No. 14 Tennessee and No. 19 Alabama head into their Southeastern Conference opener Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala., from totally different perspectives.
While the Volunteers (9-2) are coming off their best win of the season, a 77-73 decision on Dec. 22 over then-unbeaten and sixth-ranked Arizona, the Crimson Tide (9-3) haven’t played since enduring a 79-78 upset loss in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 21 against unranked Davidson.
“Not exactly what we wanted going into Christmas break,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said, “but I am all about a wake-up in order to pick up the defense.”
Oats and Tide fans are hoping the alarm rings loud and clear for this one.
Their team hasn’t been the same since a wild 83-82 win over then-No. 14 Houston on Dec. 11. Alabama was blown out 92-78 at Memphis on Dec. 14 and struggled past Jacksonville State 65-59 on Dec. 18. Then the Tide allowed Davidson to sink 12 of 24 from 3-point range.
It was a game Alabama didn’t have to play. The matchup was sought after No. 20 Colorado State canceled due to COVID-19 issues, and Davidson became available after Loyola-Chicago had to cancel its scheduled game against the Wildcats.
Veteran Davidson coach Bob McKillop made a point of thanking Oats for agreeing to play the game on such short notice. That didn’t make Oats feel any better about what he viewed.
“We’re not going to be able to win games in the SEC on a high level until we decide we’re going to guard much better than we did (against Davidson),” he said. “We really lost the game on the defensive end.”
The Tide are allowing opponents to hit just 43.1 percent of their shots, but four of their five December opponents have scored at least 79 points. Alabama has been potent on offense, scoring 82.9 points per game for the season, which ranks among the nation’s best.
Jaden Shackelford has been the top scorer in a balanced attack, averaging 16.8 points per game and sinking 41.4 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Meanwhile, Tennessee is riding the momentum of an excellent defensive performance, when it held Arizona 17 points under its season average. The Volunteers also used their experience to spread out the Wildcats’ defense and create one-on-one matchups for post player John Fulkerson, who produced a season-high 24 points and matched a season best with 10 rebounds.
Fulkerson was so difficult to guard that he drew 13 of the 28 fouls Arizona committed. Three starters for the Wildcats fouled out, mostly because of him.
“I’d love to see that Fulky every day,” Fulkerson said in a third-person reference. “That’s how the game goes. Just keep being aggressive.”
He had help. Three of his teammates hit for double figures, including Santiago Vescovi with 15, Josiah-Jordan James with 12 points and Justin Powell with 11. An 18-12 advantage from the foul line made the difference for the Volunteers.
Freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler leads Tennessee with averages of 14 points and 5.3 assists per game, while Vescovi averages 13.3 points and leads the squad with 30 3-pointers.
Volunteers coach Rick Barnes isn’t fooled by Alabama’s recent struggles.
“You think about some of their wins and how they’re capable of playing, and we know they’re explosive and can put up some numbers,” he said.
The Tide own an 81-70 lead in the all-time series, taking matchups last season at Knoxville in the regular season and at Nashville in the SEC tournament.
–Field Level Media