5 Things to Know About Alabama Basketball at Penn State

Christopher Walsh/BamaCentral

Christopher Walsh

The University of Alabama men's basketball team faces a tough challenge on Saturday afternoon, and not just because Penn State is tough opponent. 

The Crimson Tide will be venturing into Big Ten territory, which can mean a slower game, thicker opponents and officials that are known for calling the game a little differently. 

It doesn't help that Alabama's preferred style of play is a version of small ball with four guards.

"The Big Ten is more typically a more physical conference," Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. "I was in Big Ten country my whole life so I’ve seen the physicality first-hand a lot. This is a really physical team, but a lot of the Big Ten teams play physical and slow. They’re actually one of the better teams in the country in the transition-conversion rate, which hasn’t bene the case for them a lot in the past.

"Our defensive rebounding is going to be big."

The programs have only met five times over the years, with Alabama holding a 4-1 edge. This will be the return game of a home-and-home as Crimson Tide defeated the Nittany Lions at Coleman Coliseum last season, 74-63. 

Previous to that the last time the teams met was Dec. 11, 1983, when Alabama won in overtime at Penn State, 75-67. 

Here are five other things to know about Alabama at Penn State (1 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network): 

1] Injury update 

Alabama is still dealing with some serious injury issues, but at least it's been able to practice with more than six players. That recently wasn't the case. 

Junior forward/guard Herbert Jones (elbow) and graduate student guard James Bolden (hand/wrist) were both doing more during Thursday's practice and junior forward Alex Reese (foot) was shooting to the side when reporters were allowed to observe. Junior forward Galin Smith tweaked his right ankle, but all four players are expected to play against the Nittany Lions. 

“You’d like for all your guys that are in the rotation to be able to practice and be healthy,” Oats said. “We’ve got three games here in about eight days going into Christmas.

“If we can get through these three without any new injuries and get those guys healed up over Christmas break, I think after that, it’d be nice to have everybody that’s going to play in the games practice. It’s hard to get better, it’s hard to get your flow, it’s hard to get your chemistry when three out of the nine haven’t been able to practice.”

2] Penn State is coming off a big win

It's not quite on the same level as Stephen F. Austin winning at then-No. 1 Duke, but Penn State (8-2, 1-1 Big Ten) knocked off No. 4 and previously unbeaten Maryland, 76-69, on Tuesday. Penn State’s wins include 81-66 at Georgetown, 85-64 over Syracuse in Brooklyn, and 76-54 in State College against Wake Forest. 

The Nittany Lions blew a 43-27 halftime lead against Ole Miss before losing 74-72 to the Rebels in Brooklyn, and took a 106-74 loss at Ohio State.

3] The Nittany Lions play a lot of inside-out

Penn State has four players who average double digits in scoring, but the keys are senior forwards Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. 

Stevens, who has collected more than 1,800 points and 700 rebounds for his career. The 6-8, 221-pound forward is averaging a team-leading 16.6 points per game, while topping the team in field goals made (60) and attempted (133). He also ranks second in rebounds (7.6) and steals (1.5).

Watkins (6-9, 257) is averaging a near double-double at 10.2 points and a team-leading 9.4 rebounds

"They have a two-headed monster with Watkins and Stephens," redshirt freshman forward Javian Davis said. 

Also of note, sophomore guard Myreon Jones, who is from nearby Birmingham, is second on the team in scoring (13.2) and leads the Nittany Lions in 4-point field goal percentage (.400), free throw percentage (.870), assists (3.3 apg) and minutes (30.4 mpg). 

4] The hot hand 

Junior guard John Petty Jr. has reached double digits in five straight games, averaging 19.4 points over the stretch. He's shooting 50.8 percent (30-of-59) from the field and 53.8 percent (21-of-39) from beyond the arc. 

At the recent Battle 4 Atlantis, Petty averaged 22.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent (21-of-39) from the field, 61 percent (14-of-23) from beyond the arc and 92 percent (11-of-12) from the free-throw line. That included a career night in which Petty collected career highs of 34 points and 12 rebounds in the Tide’s loss to Iowa State.

5] Alabama has taken advantage of some down time

Not only has Alabama played just one game since Nov. 29, the 78-68 victory over Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 6 was its lone home game over a 40-day period. The Crimson Tide has used the extra practice time to continue working on its continuity under the new coaching staff.

Freshman guard Jaden Shackelford is among those who has noticed a difference.    

"Like making an extra pass," he said. "Instead of getting a good shot we’re getting great shots now."

The area the team really hopes it pays off: Turnovers. Alabama has made 148 compared to 117 by its foes, while Penn State has made just 129 compared to 164 by its opponents.