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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Alabama beat writer offers deeper look at Gonzaga’s Battle in Seattle opponent

Dec. 2, 2021 Updated Thu., Dec. 2, 2021 at 8:42 p.m.

Alabama coach Nate Oats talks to guards Jaden Shackelford and Keon Ellis, right, during last Friday’s game against Drake in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.  (Associated Press)
Alabama coach Nate Oats talks to guards Jaden Shackelford and Keon Ellis, right, during last Friday’s game against Drake in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Associated Press)

Gonzaga takes on its fourth ranked opponent of the young season in the first Battle in Seattle since 2015.

No. 16 Alabama (6-1) and the third-ranked Zags (7-1) tangle at 5 p.m. Saturday at Climate Pledge Arena. It’s the beginning of a tough three-game stretch for the SEC program. The Crimson Tide’s next two games are against No. 15 Houston (Dec. 11) and No. 18 Memphis (Dec. 14).

Alabama finished 26-7 last season, capturing its first SEC regular-season title since 2002. The second-seeded Crimson Tide lost to UCLA 88-78 in overtime in the Sweet 16. Gonzaga edged the Bruins 93-90 in overtime at the Final Four.

We connected with Mike Rodak, who covers Alabama basketball and football for, for an in-depth look at the Crimson Tide and Saturday’s clash of ranked teams.

S-R: Head coach Nate Oats has Alabama on the rise. What are some of the cornerstones of his program and how have the fans responded in his three seasons?

MR: Oats was a high school math teacher in Michigan who coached his school’s team to the state title and rose quickly through the college ranks. He’s a stats and analytics junkie who always comes to his postgame news conferences with a printout from a third-party analytics company that breaks down the game deeper for him.

The stats gurus say that shooting 3-pointers and layups are the most efficient way to win, so his philosophy has been to attempt at least 30 3-pointers a game and avoid as many midrange jumpers as possible. But getting good 3-point looks often means getting the defense in transition, which requires Alabama to play good defense itself and get stops or turnovers.

Because of that, Oats also preaches effort and hustle on defense and gives out a plastic hard hat after each game to whichever player has the most “blue-collar” points for taken charges, floor dives, etc., during each game as tracked by the staff. Alabama was third in the country in KenPom’s defensive efficiency last season and 28th this year, so they’re a lot more than a team that chucks up a lot of 3-pointers and does not defend.

S-R: Alabama has one of the top guard lines in the country with Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly, five-star recruit JD Davison and 6-foot-6 Keon Ellis, who is listed as a guard. Does Alabama play a lot of ‘small ball’ and what type of matchup problems do they present?

MR: Yes, they play mostly three-guard looks and will stretch it to four guards against some smaller opponents. Quinerly is in theory the point guard, but their offensive tempo – the 12th fastest in the country this year by KenPom – means whoever gets the ball is going to be pushing it up the court.

Shackelford and Ellis have been the two biggest threats from 3-point range this season, although Quinerly can get hot as well. Quinerly and Davison are both players who can get to the rim and finish as well as anyone in the SEC, although Davison has overall room for improvement as a freshman. Oats believes the points-per-possession stats favor having a bigger guard play against a smaller forward, so we might see some of that against Gonzaga.

S-R: The backcourt and wings have strong scoring, rebounding and assist numbers. How has the front court performed and what are Noah Gurley’s and Charles Bediako’s roles?

MR: That has been the bigger question mark this season after Alabama lost its two senior forwards from last season in Alex Reese and Jordan Bruner, and a do-it-all forward in Herb Jones to the NBA. Gurley, a transfer from Furman, started to begin the season but has come off the bench the past two games in favor of Juwan Gary, who is a stronger rebounder and improved scorer. Bediako, a 7-foot five-star freshman, has brought a shot-blocking presence in the paint that Oats did not have his first two seasons at Alabama. When he has played with intensity and aggression, Bediako has also been an offensive and rebounding force early this season.

If Bediako gets into foul trouble against Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme, Alabama will need to go to its bench more than it has this season. It has a 7-foot redshirt freshman in Alex Tchikou who missed last season with injury and has barely played this season, but he might need some minutes Saturday.

S-R: What’s at the top of Alabama’s scouting report for the Gonzaga game?

MR: Playing its brand of basketball. In Alabama’s only loss this season to Iona, Rick Pitino and his players did a great job of slowing down the game and limiting the Tide’s 3-point attempts. It was only the second time under Oats that Alabama has been held to fewer than 20 3-point shots, and the first time was also against Iona back in the NCAA Tournament in March.

There might be a blueprint from Pitino for other teams, including Gonzaga, to use. But beyond getting off 3-pointers and knocking them down, Alabama’s defense will need to handle the size and skill of the Zags’ front court. Bediako gives them a better shot at doing that than any other player Oats has coached, but they could use a second player underneath and might not have one.

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