Boasting a solid group of returners and the No. 8 recruiting class headlined by point guard Collin Sexton, Alabama started the season ranked No. 24 in college basketball.
However, like Arizona, Alabama was implicated in the FBI recruiting scandal that came to light in September.
Alabama associate athletic director Kobi Baker resigned after allegedly accepting bribes to influence student-athletes to sign with a certain financial adviser once they turned pro.
Sexton was also ruled ineligible by Alabama officials after it was revealed he was linked to the FBI probe, but he was reinstated after missing just one game (Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star has a great read on Alabama’s situation).
Sexton returned and the Crimson Tide won their first five games, including a win over BYU in Brooklyn. They lost to No. 14 Minnesota the next day in a crazy game that forced Alabama to play 3-on-5 for most of the second half after ejections and injuries left them short-handed.
Sexton scored 40 points in that game, and played so well that Alabama actually outscored Minnesota while outnumbered.
Eventually Alabama fell out of the Top 25 after losing at home to the UCF Knights on Dec. 3.
Alabama is coached by former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson who is in his second season in Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Tide have the No. 153 offense and No. 84 defense in the country based on raw efficiency, but those numbers move to No. 64 and No. 19 if you adjust them for their strength of schedule as KenPom does.
Also like Arizona, Alabama has been without one of its best players this season. Sophomore forward Braxton Key has missed the first nine games after undergoing knee surgery before the season.
The 6-foot-8 forward led Alabama in scoring last season, averaging 12.0 points per game, scoring at all three levels of the court.
He practiced fully on Friday and will be a game-time decision Saturday. Sexton injured his eye Wednesday in Alabama’s home win over Rhode Island, but will likely play against Arizona.
Of course, Rawle Alkins is expected to debut for the Wildcats on Saturday in a limited role off the bench.
Sexton is the leader of Alabama, averaging just north of 20 points per game along with 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
The lightning-quick guard scores well at the rim, shoots 46 percent from 3, and is ninth in college basketball in free throw attempts per game (9.3).
“One of the things that he thrives in doing is he uses ball screens and makes his teammates better,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “He’s a really good passer, but that’s where he draws a lot of fouls. He’s also tremendous in transition. Those two things don’t fall on the guy guarding him, it falls on the team. Everybody has to get back. On ball screen defense if your man sets that screen, you’ve gotta be responsible and stop the ball and do a great job.”
Alabama guard Dazon Ingram has a penchant for getting to the free throw line, too. The 6-foot-5 guard averages 7.1 free throws per game. As a team, Alabama takes the 11th-most free throws per game (27.3), but shoots just 60.5 percent from the stripe.
Starting alongside Ingram and Sexton on the wing is 3-point specialist John Petty who is shooting 37 percent from 3 while attempting 7.4 per game.
Up front, Alabama has two shot blockers in Donta Hall and Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens. Hall has the 11th-highest shot blocking percentage in college basketball, though Giddens’ percentage is actually higher but he hasn’t played enough minutes to qualify on KenPom leaderboards.
Miller said Alabama is one of the most athletic teams Arizona has faced this season.
“They play hard.... They block shots,” Miller said. “Sometimes that shot-blocking makes your defense. We have to be aware of that. They play 10 players so their bench gets in the game and when you play 10 you can really use your athleticism.
“When you’re top-20, top-25 in defense, that speaks for itself. I wish were top-25 in defense.”
Alabama, which plays at a quick pace, struggles with turnovers, averaging 15 per game. It also struggles to rebound on both ends of the floor, but especially on defense where it has the 231st (of 351) defensive rebounding percentage in the country.
The Crimson Tide mostly play man-to-man defense, but they will mix in a 2-3 zone and some full-court presses.
Only one player in Alabama’s rotation is taller than 6-foot-9 (Giddens) which could present matchup issues for both teams. Arizona might be too big for Alabama to defend, but Alabama might be too quick for Arizona to defend.
“They’re physical, they’re big. They take up a lot of space,” Johnson said of Arizona’s frontcourt. “Our bigs have to get to their spots. We have to have proper spacing, we have to finish inside, and we have to do a better job of playing defense.”
Arizona (6-3) enters on a three-game winning streak, including wins at UNLV and over Texas A&M in Phoenix. Aside from mental lapses here and there, it has played well after losing three straight in the Bahamas back in late November.
“I think this team is much more confident now than two weeks ago after the Bahamas,” said UA center Dusan Ristic.
Miller said Arizona’s defense has improved after its early-season woes, but still has “long, long ways” to go before it reaches a satisfactory level. Arizona ranks 213th in raw defensive efficiency.
“We’re working hard, but sometimes it starts with the oldest guys. Guys like Dusan, Allonzo (Trier), and Parker (Jackson-Cartwright), we’re really counting on those three guys to set the tone early in games, to do it every day in practice so that our younger guys learn from them and be the most ready that they can,” Miller said.
“There’s a reason those three players start the game. The responsibility is to be a good defender themselves and part of our improvement is for those guys to take ownership in that area. They did a better job in the last two games than they have all season long.”
Arizona’s offense played at a torrid pace early in the season, but it has gradually slowed things down. The Wildcats had 67 possessions against Texas A&M, the lowest they have had all season. The change has been by design.
“That doesn’t mean we want to walk the ball up, but pace is all relative. You have to play at a pace where the shots you take are good ones. If you have a quick one great, we’ll always take that,” Miller said.
“There is a balance. It was one of the many lessons we learned here where maybe as we entered the Bahamas we felt better about playing at a faster speed, not worrying as much about who had the ball. Coming out of the Bahamas, we clearly knew there was a significant difference. I think we’re still not there recognizing who should shoot, who should not, and who needs to touch the ball every time down.”
Miller expects Alkins, who averaged 10.9 points per game last season, to become Arizona’s third scoring option alongside Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier, but tempered the immediate expectations for him since he is just coming back from a broken foot.
“I think his role will progress as will his production and I think the hope for us here when we get after Christmas and he’s been with us in both games and practicing regularly that he’ll be able to hit his stride early in conference play as opposed to two or three weeks into conference play if we weren’t able to get him back now,” Miller said.
An all-around player, Alkins is expected to help Arizona in a multitude of ways once he gets fully up to speed, but especially on defense where Arizona lacks a go-to perimeter defender.
Alkins’ first defensive test could be against Sexton, who was held without a basket against a physical UCF team.
“[Alkins] gives us a physical presence at that position, both rebounding on defense and offense, defending whoever he defends and somebody who really has great understanding of how to pass the ball and make the simple play,” Miller said.
“One of the things, because of how he’s built, that you take for granted is he’s got a high basketball IQ. He knows how to make the right play, when to make the right play. He’s very, very unselfish with how he goes about playing the game. Those are things that any team would love to add. We’re certainly not different."
Alkins has been out for 11 weeks, and Arizona did its best not to rush him back. But now that he is back, he is ready to prove why expectations are so high for both him and this Arizona team this season.
“Since he’s started to practice, you’ve noticed a spark in his eye,” Miller said. “I’m happy for him. ... He’s gone through a lot getting hurt when he did so we’re excited to have him back.”
For more notes on Arizona, including an update on Emmanuel Akot’s health, click here.
How to watch Saturday’s game
Game time: 8 p.m. MST
Live stream: WatchESPN
Announcers: Dave Pasch (play-by-play) and Sean Farnham (analyst)
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire