No. 24 Alabama men’s basketball begins homestretch of SEC play with road test at Vanderbilt

Alabama assistant coach Antoine Pettway leads a pregame huddle before Alabama’s contest at Kentucky on Feb. 19, 2022.

Courtesy of UA Athletics

Alabama assistant coach Antoine Pettway leads a pregame huddle before Alabama’s contest at Kentucky on Feb. 19, 2022.

Austin Hannon, Staff Reporter

The Alabama Crimson Tide have four more conference games before the SEC and NCAA tournaments, and head coach Nate Oats has reached his breaking point.

On Saturday, the No. 24 Crimson Tide (17-10, 7-7) led the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats by 13 before allowing 90 points en route to another road loss conceded on the defensive end. Alabama knocked down 14 3-pointers on what was an overall good shooting night. The only thing that stood between the Crimson Tide and another impressive victory was the effort on the defensive end. 

Oats has had enough, declaring that he will do whatever it takes to find five guys who will play hard on defense, even if it means benching some of his star players.

“We’re not playing you if you’re not playing defense,” Oats said. “Period. We’ll figure the offense out. If you’re not going to play defense as well as you can, we’re not going to play you. If we put you in and you don’t play defense, we’re going to take you out for a long time — and possibly the rest of the game.”

Alabama has fallen off on defense. The Crimson Tide are now ranked 81st in defensive efficiency by KenPom, and only 11th in the SEC.

After scoring 81 points at Rupp Arena on Saturday, Alabama is 11th in the country in offensive efficiency, which makes the team second in the SEC.

Oats and his group know their potential, and they are focused on finishing the season strong to gain momentum for March.

“We’ve got some of the best wins in the country,” Oats said. “If we didn’t have some of the bad losses, we probably would be a four-seed. There’s a lot yet to be determined from now until the SEC tournament. That’s where our dedication is going.”

Guard Keon Ellis scored 28 on Saturday, knocking down seven 3-pointers. But it wasn’t enough because of the lack of resistance on defense.

“We all know what we’re capable of and what we can accomplish,” Ellis said. “It starts with yourself and buying into the team. We know we can make a run in March.”

The Alabama defense is going to be tested again Tuesday night as it travels to Nashville to take on the improving Vanderbilt Commodores (14-12, 6-8). The storied program has had issues winning in the league over the past few seasons, but head coach Jerry Stackhouse has the Commodores back on the rise.

A lot of the Commodores’ success has come from SEC-leading scorer Scotty Pippen Jr. The son of the former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen is averaging 19.5 points per game. Pippen Jr. was named SEC Preseason Player of the Year after averaging 20.5 points per game last season.

“He’s [Pippen is] a really talented player,” Oats said. “He gets to the free-throw line a lot. They run good stuff for him. They’ve also got him coming off off-ball screens. We’ve got to have some guys take some pride in their individual defensive effort.”

After snapping their three-game win streak in Lexington, the Crimson Tide will look to start a new one in Nashville, with home meetings against South Carolina and Texas A&M to follow. Alabama will finish its season in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a rematch against the LSU Tigers.

Tipoff from the historic Memorial Gymnasium is Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 8 p.m. CT on SEC Network.