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Bama Basketball Breakdown - ACC-SEC Challenge: Clemson

Alabama returns home to host the Clemson Tigers in the first ever ACC-SEC Challenge

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Boise State Gannett-USA TODAY NETWORK

After an eventful and points-filled weekend in Destin, FL for the Emerald Coast Challenge where the now-23rd-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (5-1) suffered its first loss of the season, Nate Oats’ squad now returns home to the comforts of Coleman Coliseum for the inaugural ACC-SEC Challenge. After a decade of incredible entertainment and success working in partnership with the Big 12 for the annual event in late January, television contracts changing unfortunately resulted in the demise of the iconic SEC-Big 12 Challenge. It also ended the long-running and original conference clash - the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. So, ESPN simply decided to merge the two main properties they had left and voila - the ACC-SEC Challenge was born! Why they decided not to do it on a single day in late January when it could take main stage on the sports calendar like the SEC-Big 12 Challenge used to do, I have no idea.

But I digress. Tonight is Day 1 of the action between these two historic basketball conferences, and your Crimson Tide will round out play with a match-up with the undefeated Clemson Tigers (5-0). The one improvement for the ACC-SEC Challenge compared to the SEC’s predecessor is that all 14 SEC schools will be able to participate every year. See below for the rest of the schedule:

Just running through it, I’d expect this to be pretty dang close. I think the SEC is the superior conference in 2023-24, but sending two of the conference’s best in Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road to Chapel Hill and Charlottesville respectively might help the ACC out significantly. Arkansas has really struggled to start the season, but as we all know, going into Bud Walton Arena will be a treacherous task for Duke. Kentucky and Miami headline the event tonight, and our own battle in Tuscaloosa should be a dandy. My predictions for the challenge:

  • LSU at Syracuse
  • Mississippi State at Georgia Tech
  • Notre Dame at South Carolina
  • Miami at Kentucky
  • Mizzou at Pitt
  • NC State at Ole Miss
  • Clemson at Alabama
  • Tennessee at UNC
  • A&M at Virginia
  • Florida at Wake
  • Duke at Arkansas
  • VT at Auburn
  • Georgia at FSU
  • BC at Vandy

By my count, that would be an 8-6 victory in favor of the SEC in the inaugural challenge. I think Day 2 is the day to watch for potential craziness with Tennessee, A&M, Florida, and Duke all on the road.

As for the Tide, though, this is probably the best team Alabama has faced so far this season. Clemson is full of veterans who have played a lot of ball. And with Brad Brownell, who has somehow retained his job over 15 seasons now, they play a completely contrasting style to the one Oats employs. After how much Alabama struggled to defend anyone this past weekend, any game against a high-major team with talent is a losable one. There needs to be significant improvement on that end of the court; let’s hope that starts tonight.

The Roster

Starting Five

POINT 6’3 Chase Hunter: 13.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 4.0 APG

GUARD 6’1 Joseph Girard: 12.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.6 APG

WING 6’8 Jack Clark: 3.4 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 0.6 APG

POST 6’8 Ian Schieffelin: 7.4 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.4 APG

POST 6’10 PJ Hall: 21.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.6 APG

Off the Bench

GUARD 6’3 Alex Hemenway: 5.2 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 1.4 APG

GUARD 6’3 Dillon Hunter: 3.0 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 3.0 APG

WING 6’7 RJ Godfrey: 8.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 0.8 APG

POST 6’10 Chauncey Wiggins: 3.4 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.6 APG

As mentioned, the Tigers are an extremely experienced squad - they are 21st in the country in D-1 experience and 45th in the country in minutes continuity, according to Kenpom. Chase Hunter is a three-year starter for Clemson and Joseph Girard spent four years playing for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse before transferring. Both can really shoot the ball, too (Hunter: 46.0%/42.1%/84.6%; Girard: 38.9%/38.2%/77.8%). Girard is much more of spot-up shooter; Hunter can attack the paint and does most of his distributing off that action.

Clemson also has a lot of size across the rotation - the five guys that make-up 95% of minutes in the frontcourt are 6’7 or taller. PJ Hall is the guy to watch, though. A former blue-chip recruit and four-year starter, Hall can do everything you want from a big man - he’s got great post moves and can score at will in the paint (62.7% 2P%), step out and knock down shots on the perimeter (36.4% 3P%), plays solid defense (7.2% BLK%; 94.9 DRt), rebounds well (14.5% REB%), and is a fantastic passer out of the low block (20.2% AST%).

Three Keys to Victory

  1. Limit PJ Hall. As I was just mentioning, Hall is a beast of a college basketball player. He may not be Drew Timme, but he’s basically a lesser version of him. We all know how much Timme cooked the Tide’s bigs the past two seasons, and that was with Charles Bediako. Alabama’s defense has struggled in basically every facet of the game, but the rim protection in particular has been awful. Something has to change, and fast. Because PJ Hall will eat the Tide’s interior defense alive if the guys play like they did in Destin this past weekend.
  2. Win the Perimeter. Clemson is currently 17th in the country in 3P% at 39.7%, quite a bit better than Ohio State and Oregon - who Alabama allowed to go a combined 17/38 from long-distance the last two games. And it’s not just the three guys I’ve already highlighted - everyone on Clemson’s team that averages at least one three-point attempt per game is shooting at least 33.3%, with Alex Hemenway (42.1%) and the younger Hunter, Dillon (42.9%), really leading the way off of the bench. Of course, Alabama - despite cooling off a bit in Destin - is currently 3rd in the country in 3P% at 43.0%. So, this could end up being a shootout.
  3. Dictate the Tempo. As is always the case when the Oats-led Tide take on a slow, plodding opponent with good size, controlling the pace of play is vital. If Alabama can enforce the high-octane, heavy-transition style that the team flows so well in, the Tide should be able to protect the home court and grab a big win. If they let Clemson dictate the terms though, Alabama could be in for a long night.

This is a pretty major point in the Tide’s 2023-24 campaign tonight. A win keeps Alabama rolling and provides another strong non-conference win over a likely tournament team for the ole NCAA Tournament resume. A loss, however, could be pretty detrimental. With an absolute gauntlet away from home coming up in just a few weeks, a pair of losses this early could have the guys really reflecting and needing to regroup - particularly if it’s the defense that once again does the Tide in.

Big game tonight, y’all. Can Alabama survive a visit from a veteran and talented group with an elite big man just a couple days removed from playing an exhausting couple of games in Florida this weekend? Vegas seems to like the Tide by a good bit tonight, installing Alabama as a 9.5-point favorite, which seems like a lot. The game will be televised on ESPN, and tip-off is scheduled for a late 8:30 PM CST start.