Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports
Tomorrow, the Alabama Crimson Tide will be tasked with what the experts deem to be impossible. They will be looking to accomplish something that fourteen other teams tried and failed to do this season. They are making the trek to Gainesville to take on Florida at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in an early morning tip at 11 C.T.
Florida has been far from unbeatable this year, but they have been exactly that at home.
Alabama enters the game fighting for their tournament lives with each dribble of the basketball, and each second that ticks off the clock towards Selection Sunday; a date which is just a little over two weeks away.
Alabama has a resume devoid of quality wins, and the game in Gainesville presents the Crimson Tide with one final opportunity to earn one in the regular season. Florida is a Top-5 RPI team at the moment, and if the Crimson Tide can do what seems impossible, then it could possibly punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
Alabama will also be looking to earn a tie for first place in the SEC as they currently sit just a single game behind the first-place Gators. With Florida’s loss to Tennessee on Tuesday, the Crimson Tide once again controlled its own destiny in the SEC Championship race. The Tide has not won a regular season conference title since 2002.
So, what does Alabama have to do in order to pull what would be nothing short of a massive upset? Here are the keys to beating the Gators:
Make it Ugly
Winning ugly has become as much of a staple of Alabama basketball as “Face Guy” Jack Blankenship. Alabama ranks 270th in the country in points per game at 63.5, which is nearly a full 10 points fewer than what Florida averages.
The Crimson Tide will not be confused with playing basketball that appeals to the senses, but in SEC play at least, they have gotten results in spite of their offensive deficiencies. They have put together an 11-4 mark in the conference, which is second only to the Gators. Alabama had an eight game stretch in which they failed to score more than 60 points, but somehow they were able to win six of those contests.
How is that possible? Defense. In fifteen SEC games, Alabama has given up 60+ points only three times. They are 1-2 in those games, with the lone victory coming at Coleman Coliseum against Tennessee in January.
Sure, some of Alabama’s defensive success can be attributed to the bevy of ugly offensive teams in the SEC, but there is no question that Alabama is one of the better defensive teams in the country, and have been since Anthony Grant arrived in Tuscaloosa.
To beat Florida, the Crimson Tide has to slow the game down and play it at their pace; not Florida’s. Letting this turn into a fast-paced, high-scoring game is a recipe for defeat. Alabama can’t score with Florida; not many teams can. The Gators have not lost a game this season in which they scored 70+ points. They scored under that mark in all five of their losses.
Alabama needs to keep this game in their comfort range of the 50s and 60s in order to have a chance to knock off Florida. If they let this game become a track meet, then they don’t have a prayer.
Force Turnovers and Get Easy Baskets
Florida’s offense is one of the best in the conference, but their defense is one of the best in the country. They are 3rd in the nation in opponents points per game, giving up only 53.5 points per game. That’s not skewed in any way, either, because they are also 3rd in adjusted defense in the Pomeroy ratings.
Considering how much Alabama’s offense has struggled this year, they figure to struggle mightily in the half court against the ballyhooed Florida defense. Teams are shooting under 38 percent from the field against them, so the Crimson Tide has to figure out a way to get some easy baskets.
Alabama comes up with nine steals per game on the season, and they need as many as possible in order to win this game. In a perfect world, Florida will struggle against Alabama’s pressure defense, and Alabama will get steals that lead to easy hoops. Florida is an experienced bunch, however, and it will be hard to rattle them in front of their home crowd.
Conversely, Alabama must take care of the ball in order to keep Florida from getting run-outs and easy baskets at the rim.
Hopefully, with such an early tip, the Florida crowd will be a bit lackluster and unenergized. If not, the easiest way to shut up a raucous home crowd is by knocking down some early shots. Alabama needs to get hot early, and stay that way for the remainder of the game.
Alabama needs to shoot the lights out in the O’Connell Center. They need to hit nearly everything they look at, and hope Florida has an off night from the floor. If Alabama can get hot early and build a good early lead, then maybe they can hang onto it for the remainder of the afternoon.
They absolutely cannot afford to let the Gators open up a sizable advantage early in the game, because you don’t want to be chasing Florida all day on their home court. Alabama doesn’t want to spend this whole game playing catch up.
Releford Must Play Like the SEC Player of the Year
Trevor Releford has been playing better than anyone in the conference over the last few games, and he is positioning himself for consideration for the SEC’s Player of the Year award. He needs to play like the SEC Player of the Year in the hostile environment in Gainesville.
If Releford can come out hot like he has the last few games, then the rest of the team can follow his lead, and they can hopefully build some early confidence. If Releford is playing well early, then maybe the rest of the guys will start to believe they have a serious chance of getting the win.
It will also be nice if Trevor Lacey played like he started the season. In the first few games, it looked like Lacey was blossoming into the superstar we all know he has the potential to be. Since then, however, Lacey has struggled. The torrid pace he began the season on has fizzled, and he hasn’t looked like himself since then.
If Lacey can have a big game to go along with Releford, then Alabama is tough for anyone to beat no matter where the game is played. Those two make up 43 percent of Alabama’s scoring output this season.
Winning in Gainesville is a tall order for anyone, but it is especially so for a team like Alabama that hasn’t fared well in road games this year. The Crimson Tide has compiled a 4-6 record in true road games this season, with all four wins coming against teams with losing records.
To be fair, Alabama had every opportunity to win road games at Tennessee and LSU, they just weren’t able to make plays at the end of the games in order to polish off wins; too often snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Winning this game will take a lot of things going in Alabama’s favor. It’ll take an inordinately high field goal percentage for the Tide, and an inordinately low field goal percentage for the Gators. It’ll take lots of Florida turnovers, and very few by the Crimson Tide. It’ll take a lot of good fortune; a lot of the ball bouncing just the right way in the Tide’s favor, and some luck.
It’ll take Alabama’s best game of the season. And even then, that may not be enough to overcome as much adversity as they will face in this tough road environment. Nothing will be given to them on Saturday; they’ll have to earn it if they want to walk out with a win.
Then again, an Alabama upset of Florida in Gainesville would fit perfectly with the narrative of this wacky college basketball season.
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