Alabama faces tough challenge at Tennessee

Alabama basketball begins a difficult two-game stretch against Tennessee.

In a preview meeting with reporters on Friday, Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats referred to both Wednesday’s home game against Auburn and Saturday’s game against Tennessee as “a big stretch for us.” Next week’s game against the Tigers is going to be very important. Will that be because Bama is desperate following a second straight defeat to the Vols in Knoxville, or will it be because the Crimson Tide enters the game fresh off a victory over Tennessee, ranked sixth?

But for the time being, Auburn has to be set aside. Playing on the road against one of the top teams in the country is the current task.

Tennessee, rated sixth overall with a 13-4 record with a 3-1 SEC record, and Alabama, ranked 12-5 overall with a 4-0 SEC record and votes received but not in the nation’s top 25, will square off at UT’s Food City Center at 2:00 p.m. EST/1 p.m. central time on ESPN2.

One of the few teams that can compete with Alabama’s non-conference schedule is Tennessee. As the high points of pre-conference play, both teams fell to Purdue at neutral sites, while Alabama suffered defeats at Creighton and in Phoenix against Arizona. The Vols also defeated Syracuse, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Illinois, North Carolina State, and Purdue. They also suffered losses to Kansas and North Carolina State. There are several standout victories there.

Mississippi State is the only conference opponent that both teams have in Starkville, where they play the Bulldogs. On January 10, Tennessee suffered a 77-72 defeat; four days later, on Saturday, the Tide triumphed 82-74 on the road.

Alabama guard Mark Sears and Tennessee wing Dalton Knecht, last week’s SEC Co-Players of the Week, will square off on Saturday. The John R. Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list includes both of them. With 19.7 points per game, Sears leads the league in scoring, with Knecht coming in fourth at 18.5.

Oats addressed the 6-6 Knecht, who poses a unique issue, in great detail.

“We must take action regarding Knecht,” Oats declared. He’s one of the league’s best guards and is performing really well. But they have other people, so you can’t concentrate only on Dalton.

“But you must [pay attention to Knecht].”

Both claims appear to be accurate.

In the last three games, Knecht has tallied 103 points, including 35 against Georgia and 39 against Florida.

In terms of points scored each game, the Vols’ other starting lineup includes:

Josiah-Jordan James, 9.7 ppg; Santiago Vescovi, 7.4 ppg; Zakai Zeigler, 10.3 ppg (and team-leading 5 assists); and 6-11, 240-pound big Jonas Aidoo, 11.6 ppg (and team-leading 7.5 rebounds per game).

Yes, it is correct.

Vescovi was among the SEC’s top players the previous season.

They are among the top teams in the nation, strong both offensively and defensively, according to Oats.

Alabama is dealing with a few injuries.

While Mohamed Wague, an interior player, has been healing from a foot ailment, Sears experienced an ankle problem in Bama’s most recent game against Missouri.

Sears has been able to practice, according to Oats. Though not at 100%, he is nonetheless available.

Wague hasn’t been able to practice “much,” but he is “kind of available,” according to him.

The 6-11, 230-pound forward Grant Nelson (12.6 ppg, team-leading 5.8 rebounds per game) and the 6-10, 220-pound forward Wague (5.1 ppg) have been alternating inside.

Guards that accompany Sears are 6-6 Rylan Griffen, who Oats refers to as the Tide’s best perimeter defender but who has been on a recent offensive tear that included 5-7 three-pointers and a career-high 21 points in the Tide’s most recent game, a 93-75 victory over Missouri. Aaron Estrada, 6-3, averages 13.5 points per game and leads the team in assists per game. Griffen scores 10.4 points per game on average.

Other players that are available and seeing action lately include 6-10 forward Sam Walters (6.4 ppg), 6-11 forward Jarin Stevenson (5.4 ppg), and 6-3 guard Latrell Wrightsell (7.7 ppg), who recorded a career-high 19 points in Bama’s most recent road game against Mississippi State.

Alabama enters the game ahead of its opponent in points scored but also in points allowed, as is often the case. Tennessee scores 79.1, gives up 66, plus 13.1 points, while the Tide averages 90.2 points a game and allows 73, a margin of 16.3.

Alabama is grabbing 39.5 rebounds per game compared to 32.8 for its opponents + 6.6. The Vols score 40 points a game and give up 34.3, for a 5.7 advantage.

In terms of assists per game (17.1–15.9), blocked shots (4.8–4.3), steals (8–7.5), and turnovers (UT commits 11.3 per game, the Tide 12), Tennessee prevails.

Despite Alabama’s 82-71 series lead overall, Tennessee leads in Knoxville, 44-24.

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