By Michael Casagrande | AL.com
So, it’s officially late February and Alabama basketball hasn’t faded. The Crimson Tide is the No. 6 team in the AP poll -- its highest ranking since 2006 -- and it can clinch an SEC title Wednesday night.
This team is on a remarkable 14-2 stretch since opening the season 4-3 and now a No. 1 overall seed is not impossible. That’s notable since this program has just one win in the NCAA tournament in the past decade-plus and hasn’t been seeded in the top half of a regional bracket since 2005.
So, instead of watching the bubble, Alabama’s thinking about making an extended stay inside, well, the Indianapolis NCAA tournament bubble.
How viable are those expectations?
It depends on who you ask but coach Nate Oats last Friday said Alabama has the talent to push past the program’s previous high-water mark (making the 2004 Elite Eight) and challenge for the Final Four.
Let’s take a look at a few aspects of Alabama’s game and see what the analytics say about the Tide’s NCAA viability.
Live by it or die by it, right?
Alabama is making 10.9 shots from 3-point range every game to rank No. 4 nationally there. Consider the 80.9-point average is 15th-best nationally and it’s fair to assume the Tide gets a healthy chunk of its scoring from behind the arc.
Alabama gets 40.3% of its scoring on 3s, according to KenPom.com’s statistical database to rank 12th in that respect. The 3-point slice of the pie is only slightly smaller than the 2-pointers (41.6%) while foul shots account for the other 19.5%.
Drawing a straight line between those numbers and tournament success isn’t easy. Top-ranked and undefeated Gonzaga is No. 329 when ranking teams in terms of 3-point scoring percentage and Alabama’s the only big-name team anywhere near the top of those rankings. In fact, No. 1 Mississippi Valley State is just 1-17 this season.
Go back to the last Final Four and a familiar name rode a high reliance on 3-pointers to the final weekend. Auburn got 43.4% of its 2018-19 scoring from 3s when it made the national semifinals in Minneapolis.
And Villanova’s 2018 national title team -- one that beat Alabama in the NCAA second round -- got 40.2% of its scoring on 3s to rank 15th that year.
The 40.3% that Alabama currently has, in part, shows how Oats’ style transformed the way Alabama played. That number was 39.4% last year in Oats’ first season but just 29.9% the year before in Avery Johnson’s final year. That slice of the pie was as low as 25.8% in 2012-13 when Anthony Grant’s team narrowly missed an at-large bid to the tournament.
Layups and dunks
If it’s not a 3-pointer, Alabama’s practically always trying to score at the rim. Mid-range jumpers just aren’t in Oats’ vision for smart, efficient basketball.
That, however, is an area for concern when looking at tournament success.
Alabama is making just 56.8% of its shots near the rim, according to hoop-math.com. That’s good for No. 264 of the 347 Division I teams measured by the site and Alabama takes a decent number of those close-in shots. It is No. 49 in terms of the percentage of shots attempted near the rim at 42.1%.
That success rate at the rim is significant, as Sports Illustrated pointed out earlier in February. Since Hoop-Math.com started in 2011-12, all 16 teams who played for a national title shot better than 60% near the rim and all but one was above 64%. That was enough for SI to keep Alabama outside the top-8 contenders for a national title in the piece published Feb. 12.
The top three teams in the new AP poll are in the top 12 of field goal percentage at the rim while fourth-ranked Ohio State is No. 150 at 59.9%.
The Tide has been more slightly more accurate since then but the lack of size has an impact on the inside scoring efficiency. Injuries have been a factor since Jordan Bruner was shooting 76.7% at the rim before missing nine games (knee). Herbert Jones shoots almost exactly two-thirds of his shots at the rim and is making 50.4% of them while Jaden Shackelford is making 54.5% with 41.7% of his total coming in the paint. It’s also worth noting Alabama’s No. 351 nationally with getting 4.6 shots blocked per game and is fourth-worst (No. 344) in opponent block percentage (13.7%).
Through 23 games, Alabama’s played the 19th-hardest schedule in the nation, according to the NET rankings.
In terms of Quadrant 1 wins, Alabama’s seven (in 10 games) is up there with the best nationally. No. 1 Gonzaga is 7-0 in Quad 1 games while No. 7 Ohio State’s eight wins (in 12 games) are the most of anyone.
An 8 p.m. CT Wednesday game at Arkansas will be the 11th Quad 1 game for the Tide as the NET No. 26 Razorbacks enter on a hot streak. They’ve won seven straight SEC games since taking a brutal 90-59 loss in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 16.
Alabama doesn’t have any truly bad losses with setbacks against NET No. 19 Oklahoma, No. 38 Clemson, No. 57 Stanford and No. 76 Western Kentucky.
Often overlooked but crucially important, Alabama’s defense has improved greatly in Oats’ second season.
The Tide is No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency (88.2) on KenPom.com, slightly better than Gonzaga’s 88.8. It’s a considerable improvement over last season when Alabama was No. 114 at 99.5.
Coupled with the high-scoring offense, Alabama has a 10.4-point average margin of victory to rank second in the SEC and 37th nationally. Gonzaga and Baylor have 24-point average victory margins to lead the nation over No. 3 Houston’s 18.
A few other sites have Alabama near the top in defensive efficiency using slightly different formulas. The Tide is No. 6 on Barttorvik.com with Gonzaga second and Baylor fifth. And on Haslametrics.com, Alabama is No. 9 with Gonzaga and Baylor 1-2, according to that measure.
Jones is clearly the bell cow on that end as one of the nation’s premier defenders. He’s second on the team, however, in his signature charges drawn since Shackleford has 11 to his 10. Jones is one of only five players named to the midseason watchlists for both the Naismith national player of the year and the national defensive player of the year.
A few other things to consider
-- Sometimes you need to pull a comeback and Alabama’s had some experience there. The Dec. 15 win over Furman included the 43rd-biggest comeback of the season, according to KenPom. It nearly tied for fifth when getting within a point of Missouri in the closing seconds of a loss after trailing by as many as 21 points in the second half. The nation’s biggest comeback this year was 26 points when Colorado State won after falling behind by 26 at San Diego State. Of note, Alabama was on the wrong side of top-10 comebacks each of the last two years against Florida (up 21 in 2019-20) and Georgia State (up 22 in 2018-19).
-- Turnover percentage is a huge deal in football and clearly important on the hardwood too. Alabama is No. 150 nationally averaging 18.7 giveaways a game, a slight improvement from last year’s 19.1 per game that was 197th. Gonzaga, for reference, is No. 31 and Baylor is No. 84. On the bright side, Alabama’s coming off its lowest-turnover game of the season when it lost just nine possessions in Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt.
-- Alabama is 4-3 in games decided by five or fewer points, an improvement from being 4-7 in the same area last year. The only double-figure loss of Alabama’s season came in the second game, 82-64 to Stanford after dropping four by 10-plus last year.
-- Alabama’s scoring is well distributed so it’s not leaning on one player every night. Leading scorer Shackelford (14.5 points per game) is only 13th in the SEC in terms of individual scorers.