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Hoops Preview: What version of Alabama will Missouri see?

The Crimson Tide are capable of knocking off Kentucky and blowing a lead to Georgia State. Bama’s blend of youth and experience is a boon — if its engaged when the ball is tipped against the Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Alabama
Senior forward Donta Hall churns out double-doubles and might be Alabama’s most reliable cog.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

What will be mercurial Alabama’s mood when it takes on Missouri?

Will it be the focused bunch that fended off the Ja Morant-led Murray State and felled Kentucky in its SEC opener? Or will the Crimson Tide’s attention drift away as it did in a 16-point loss to Northeastern? Or will Avery Johnson’s program showcase both sides of its personality, as it did in blowing a 22-point lead to Georgia State?

For MU, volatility is part and parcel of a rebuild that’s just now truly underway. Even then, it’s easy to trace its root cause: When Jeremiah Tilmon sits, matters get dicey in a hurry. What’s not in doubt, though, is the Tigers’ engagement, energy level and tenacity — no matter what lineup combination coach Cuozno Martin rolls out on to the floor.

Explanations, however, aren’t so convenient when it comes to their visitors from Tuscaloosa.

On Tuesday, Joe Lunardi’s updated bracket showed the Tide lurking on the fringes of the bubble, among the next four teams to miss the cut for an at-large bid. As I wrote in The Watch, Johnson’s mastered the art and science of assembling a schedule to keeps his team in the conversation. Look no further than Alabama’s upset of Kentucky, which offsets a pair of losses to quality mid-majors that might earn automatic bids out of their respective conferences.

Four years into Johnson’s tenure, we also have a good sense for the Tide’s rhythm. They will drop a non-conference game to a team on the borderline of KenPom’s top 100 and pair it with a head-scratching loss to a team near the SEC cellar. The question is whether the second box has its check mark. Against Texas A&M, Bama squandered a 10-point halftime lead and saw Texas A&M walk off on T.J. Starks’ banked-in 3-pointer at the horn.

With that collapse out of their system, maybe the Tide will proceed to finish 9-9 — and eat up some time as the selection committee debates the merits of their resume. It’s not an unfamiliar problem, either. Last season, Alabama needed a closing sprint to the finals of the SEC tournament to offset sub-.500 conference record and a five-game losing streak to close the regular season.

Given that Johnson’s only sporting a .473 win percentage in SEC play, one wonders how Alabama’s administration will view the one-time NBA Coach of the Year ahead of his fifth season in T-Town.

Fortune smiled on Johnson when Kira Lewis Jr., the No. 30 prospect in the nation, committed in early August and announced he was reclassifying to start his college career earlier than expected. Without him, Alabama’s chances of survival after Collin Sexton’s inevitable jump to the NBA would have been more dire.

In fact, you could have made a plausible case in the preseason that life after Sexton wouldn’t be bleak at all. Lewis signed on to a core of veterans in Dazon Ingram, Donta Hall and Riley Norris, a sophomore duo in John Petty and Herbert Jones on the cusp of breaking out, and a high-profile transfer in Tevin Mack. All the while, Johnson inked the 18th best recruiting class for 2019, according to 247 Sports.

Assessing Bama leaves you slightly disoriented. The on-court results hint that Johnson’s standing should be more tenuous. At the same time, he’s importing enough talent that there’s always a lingering sense of optimism.

Usually, losing in the fashion Alabama did last weekend is a low ebb in a season. For the Tide, it’s the second time in five weeks that an opponent climbed out of a hole to win as the clock struck zero. Is it the byproduct of the Tide’s youth? Is it inattention to detail? Is it Johnson’s system? Is it a potpourri of all those factors?

Whatever the mix, the Crimson Tide oscillate wildly, and they seem destined to zigzag their way to a middle of the pack finish after being picked seventh in the media’s preseason poll. Circuitous route aside, we know the expectation is reasonable: a return to the NCAA tournament, which would be the first time a dozen seasons the program made back-to-back forays into March Madness.

