ve got to be active and try to get some good looks around the basket if the guards and wings aren’t knocking down shots, which seems likely.
- Free Throws. This is likely going to be an ugly game. Both teams really struggle on the offensive end and typically play stingy defense. Getting to the free throw line and making those opportunities count is going to go a long way in this game.
The path back to the NCAA Tournament is definitely right there for the Crimson Tide. However, with a trio of losses in non-conference play already, a loss to this year’s Stephen F. Austin team will force Alabama to take a hell of a detour. With conference play (and Kentucky) looming right after this match-up, Alabama needs to find a way to get out of Texas with a win tonight.
The game tips-off at 5:00 PM CST and will be televised on ESPNU.