- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The University of Alabama has an opportunity to right the ship on Saturday when Tennessee comes to town for the 12:30 p.m. tipoff. The Crimson Tide (16-9, 5-6) have lost two straight games and have taken a step back in their journey to the NCAA tournament.
Alabama currently sits tied with Harvard at 35th in RPI, nationally, and bracketologist Joe Lunardi recently dropped the Tide to a projected 10th seed in the tournament. A win against the Vols would go a long way in rebuilding the team's resume after a slew of player suspensions and back-to-back conference losses.
Tennessee is riding a four-game winning streak, and if the Tide hopes end it, here are three keys to accomplishing that feat:
Thin up front
Tuesday's loss against Florida exposed Alabama's weakness under the basket. Carl Engstrom, Moussa Gueye and Nick Jacobs platooned at center/power forward and combined for just 10 points on 3 of 7 shooting. Meanwhile, Florida's starting forward-center combination combined for 33 points and 11 rebounds. Look for Tennessee to try and exploit Alabama's thin frontcourt with freshman sensation Jarnell Stokes and 6-foot-7, 265-pound forward Jeronne Maymon.
"From a physical standpoint, they can go and be extremely big," Alabama coach Anthony Grant said of the Vols. "So obviously, it will affect some of the decisions we make in terms of the combinations we have on the floor and making sure we have a team that can compete on the front line against their size."
Grant went on to say that how Jacobs, Gueye and Engstrom play will be vital to the team's success.
"They've got to continue to step their games up and continue to improve and get better," Grant said. "The opportunity is there for them with every practice and every game to understand that our team is relying them to do the things they're capable of doing."
Grant provided little news on the suspensions of junior forward Tony Mitchell and senior forward JaMychal Green. There was some expectation that Mitchell might return after his posts on Twitter on Wednesday night said, "I will be back" and "tmitch is going nowhere." Grant said there was, "nothing new" and their status was the "same as it was before." The third-year head coach did say he would meet with both players next week.
Andrew Steele, who was suspended for one game last week but played against Florida on Tuesday, said the team has been kept out of the discussions regarding the suspended players, adding that they must trust the coaching staff to make the right decisions.
Steele said he learned from his suspension that under Grant, "things are going to be done the right way. I think that's a good signal that the accountability starts at the top."
Injuries come at a bad time
An already depleted bench could look even shorter on Saturday when Alabama hosts Tennessee. Grant said freshman forward Nick Jacobs, who started in Green’s place the last two games, might not play because of a mouth infection stemming from a root canal. Also, Andrew Steele is rebounding from a sprained ankle sustained late in Tuesday's game against Florida. He did not practice with the team on Thursday. Trevor Releford received a "blow to the head" in practice on Thursday, according to Grant, and won't participate in drills on Friday.
4dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough