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Tennessee at Alabama Preview

Saturday, 9:00 PM ET, ESPN2

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

In light of the current basketball conversation in Knoxville, consider the one unfolding in Tuscaloosa right now.

Anthony Grant is in year five in Tuscaloosa.  After stabilizing the program in year one at 17-15, the Tide went 21-11 in year two...but didn't dance.  Bama went 21-11 in year three, danced as a 9 seed and lost by one point in the opener.  Last year Bama was 20-12, but didn't dance.  Three straight 20+ win regular seasons, but only one tournament appearance, and zero tournament wins.

Schedule up, they said.  Play better teams and you'll have a better fate.  So this year Bama played better teams...and lost to all of them.

Seven non-conference losses, five of them on the road, all by ten points or less.  Don't say Bama didn't take advice:  five of Bama's non-conference losses are to teams currently in the RPI Top 30 (Oklahoma, Duke, Wichita State, Xavier, UCLA).  Add in the six point loss to Florida and you get what is currently the nation's second most difficult schedule.

The "bad" losses were really killer, triple overtime to Drexel and two points at South Florida.  But still, this is the kind of schedule the selection committee is dying to reward.  But you've gotta beat somebody.  Anybody.

So Alabama rolls into conference play on life support, then loses at Georgia in their second outing.  A week later they played Missouri and Florida back to back, losing both including a 21 point thrashing at Mizzou.  And just when you feel like they rebounded, beating LSU in Tuscaloosa, they go to 0-6 Auburn last night and eat a 74-55 loss.  Things that will kill an Alabama head coach:  Auburn is 2-21 in their last 23 SEC games.  Guess who the two are.

So, what do we make of this Alabama team, now 94th in RPI and basically in need of a win-out to get back on the dance floor?  And certainly in need of something better than this to keep their head coach comfortably employed.

Alabama is the third best free-throw shooting team in the conference, but only 11th best at getting to the line.  Free throw percentage is the only offensive category they rank in the top five in the league in.  Defensively they're better, as you'd expect with Grant:  Alabama defends the three as well as any team in the league, allowing the second fewest threes in the league and currently giving up the lowest percentage of points from the arc in the SEC.

This means Tennessee can't fall in love with the three whether it's hot or cold in Tuscaloosa.  The good news for Tennessee is the usual:  Alabama isn't a great rebounding team, and the Vols are still one of the nation's best: fifth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, and second nationally in overall rebound percentage. If Alabama has thrown in the towel on their season, great.  If they come to fight they are certainly experienced and capable, but this is a team we match up well with for a change.  Alabama lost three of its big, productive guards from last season in Trevor Lacey, Rodney Cooper, and Levi Randolph.  Trevor Releford is back to run the show, and 6'8" Nick Jacobs returns as well, but this time Tennessee has both Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon to contend with him on the block.

Road wins are worth their weight in gold, so despite Alabama's recent struggles this is a big win for the Vols to get to open a double-header away from Knoxville.  Tennessee has split its last six games; to get back on the dance floor, the Vols have to return to consistency and a schedule that no longer includes Lexington and Gainesville should allow the Vols to do just that.

Beat Bama.