TUSCALOOSA — Without its top two defenders, Alabama simply didn’t have the capacity — or the bodies — to keep pace Saturday.
Playing with just seven players, none of which was junior wing and all-around defensive wizard Herb Jones, the Crimson Tide had little answer for the Arkansas guard duo of Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt Jr., who combined for 56 points on 21-of-39 shooting in the 82-78 win Saturday inside a packed Coleman Coliseum.
"Man, there's not many options, especially with the perimeter guys. Look at the bench, there's nobody there," first-year Alabama head coach Nate Oats said after the game. "We had seven guys we could play tonight, seven scholarship players, and three of them are centers. ... You're either going to (defend) or we're not going to win. We didn't do that well enough in the second half."
The Crimson Tide (12-9, 4-4 SEC) lost its second straight to once again fall to .500 in SEC play, but it was the news before the game that stung even harder.
Alabama played without the defensive aid of Jones (wrist) and graduate senior guard James “Beetle” Bolden (illness) on Saturday. About an hour before tipoff, the school announced Jones would be out “indefinitely” after undergoing surgery earlier in the day to repair a fractured wrist suffered early in Wednesday’s 90-78 loss at LSU.
"We are all disappointed for Herb," Oats said. "He is one of our leaders and has been through a lot this season with his elbow injury at the beginning of the year and having to recover from that. He had been playing as well as he has all season, and this is certainly a tough blow to our team. Herb is as tough as they come — both mentally and physically — and we know he will come back stronger and better from this."
Oats said Jones is expected to miss "around three weeks" recovering and compared the wrist fracture to what former Crimson Tide center Donta Hall experienced last season in which he managed to return after about a two-week absence. Bolden is "probable" to play in next Tuesday's home game against Tennessee after sitting his second-straight contest Saturday.
Freshman guard Jaden Shackelford led Alabama offensively with 25 points and seven rebounds in 38 minutes of action while junior forward Alex Reese added 14 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes before fouling out with 22 seconds left in the game. Sophomore point guard Kira Lewis Jr. had 12 points but was 0-of-5 from 3-point range to go along with seven turnovers, while redshirt freshman center Javian Davis added 11 points but pulled down just two rebounds in 20 minutes.
"We knew coming into the game that we would have to play more minutes than usual down two guys," Shackelford said. "We just prepared ourselves, we condition all the time, so we just came in mentally prepared to play those minutes."
Here are three takeaways from Alabama’s loss:
1. Crimson Tide defense struggles without Bolden, Jones.
The absence of Jones and Bolden was blatantly obvious Saturday afternoon, especially on the defensive end.
"I thought our defense kind of disappeared there in the second half," Oats said. "We just weren't good enough to win the game. With having a shorter rotation was tough, but I definitely don't want to use that as an excuse. ... It's losing basketball when you can't guard the other team."
Outside of a couple of slow starts to the half, Arkansas’ offense managed to do what it wanted for the most part, including rolling off a 18-6 run to get back into the game and tie things up at 18-all midway through the opening period
Both teams would trade the lead six times over the next couple of minutes before a 3-pointer by John Petty Jr. sparked an 8-4 run over the final 1:34 of the first half to go into halftime up 39-36.
The Crimson Tide once again made its first four field goals of the second half to pull ahead 48-40 on back-to-back Shackelford 3s before its first miss.
Three minutes later, Arkansas rolled off 15-2 run over a 5½ minute stretch midway through the second half to take a 64-57 lead before another Shackelford 3-pointer infused some life back into the listless Tide offense with 8:21 remaining.
Shackelford’s 3-pointer, coupled with the one-and-one made free throw by Petty before it, was the beginning of a 12-2 run over a 4:24 span to retake the lead 69-66 with 4:11 remaining.
That sequence included back-to-back Lewis layups and putbacks by Petty and Reese before a layup by Arkansas’ Whitt 12 seconds later halted an 8-0 Crimson Tide run.
It's plays like that where Jones' absence was especially noticeable to Oats.
"You miss Herb, both his play on the floor, but you also some of his leadership, getting guys to play hard," Oats said. "When a guy plays as hard as Herb plays and does all the blue-collar stuff Herb does, when he talks, you're going to listen.
"I almost felt like it would've helped having him on the bench, just in the guys' ears there, because he's that kind of a guy," he continued. "He's all business when it comes to defense and blue-collar (approach) and making winning plays, and we missed that in the second half for sure."
The Razorbacks parlayed Whitt's score into an 11-1 run over a 3-minute period as Arkansas made 3 straight field goals — including 3-pointer from junior guard Jalen Harris — during that stretch to pull away for good.
"We let them get into a rhythm offensively," Shackelford said. "We just have to do a better job individually, but we'll bounce back."
During that run, Alabama made just 1 of 8 field goals over the final 4:22 before a last-second 3-pointer by Shackelford.
2. Winning the rebounding battle simply wasn’t good enough.
After back-to-back games of getting dominated on the boards against Kansas State and LSU, the Crimson Tide once again found its way to winning the rebounding battle Saturday.
Not that it did it much good.
Alabama outrebounded the much-smaller Razorbacks, who rank dead-last in the SEC in rebounding, by a 41-34 advantage, thanks to nine rebounds apiece from junior wing John Petty Jr. and freshman forward Jaylen Forbes. Reese and Shackelford added seven boards each, with four of Shackelford’s rebounds coming on the offensive end.
But not even that seemed to help. The Tide’s 15-11 advantage on the offensive boards only resulted in a 17-11 lead in second-chance points.
"I think the leadership was there from the start, we've just had this issue all year maintaining our effort for 40 minutes, and the second half was bad," Oats said.
"I thought the second half we just lost our focus on defense. And they never opened it up on us, because we were in there offensively, but if you don't have a defensive mindset, it's hard to win close games, and we just didn't have one in the second half today."
3. Shackleford asserts himself as Alabama’s most reliable scorer.
It wasn’t pretty by any means. But despite his youth, Shackelford is quickly becoming the Crimson Tide’s most steady scoring option.
Shackelford scored 25 points on 10-of-20 shooting in the game, including a game-leading 4-of-11 from 3-point range, to go along with seven rebounds.
Meanwhile, its top two leading scorers — Lewis and Petty — managed just 20 combined points on a combined 7-of-21 shooting and just one total 3-pointer with 11 turnovers between them.
"We needed big games out of both of them, and I thought, with Arkansas being small and switching a lot, we may be settled too much," Oats said of Lewis and Petty. "You look at 1-for-10 between the two of them from 3 ... I still thought we could've gotten a few more paint touches, blow-bys."
Alex Byington is the Montgomery Advertiser's Alabama beat reporter. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @_AlexByington.