We have now reached the point in the college basketball calendar where everyone is just ready to get home for a much-needed holiday break and very soon most everyone will. Unless, of course, you are one of the handful of amateur student-athletes who instead will be fortunate enough to fill cable TV air time on Christmas day when almost no one but drunkards, reprobate gamblers, and true sociopaths are watching.
This general malaise of waiting out the end of the non-conference season combined with the fundamental truth that athletic performance remains inherently variable has made for a strange week of basketball. Highlighting the strangeness was a 79-75 Wofford win at reigning national champion North Carolina, but this game was far from the only lackluster performance by a home team in a buy game. An injury-riddled Xavier struggled at home against Marshall, Texas A&M was pushed by Northern Kentucky (this one is a little unfair, as NKU is a solid team), Wichita State didn't exactly run away and hide against Arkansas State, and of course the Texas Longhorns needed a final basket with nine seconds remaining to defeat Tennessee State.
But it is December 22, and malaise or not, the Texas Longhorns are playing basketball. The opponent for this game is the Alabama Crimson Tide, a more or less even match for Shaka Smart's team. The game will take place in Birmingham.
The Crimson Tide come into the game with an 8-3 record, with losses against Minnesota, UCF, and Arizona; their best win to date was a home win over Rhode Island. You probably saw something about that Alabama-Minnesota game, because due to a mass ejection, injuries, and players fouling out, the Tide had to play for an extended stretch of the game with only three players, and somehow found a way to narrow the gap before falling short of victory.
The word "somehow" in the previous sentence should be replaced by the name Collin Sexton. Down two men against the Gophers, the Alabama freshman point guard took over. Sexton — refusing surrender and clearly not up for hearing Ski-U-Mah or other nineteenth century nonsense — briefly became invincible and dropped 40, making things interesting. It wasn't the only good game of the year for Sexton, who has thus far proven to be the nation’s top freshman point guard not named Trae Young.
Sexton is carrying a massive offensive load for head coach Avery Johnson. He has good size for a point guard, and is aggressive when it comes to attacking the basket and either finishing or drawing a foul. He also has a decent shot from long range and does all that he does without turning the ball over very often. Sexton is dynamic and plays the game with a competitive edge that you have to respect and probably will enjoy; I am certainly a fan. He is the complete lead guard and best player Texas has faced since the Duke game.
Running in the back court with Sexton are 6'5 freshman John Petty and 6'5 sophomore Dazon Ingram. Petty is off to a strong start this year, and has been the number two scoring option for the Tide. He shoots with both accuracy as well as volume, somehow already managing to put up 88 three-point attempts this season (eight attempts from three a game), which is more than twice as many as his next closest teammate (Sexton) and four times as many as anyone else. Losing track of Petty will qualify as a crisis for the Texas defense. For his part, Ingram is most effective attacking the basket.
Alabama's top big man thus far has been 6'9 junior Donta Hall, who is playing really good basketball this year. He is a grown man among the many younger players involved in this game on both sides. Hall is a rebounder and shot blocker who is also shooting 74 percent from the floor this year. He is going to give Mo Bamba another chance to play a physical and aggressive upperclassman before conference play serves up this sort of player two times a week.
Hall has been holding down the fort well with 6'8 sophomore Braxton Key missing the first ten games of the season while recovering from knee surgery, but now last season's leading scorer is working himself back into the mix. Key was in the starting lineup Tuesday night and played 20 minutes, going 0-2 from the floor and grabbing four rebounds in a one-point win over Mercer.
I think it is safe to say that with the start of conference play coming, Alabama is likely somewhat disappointed with the early returns on its season. A team that touched the AP top 25 early in the year and features a future lottery pick like Sexton probably didn’t expect to be falling at home to UCF and barely scraping out games against Louisiana Tech, UT-Arlington, and Mercer.
But I think this is the challenge that really young teams face. And while very talented, most 18 and 19-year-old players just aren’t as good at basketball yet as the 21-year-olds they commonly have to face. Sexton is of course the exception — Sexton is already the best player on the floor in most of the games that he plays — but Avery Johnson’s young team is likely to face some ups and downs this season in an SEC with a lot of tough teams.
The game tips at 8 p.m CT, and airs on ESPN2.