The Tide has certainly flashed its potential, but they’ve also given you ample reasons for doubt.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Louisiana State
Freshman point guard Kira Lewis leads the way with 14.7 points per game and has helped to Tide transition after Collin Sexton’s one-and-done campaign in Tuscaloosa.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (9-6, 0-3 SEC) Texas A&M (7-8, 1-3 SEC)
Position Missouri (9-6, 0-3 SEC) Texas A&M (7-8, 1-3 SEC)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) TJ Starks (So., 6-2, 196)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Wendell Mitchell (Jr., 6-3, 185)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Brandon Mahan (So. 6-5, 200)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Savion Flagg (So., 6-7, 217)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Christian Mekowulu (Sr., 6-8, 245)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | In back-to-back losses, the Tigers’ offense hasn’t been the culprit. (MU is putting 1.03 PPP over the last five games.) Sure, a 24-4 drought against Tennessee weights your efficiency down, but the Vols are currently a fully operational doomsday machine. What hasn’t slackened is Mizzou’s mask imperfect lineups by raining down 3-pointers. Given the Tide rank 12th in the SEC for defending catch-and-shoot 3s (37.8 3FG%), I don’t expect MU to tweak the blend of its offense.

How they create those shots will be interesting, though. Bama’s guard all do a bang-up job communicating and understanding what Johnson wants them to do in pick-and-roll coverage, especially those run at the top of the circle — a spot where 76.9 percent of Mizzou’s ball-screens that ended in a pass began. While MU does run side pick-and-rolls, they’ve found success (1.571 PPP) doing it on the right wing — all of 17 possessions’ worth.

Now, Missouri has other sets in its arsenal, but the most conventional way of collapsing a defense — middle penetration, jumbled help responsibilities and guards stunting in — might not be an option. So, once again, having Tilmon available as a passer of out the post would be a boon.

Finally, there’s the matter of live-ball turnovers.

Like Tilmon’s foul trouble, they remain an evergreen source of angst. When you drill down, though, there’s a reasonable explanation: MU coughs up the ball against teams that are good at extending their defense. Jordan Geist’s improvements are noticeable — he’s curbed his turnover rate against elite teams by six percentage points — but still crop up. Then there’s fact MU is using a true freshman in Xavier Pinson (28.2 TOV%) as a secondary ball-handler. But I’d also point to the fact that with Jeremiah Tilmon (27.6 TOV%), K.J. Santos (36.8 TOV%) and Reed Nikko (37.1 TOV%) aren’t exactly sure-handed when they’re on the floor.

Maybe Alabama ratchets up its pressure tonight, but they haven’t profiled as a group stalking passing lanes or stripping bigs on the block. We’ll see if MU’s turnover count ticks down as a result. Long-term, though, the only resolution is getting Pinson seasoned, Dru Smith eligible and see what Mario McKinney Jr. provides when he shows up on campus.

Alabama Defense | This isn’t the caliber of defense we expect from Johnson’s group, which has finished in the top 20 each of the past two seasons for adjusted efficiency, per KenPom. So far, the Tide ranks 224th nationally and last in the SEC for defending in the half court, according to Synergy.

As a team, Alabama will give up its share of three-point attempts, but it doesn’t help that Lewis, Ingram and Mack will occasionally watch a shooter blow-by them after they’ve rushed out to the 3-point line. There also times where Hall, Giddens and Galen Smith don’t tag their man after coming out to defend a pick-and-roll. Finally, if you’re going to post up Tilmon, he’s had success attacking Hall and Giddens on the right side of the lane.

Playing through Tilmon and Jontay Porter was a formula for success last season, while Kassius Robertson’s 22 points carried the water for MU’s backcourt. Now, Geist and Mark Smith have slid into premier roles on the wing, but having Pickett pick up where left off against South Carolina might evenly distribute the production.

