Vanderbilt Commodores (13-4, 2-0 SEC) at Alabama Crimson Tide (13-4, 2-1)
Where: Coleman Coliseum (15,383), Tuscaloosa, Ala.
When: Thursday, 6 p.m. CST
TV: ESPN2, ESPN3
Radio: Nashville: 97.1 FM
Rankings: Neither team is ranked
Warren Nolan RPI: Alabama 23, VU 32
The line: Alabama by 6.5 (over-under of 123.5)
Sagarin prediction:Alabama by 9
Pomeroy prediction: Alabama 65, VU 57 (Vanderbilt has a 22 percent chance to win)
Series record: Alabama leads 66-64, VU has won the last two games, including the last meeting in Tuscaloosa
The Southeastern Conference's second-winningest program all-time with respect to conference games hasn't been to an NCAA Tournament since 2006, but that should change this year. The Crimson Tide were ranked 17th in ESPN's preseason poll, and 19th in the AP's and though they've since fallen out, a 13-4 mark with several quality wins to this point have them in a position to return this year.
Credit second-year coach Anthony Grant for engineering a quick turn-around. Alabama had four consecutive losing seasons in SEC play until he took over last year, leading 'Bama to a 12-4 overall record in league play. The 'Tide just missed the NCAA Tournament - undeservedly so, in the minds of many.
This team is built around three stars: point guard Trevor Releford, wing Tony Mitchell, and center JaMychal Green, a sophomore, junior and senior, respectively.
Releford came to Alabama as an under-recruited, heady freshman last year, and led the 'Tide in scoring (15.4) in its five-game NIT run last season. The Kansas native plays with a great deal of mental toughness and is good at getting in the lane and scoring. He's not much of an outside shooter (25 percent, eight makes) but he commits only one turnover per 14.3 minutes played and leads the team with 28 steals, it's hard to complain about much.
Mitchell is probably the team's best athlete, and is really a small forward forced to play the power spot because 'Bama doesn't have much in the way of height. One of the league's better dunkers, Mitchell leads the team in minutes (32.3), rebounds (7.5), blocks (25), 3-pointers made (20) and 3-point percentage (33.3).
Green was a first-team preseason All-SEC pick, and perhaps the team's best player. Though undersized as a center, he makes up for it with physical play and quickness, and was Team USA's second-leading scorer in the World Games last summer (12.6 ppg). He's tied with Releford for the team lead in field goal percentage (54), leads the team with 25 blocks, and has displayed his versatility by dishing out 33 assists to 32 turnovers - good figures for a post player in the latter area, for sure.
Grant had an outstanding recruiting class last year that produced a pair of starters this year in freshmen Levi Randolph and Trevor Lacey, as well as its top two reserves in Rodney Cooper and Nick Jacobs.
Randolph and Lacey, four- and five-star recruits, respectively, play alongside Releford in the backcourt. The versatile Lacey is the only two-time Mr. Basketball in Alabama history, averaging 31.2 points per game last year. He's posted respectable numbers for a freshman, shooting 42 percent from the field and posting a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. In 'Bama's SEC opener vs. Georgia, he scored 19 points.
Randolph, whom Vanderbilt wanted badly, came to Tuscaloosa with a reputation as a poor shooter, but is hitting just 39 percent from the floor and 21 percent from 3. But he's helped in other ways, committing only 15 turnovers against 36 assists.
Cooper also came in with a reputation as a shooter, but is hitting just 38 percent from the field. The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Jacobs is a skilled offensive player who can block shots (18 in 309 minutes).
Reserve guard Charles Hankerson has also gotten key minutes as a backcourt reserve, but hasn't played the last two games.
What Alabama does well
According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ratings, 'Bama's defense is the fourth-best in America, with the third-best effective field goal percentage defense. A key to this is that the 'Tide allows opponents to shoot just 26 percent from 3-point range, which is second-best in America, and they're also a good team at blocking shots and getting steals. Alabama also shoots well from the line (71 percent) and from two-point range (54 percent).
Where Alabama struggles
As good as Alabama is at 3-point defense, it's almost that bad offensively, shooting 27 percent from long-distance and averaging just 3.8 made baskets per game behind the arc. The 'Tide isn't a particularly-tall team (Green is the tallest player who plays meaningful minutes), though it hasn't really seemed to hurt.
How Vanderbilt matches up
Playing with poise against a noisy crowd and tough defense are going to be key on Thursday evening, and the 'Dores appear to have what it takes on both levels. That starts with point guard Brad Tinsley will be a big key in this game, and Tinsley is quietly having a super last month as a player. In the last eight games, he's hit at least half his shots from the field each contest, missed just one of his 15 free throws, and has recorded a stunning 47 assists to just 11 turnovers in that stretch.
There are several intriguing matchups on other levels. Watching how 'Bama is able to contain - or not contain -- John Jenkins is also a big storyline. Jenkins is hitting 45 percent of his 3-point shots, and will present a challenge for 'Bama's stellar perimeter defense at a level it probably hasn't yet seen.
The Mitchell vs. Jeffery Taylor tilt will be another worth watching. The two are very similar in style and ability, and may wind up guarding each other. Taylor's had a fantastic year and has been a consistent scorer (double-figures in all but one game), but valuing the possession will be critical in this game, and VU can't afford a five- or six-turnover game from Taylor as he's prone to doing from time to time.
VU's Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang are suited for the kind of hard-nosed basketball game we'll see on Thursday, but both need to stay out of foul trouble. VU also needs to get some assertiveness from Ezeli, who's scored in double-figures just once in his seven games and is averaging just 3.4 shots from the field over his last five.
Tinsley gets lost in the team's other stars, but he's been lights-out lately, and his outstanding play in taking care of the ball and distributing it has had a lot to do with this teams' turn-around. I think that Ezeli and Tchiengang can help neutralize 'Bama in the paint a bit, so long as they stay out of foul trouble, and the pair have really helped VU become a good defensive team.
The difference, as I see it, is VU's ability to make shots. Tinsley, Taylor and Jenkins are all better shooters than anyone 'Bama has, and while it'll probably be a low-scoring game, it could come down to which team can make one more shot. I think Vandy has a definite edge there, and that, coupled with the fact that VU has been a pretty good road team the last two or three years, is why I'm going to go out on a bit of a limb and call for an upset.
Chris' prediction (12-4, 5-7 vs. the spread): Vanderbilt 61, Alabama 60