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Hoops Preview: Missouri can cement itself as a contender with a win over Alabama

Alabama is likely coasting toward the SEC crown. Can Missouri at least trip them up on the way?

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Oklahoma Bryan Terry-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of SEC play, we framed the conference-opening battle between Tennessee and Missouri as the early meeting of the giants. At the time, it seemed appropriate — both were ranked in the top 15, and very few other SEC teams had emerged as real contenders.

At the time Alabama ranked 55th in KenPom, a middling team with a lackluster 5-3 non-conference record and no real wins of substance. Since then, of course, the Crimson Tide have ripped off a perfect 10-0 start in SEC play, vaulting into their current status as a consensus top 10 team.

Since that first meeting, Tennessee and Missouri haven’t floundered, but they’ve fallen victim to the rigors of a grueling conference slate. That’s not a reflection on them, however. Alabama is the only team that hasn’t. However, due to their split meetings and one fewer tick in the loss column, Missouri finds itself all alone in the second spot, just one slip up away from joining the dog pile of five or six teams all jockeying for the positions just behind the leader.

Then again, squaring up with Alabama isn’t just about SEC standings anymore. Over the past few weeks, Missouri’s once sterling resume has taken the slightest of hits as teams like Oregon and Wichita State have faltered, making those wins a little less shiny. It hasn’t hurt the Tigers yet, as most pundits still have them as a 3 to 5 seed in the coming NCAA tournament. But a loss would cause some re-evaluation to be done, a process that may not look kindly on the Tigers. On the other hand, a triumph would vault the Tigers up a notch, cementing their status as one of the country’s best teams and giving them another undisputed Quad 1 win.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (12-3) Alabama (15-4)
Position Missouri (12-3) Alabama (15-4)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Jaden Shackelford (So., 6'3", 200)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) John Petty (Sr., 6'5", 184)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Joshua Primo (Fr., 6'6", 190)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Herbert Jones (Sr., 6'8", 210)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Alex Reese (Sr., 6'9", 230)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Few teams this season have been able to match Missouri’s experience, something that has seemed so vital to its success in the pandemic-ridden year. Alabama can, however, and may have the pure talent edge as well.

Senior forward Herbert Jones is looking like a front runner for SEC Player of the Year with his above-average play on both ends. He’s not shooting a lot of threes, but hits at near 50 percent. He’s not nearly as efficient from close-range, but does excel at drawing fouls and hitting from the free throw line. He’s also a versatile defender, just as likely to swipe the ball as block it. John Petty — yes, he’s still playing — qualifies as the team’s most pure scorer, shooting a 60 percent true shooting percentage, including just under 40 percent from deep. Alex Reese plays a more traditional big man role, but is still a willing shooter from deep and a threat around the rim.

It’s not all seniors, though, as Nate Oats has plenty of younger pieces to play with. Juniors Keon Ellis and James Rojas play reserve minutes, but both offer something. The latter is a ferocious defensive rebounder even if he struggles with fouls. And Ellis is another knock-down shooter off the bench, even if his struggles elsewhere keep him limited. Sophomores Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford also help supplement the starting lineup with some younger faces. Quinerly is the defacto point guard who plays solid defense, can drive to the rim and draw contact and shoot jumpers at a good clip. Shackelford isn’t as much of a creator, but he too excels around the rim, using his bigger frame to collect trips to the line. Believe it or not, he too can shoot the three a little bit.

Finally, Oats utilizes two freshmen, one frequently and the other sparlingly. Joshua Primo gets the nod with the starters quite a bit, and he should be a terror in the SEC for the next few years. He’s not as physical or involved down low as a wing might be, but he shoots very well and plays solid defense. Missouri may be able to turn him over, but Alabama also doesn’t overexpose him with possession. Juwan Gary (pictured below) gets some clean up minutes and struggles with fouls, but he’s a tenacious defender with the athletic ability to be a frustrating player for opposing bigs.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Alabama 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 111.7 (32) 16.5 (101) 51 (131) 18.8 (147) 30 (107) 41.9 (15) 31 (274) 53.6 (53) 70.8 (164) 12.4 (335) 8.6 (125)
Alabama 87.6 (3) 17.5 (247) 44.8 (14) 20.9 (83) 29 (214) 31.2 (155) 30.3 (53) 44.5 (22) 69.8 (144) 9.9 (106) 11.5 (32)
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Create contact and second chances

Alabama’s defense ranks third in the country in adjusted efficiency, but that’s a reflection of their general quality rather than one or two areas boosting their numbers. The Tide follow the Missouri school of defense in the sense that they force a lot of tough shots. After that, though, there are ways they can be beat. Notably, they’re below average in both preventing offensive rebounds and creating fouls. While the prospect of offensive rebounds and trips to the free throw line isn’t sexy, it could prove to be a winning formula. Missouri will need to be strong on the offensive glass, and unafraid to attack the basket... and hope the refs are feeling generous.

When Alabama has the ball...

Alabama Offense vs. Missouri 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%
Alabama 113 (23) 14.2 (3) 52 (88) 18.6 (138) 30.3 (100) 30.4 (199) 35.5 (93) 50.9 (132) 71.4 (149) 13.1 (341) 11.1 (318)
Missouri 93.9 (43) 17.2 (177) 46.6 (45) 17.7 (257) 29.2 (220) 35.8 (269) 30.5 (57) 47.1 (86) 68.6 (100) 8.5 (168) 8.5 (215)
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Can Missouri slow the pace?

Alabama’s offense, surprisingly enough, is top 25 in the country, but fails to rank better than 88th in any meaningful category... except for pace. The Tide play the third fastest pace in the country, covering up for their deficiencies by measure of putting up lots of shots. That’s especially true of threes — Alabama ranks in the top 20 in both three-pointers per field goal attempt and point distribution consisting of threes. Maybe it would surprise you to know that Alabama is only 93rd in actual three-point percentage, but they’re going to chuck up quite a few.

Maybe the best way to counteract this is for Missouri to grind the pace to where they want it. The Tigers are comfortable playing faster, but Alabama lives off of their pace. If Missouri can force the number of possessions to 70 or below. Alabama will have to find a way to create rhythm and hit at a higher clip than usual. This could also help offset Missouri’s recent struggles defending the perimeter, something Alabama will be all too eager to exploit.

KenPom predicts...

Alabama 77, Missouri 74 | By KenPom’s metrics, Illinois is still the best team Missouri has played this year, but Alabama is a close second. The Tide are relentless on offense, good-to-great on defense and run out an experienced, athletic roster. They’ve likely got the SEC regular season title wrapped up, but a win would both hand the Tide their first conference loss and assure that Missouri at least has an outside chance at catching them. They’ll need to put together one of their more complete efforts to get it done.