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Tennessee vs Alabama Preview

Both teams got off to big starts in conference play, and will look for a meaningful win on Saturday in Knoxville.

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

The Second Saturday in January finds Alabama at 11-3 and winners of five straight after their heartbreaking loss at Wichita State on December 16.  The Tide beat UCLA 56-50, but their most impressive feat may be what they did to Texas A&M on Tuesday, outscoring the Aggies 38-20 in the second half en route to a 65-44 victory.  The Tide held A&M to just 30.8% from the field, the exact percentage UCLA shot against them.

Their defense is much of the reason they got beat at Iowa State and Xavier.  The Cyclones were 58% from the field, 43% from the arc, and 81% from the line, numbers that will beat most teams.  Likewise Xavier was 57% from the field and 53% from the arc against Alabama.  But the Tide have locked it down since then, including in their near-miss at Wichita.  Since the Xavier loss no team has shot better than the Shockers' 40.8% against them.

Tennessee was shooting the ball much better until Wednesday night, where so many fouls took the ball out of the hands of Josh Richardson and Armani Moore as they went to the bench.  The Vols hit just 35.4% at Mississippi State, though going 10 of 20 from the arc will certainly make up the difference.  These two teams have almost identical numbers, with the Vols shooting 44.2% and allowing 41.0%, and Alabama shooting 44.9% and allowing 41.2%.

Three thoughts on this important match-up:

  1. You will notice, Bama's thing is getting to the free throw line:  third in the SEC in free throw rate, second in the league in free throw percentage.  Which is bad, because fouling is our thing.  32 whistles in Starkville jacked UT's average up to 22.1 per game on the year, the most in the SEC and 12th highest in the nation.
  2. If there's good news here, it's that Alabama, like Mississippi State, doesn't shoot the three very well. The Bulldogs were the league's worst three point shooting team, and Alabama is second:  29.9%.  In what has all the makings of Bruce Pearl's 2009 team, the Tide still lead the SEC in three point attempts, 21 per contest. Rodney Cooper is shooting 39.1% from three, and is third in scoring at 10.5 points per night.  And watch Riley Norris off the bench, a 45.5% three point shooter.  As usual, there will be opportunities against Tennessee's zone defense.
  3. Something old, something new. Levi Randolph is still around for Alabama, and has scored in double figures every game this season.  But the good news for Alabama is, the Tide are relying on him less and less.  That has to do with the emergence of Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant, a volume shooter getting 13.2 points in just 25 minutes per night.  How the Vols look to take away these scorers will be of great importance.
Tennessee's win over Mississippi State, ugly as it may have been, was a keep-you-interested victory.  Had the Vols lost to any of their in-state foes at the end of the non-conference, or to the SEC's worst team in the league opener, perhaps fans would've checked out on this team until they proved themselves again.  But now the Vols are 9-4, 60th in RPI and 76th in KenPom.  Entering into a two-game homestand with two teams that are more talented than we are, this is a huge opportunity for Donnie Tyndall and somewhat of a compass for where this thing is going from here.  Can the Vols find enough points to beat back the Tide?  And will Tennessee's aggressive defense and a home crowd be enough to turn Alabama away (and keep them off the free throw line)?

2:00 PM Saturday, SEC Network.  This one will be educational.

Beat Bama.