It is one of the best weeks in sports, and college basketball has a strong hand in that. It’s Feast Week, and The Ohio State Men’s Basketball team (3-1) is heading to Niceville, Fla., for the Emerald Coast Classic to take on the No. 17 Alabama Crimson Tide (4-0) in the first round of the bracket portion of the Emerald Coast Classic.
The Buckeyes defeated the Western Michigan Broncos 73-56 in the opening round of the Emerald Coast Classic (campus game) The Buckeyes led by as much as 31 at one points, and it was their best overall performance of the season, but was against a team they should be able to beat handily every single time.
Now, they get to face off against their second ranked opponent of the season. The Buckeyes lost to then No. 15 and now No. 12 Texas A&M Aggies 73-66 back on November 10. The Aggies are 4-0 on the season and one of the favorites to wi the SEC, along with this Alabama team.
Since the Buckeyes lost to the Aggies, they have taken down Merrimack and Western Michigan by double digits to ease into the two-games-in-two-days marathon they’ll face this weekend.
If the Buckeyes win this game, they will take on the winner of Oregon and Santa Clara at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. If they lose, they will play the loser of Oregon and Santa Clara at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
It is no surprise that Bruce Thornton has led the Buckeyes through the season’s first four games. The sophomore guard is averaging 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game thus far. The most impressive stat is the fact that he is just one half of a turnover per game, while playing 30 minutes per night. That means in four games, he has recorded only two turnovers. Thornton has been one of the best point guards in the country in that regard, ranking seventh in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. It is early in the season, but that is promising from the young guard.
Sophomore guard Roddy Gayle has also been stuffing the stat sheet through the first four games, averaging 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. Zed Key has been successful in his role off the bench as the sixth man, averaging 11.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in 22 minutes per contest.
Alabama is a juggernaut on offense and a darling in the eyes of the analytics, as they rank No. 5 on KenPom with the most efficient offense in the nation and are No. 23 on the defensive side of the ball. The best offense in the country and a top-25 defense in the country is a mix that will make a great team, especially in March. The Crimson Tide is averaging an impressive 101.8 points per game on 57 percent shooting from the field.
Alabama lost a lot of talent from its top team in the country last season, namely freshman phenom Brandon Miller, who was the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft to the Charlotte Hornets. However, they hit the transfer portal hard, bringing in some incredibly talented players to fill the void.
Head coach Nate Oats brought in Hofstra transfer guard Aaron Estrada and North Dakota State transfer forward Grant Nelson. Estrada averaged 20.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game last season, while Nelson averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Both players were two of the most coveted transfers of the offseason.
The two transfers have acclimated to their new team nicely, as Estrada is averaging 15.3 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, while Nelson is averaging 13.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The Crimson Tide have been led in scoring by former Ohio University guard Mark Sears, who is averaging 19.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. This is Sears’ second year with the program.
This is going to be a tough and unique test. Grant Nelson, Mark Sears, and Aaron Estrada can all score the ball at a high level, and Alabama has no lack of scorers on the floor at all times. The Buckeyes coaching staff and players have tried to emphasize the defensive end of the ball and improving on that side this season, and that will be tested tonight.
The matchup to watch will be Mark Sears and Bruce Thornton. Both point guards are the scoring leaders on their respective teams and will look to get the best of the other team’s lead man. Another player to watch is Grant Nelson. At 6-foot-11, look for the Buckeyes to throw Evan Mahaffey or potentially Jamison Battle at him, as the former North Dakota State star will operate on the perimeter and below the basket.
I don’t think the Crimson Tide are leaps better than the Buckeyes, but they are more dynamic on offense, and that could be the difference in this one. However, the Buckeyes have already been tested by Texas A&M, while Alabama has not played anyone yet, so they could still have some things to work out early on.
Ultimately, I think this will be a close game throughout, but the Buckeyes can’t get enough stops to keep the Crimson Tide at bay, and Alabama wins a close one.
ESPN BPI: Alabama 71.0%
Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network