The Zags have another high profile opponent coming into “town” this weekend when the Alabama Crimson Tide visit Seattle. It’ll be the fourth top-15 KenPom team of the Zags’ non-conference schedule so far, following in the footsteps of Duke, UCLA, and Texas.
Big thanks to Joshua Chatham over at SBN’s fantastic Alabama site Roll Bama Roll for taking the time to answer our questions.
SSF: Like Gonzaga, Alabama lost a lot from last year’s squad. Like Gonzaga, they entered this season with quite a bit of hype as well. Have the Tide lived up to the preseason hype, or do you think there is still some work to do?
They have, to a degree. The loss to Iona was certainly frustrating, particularly since they lost by four while missing 12 free throws, but by and large the results have been positive. They looked particularly sharp in the the most recent game, running Miami off the court with a 64 point second half onslaught. Of course, they also shot 53% from three in that game, and considering the volume of deep shots this team takes, they will rarely lose when they shoot at that level. Iona focused heavily on taking away the deep shot, and Alabama struggled mightily on offense. If they are to live up to their ranking, they will need to develop some versatility in the half court.
SSF: Nate Oats has basically abandoned the mid-range jumper, and Alabama pretty much focuses on three-pointers or shots at the rim. The Zags, of course, have Chet Holmgren who can hang around the rim and some pretty aggressive guards on defense. What does the Tide’s offense need to accomplish to pull off the upset?
The data is pretty clear on the midrange jumper, but sometimes it seems that they take it a bit far. It makes sense that shooting from 18 feet is inefficient when 22 feet gets you an extra point, but a 12-foot pull-up is far better in my mind than a wild, contested look in the paint. Holmgren is awesome, and battling him will be great experience for Alabama’s young center, Charles Bediako. Bediako was a teammate of Andrew Nembhard on Canada’s U19 FIBA team and faced Holmgren, but he was the backup to Purdue’s Zach Edey and only saw 13 minutes in the game. He is long and lean like Holmgren, has plenty of athleticism and has shown himself to be a pretty good rim protector in his freshman season, but is fairly raw on the offensive end.
As far as what Alabama needs to do to pull off the upset, I think it’s pretty clear that they need to be hot from three point range. If they aren’t, this one is going to be very difficult. Of course, taking care of the basketball and making foul shots are paramount to beating any team, and the former won’t be easy against the Gonzaga guards.
SSF: Jaden Shackelford almost went into the NBA Draft, ultimately returning for another year of college ball. Why is he so important to the team and what does he bring to the table?
Shackelford is important because he can score the basketball, plain and simple. He is a guy who can get to the rim, but has also knocked down 39% from three on high volume. He has also improved dramatically as a rebounder, pulling down an impressive 6.4 per game from the shooting guard position. He still has work to do on the defensive end, however, and that is a big concern against Gonzaga.
SSF: With plenty of new faces on the squad, who do you think is one of the x-factors that people need to watch out for?
This one is easy: freshman point guard JD Davison. This kid’s explosiveness jumps off the screen, even more than his spectacular mane. Like many young players in their first few outings, he has been erratic at times, but he makes plays. The Miami game was by far his best effort thus far, with 13 points on 6-8 shooting pius 10 assists against 3 turnovers in 29 minutes of action. He looks like a surefire one and done talent who sees the floor well, makes crisp passes, can knock down the three and give you a highlight reel dunk from the point.
SSF: Nate Oats teams always play good defense. The Zags have the (now) second-best offense in the nation. What does Alabama need to do to successfully contain the Gonzaga scoring machine?
“Always” might be generous here, but he has certainly focused on that area. Honestly, I’d say that defending the Zags is probably the biggest concern going into this one, which likely isn’t surprising. To be frank, Alabama’s starting backcourt of Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly struggle in this area. Senior Keon Ellis and sophomore Darius Miles are Alabama’s best perimeter defenders, both possessing plenty of length to go with the requisite work ethic. Davison is raw but is a bigger body than Quinerly and has the athleticism to compete on that end, so I’d expect to see a bit more of him if the undersized Q struggles to contain Nembhard, as I expect.
Bediako has been pretty solid down low, but he hasn’t faced anyone like Holmgren and I’d expect some growing pains there. Juwan Gary came to Alabama as a wing by trade but has shown himself adept at defending the post. He gives away several inches to Chet but has the body of a dude who could play for Nick Saban and is as tenacious a basketball player as you will find. He may well get the chance to harass Holmgren a bit. Drew Timme will be seeing plenty of him, in any case. Furman transfer Noah Gurley is fundamentally sound but somewhat limited athletically. Those three have logged nearly 100% of the post minutes thus far.
SSF: Considering this tempo is going to be run and gun, what is your score prediction?
I’d love to give the Tide the nod here and do think the players will be up for the challenge, but the Zags are likely a bridge too far at this stage, particularly on the road. I’ll go with Gonzaga, 88-76.