Missouri offense vs. Texas A&M defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 106.0 (120) 18.8 (322) 51.3 (165) 21.0 (289) 31.4 (84) 31.9 (224) 39.1 (20) 46.2 (290) 68.4 (231) 9.7 (201) 7.9 (79)
Texas A&M 100.6 (117) 16.4 (38) 47.9 (73) 18.5 (207) 33.1 (322) 31.2 (123) 33.1 (127) 46.6 (50) 66.2 (41) 14.9 (13) 8.8 (179)

When Alabama has the ball...

Alabama Offense | The Tide are consistently inconsistent. When you look at the statistical profiles of each player, what stands out is how much each has stayed the same. Petty remains reliant on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Despite having an offseason to flesh out his game, Herbert Jones is an abyss offensively (0.722 PPP), redeemed only being a steady defensive stopper. Hall is a double-double machine who thrives as a roll, dunker in the short corner, rim runner in transition and a high-motor rebounder.

The Tide’s wings, however, shot roughly 53.3 percent around the rim and generate a little under nine points a game. On top of that, only Lewis is reliable pushing the ball in transition, while shots taken by Hall, Alex Reese and Daniel Giddens out of post-ups net just 0.586 PPP, which ranks 348th in Division I, per Synergy Sports.

Add it all up and the Tide — outside of Hall — struggle at times to generate high-percentage shots around the rim. What they can do, however, is generate trips to the line.

When the offense is humming, Lewis is attacking out of ball screens and driving on closeouts with the option to dish the ball off to Hall or pitching it out to Petty, Mack and Ingram. Yet Mack, who arrived from Texas, hasn’t been able to string together a run of good games, cracking the 20-point mark just twice and failing to eclipse 12 points in the other 13. And it’s a problem when Ingram has a lower usage rate than Jones, who generates 14 fewer points per 100 possessions.

It’s what makes the Tide tantalizing and maddening. They have all requisite members of an orchestra, one that doesn’t always read the shoot music at the same time.

Missouri Defense | Given the Tide’s reliance on Hall as their source of paint production, having Tilmon available for long stretches is crucial. Aside from rim protection, Tilmon’s a 6-foot-11 impediment keeping Hall, who ranks second in the SEC for defensive-rebound percentage and 12th in offensive-rebound percentage, from crunching MU on the backboards. Finally, we saw in the second half last season at Tuscaloosa that Tilmon’s capable of besting Hall when solo covered on the block.

Through two games, nearly 60 percent of points allowed by the Tigers are the result of dunks, layups and free-throws. They don’t need to make it easy for Alabama by having Tilmon consigned to a folding chair near the end of the bench.

Nearly halfway through the season, Missouri’s shown it can runs teams off the 3-point arc, which may force Petty, Ingram and Jones to make plays attacking closeouts. If that’s the case, the Tigers don’t give up better than 30-percent shooting on pull-up jumpers.

If Bama’s offense is a redux of last season, only with Lewis reprising Sexton’s role as sole creator, the Tigers have shown they can clamp down on Alabama’s personnel. Last season, the Tigers spread 13 fouls among Tilmon, Jontay Porter and Reed Nikko — managing to keep one obstruction planted in the paint all times. Do it again, and maybe you get the same result.

Missouri defense vs. Texas A&M offense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 99.5 (103) 18.0 (311) 50.1 (160) 19.6 (144) 27.8 (142) 33.9 (190) 32.9 (118) 50.6 (186) 67.6 (81) 5.2 (332) 7.2 (292)
Texas A&M 107.3 (96) 17.1 (148) 49.6 (222) 19.2 (196) 33.8 (38) 36.9 (100) 28.6 (338) 53.3 (95) 69.8 (186) 13.1 (338) 8.9 (185)

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 72, Alabama 70 | Deeming this game a must-win is probably overstating its importance, but it is one where the opponent is as almost as young and inconsistent as the Tigers. For Missouri to get in spitting distance of breaking even in SEC play, they need to hold fast on their home floor. Having Tilmon log more than 20 minutes is the barometer for how this game might unfold. If he’s parked on the bench, Mizzou’s small-ball rotations, which have been used heavily the past three games, are going to be strained.