The Crimson Tide basketball team took on the Division II UAH Chargers last night in Coleman Coliseum in an exhibition scrimmage game. The Chargers, ranked #2 in the nation at the Division II level, never led but never allowed the Tide to pull away, and even got the game to within one possession on a couple of occasions in the final minutes. The Tide ultimately held on to "win", but UAH provided exactly what Anthony Grant wanted when he scheduled the scrimmage: a firm test that challenged his squad and helped to answer some questions about this year's team.
Below are some quick observations from the game:
- To borrow the famous Denny Green quote, Bama is who we thought they were right now: talented but young. It was clear from the first few possessions that this team will have more offensive firepower than it had last year, as the Tide knocked down its first three 3-point attempts and jumped out to a big lead. However, as the game wore on it became clear that the defense isn't anywhere close to where it was at the end of last season, especially as more young players were introduced into the lineups. Bama had some uncharacteristic breakdowns defensively, and that is clearly something that Grant, a defensive-minded coach, will be working on as the season progresses. As it stands now, though, Bama is not nearly where it needs to be on the defensive end, and won't be a top-25-type-team until the defense starts playing up to Grant's standards.
- On the offensive end, it is clear that Bama has a much higher ceiling that it ever had last year. Five different players hit 3-pointers in this game alone, and in general the freshmen perimeter players exhibited exactly the kind of playmaking ability that was so sorely lacking last year. Further, JaMychal Green appears to have taken his game to the next level, with his shooting range extending all the way out to the 3-point line. Grant has the pieces on offense that he could only dream about last year. That said, execution on offense was often very sloppy. That extends to not just the freshmen, but also the veterans. Like on the defensive end, there is a lot of work to do on the offensive end.
- Overall, the team showed some good things, but really this group is a long, long way from being where it needs to be to meet expectations this year. Last season, Bama needed two overtimes to win its scrimmage against UAH, foreshadowing the struggles the team would have early on in the season. This year, the Tide maintained a solid lead throughout against the Chargers, but never really could put them away and actually had to survive some tense moments late when some questionable foul calls allowed UAH to make things very tight at the end. While UAH is a national title contender at the D-2 level and is better than several teams the Tide will play this year in the regular season, they were still an overmatched opponent physically and Bama's inability to put them away probably means there will be at best some nervous moments early on this year against some weak teams as Bama's young roster undergoes the process of adjusting to the college game, understanding what is expected from them in Grant's defensive system, and gelling on the offensive end.
- Bama indeed has a higher ceiling than last year, but I get the feeling this season will resemble last season in terms of the team taking a while to find its identity, and I wouldn't at all be surprised to see another slow start before the team starts to reach its potential in late December or January. The key here is for the team to find ways to pick up a few big wins and especially to avoid the bad losses we saw last year in pre-conference play. As we found out the hard way last year, results matter, even in November and early December before teams have found their identity and before many fans fully shift their focus to basketball. This team needs to improve drastically, and I am confident they will slowly improve over the long-term course of the season. The important short-term question is can the team maintain at least decent results in the opening weeks of the season as this happens?
- The Big 3 proved why they're the Big 3 in the scrimmage. The team noticeably dropped off, on both ends of the floor but especially on the defensive end, when these guys left the game. They will be the three most important players on the team all season, but they will be especially important early on as the freshmen slowly find their way.
- JaMychal Green has taken his game to the next level. His shooting has noticeably improved to the point of becoming deadly from 15-20 feet, and he's now even added range out to the 3-point arc, making his only attempt from there on the night. UAH didn't have anyone who could match up with him physically, and he probably could have scored even more than the 21 points that he did had Grant kept him in more or forced the ball to him more.
- Tony Mitchell looked hungry and focused. He didn't show anything he wasn't showing last season, but as has become his custom he stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists. More importantly, he proved just how invaluable he'll be this year by playing almost exclusively at the "4" position as Grant looks to overcome the Tide's lack of size.
- Trevor Releford looked a bit rusty at times handling the ball and managing the offense, but at the same time he made some clutch plays when the game got tight. Like the other "Big 3" players, he'll see at least 30 minutes a game barring foul trouble, and there's no question he's the team's floor general.
- Without question, the biggest standout among the freshmen was 6'6" wing player Rodney Cooper. I've been saying for months that he looked to be the most college-ready of the signees, and that indeed appeared to be the case during the scrimmage game against UAH. He not only got the start, but he also played by far more minutes than anyone outside the Big 3 (29 minutes). He looked the best of all the freshmen on defense and rebounding, and he also is probably now the best pure shooter on the team. His combination of size, defense and shooting ability will probably keep him in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future, and the smart money is on him leading all freshmen in minutes this season.
- Trevor Lacey had a mixed performance in his scrimmage debut, scoring 5 points. He wasn't in the starting lineup, but he played the majority of the game (22 minutes) and was on the court in the final minutes when things got tight. Clearly, he will play a major role on the team this year, and probably a growing one. Right now he is rusty, having missed a lot of time this offseason due to knee surgery, and he appears out of shape (UAH's coach actually said as much specifically in his postgame comments, having seen Lacey play multiple times in the Huntsville area). As he gets back into shape, his role will probably grow even more as will his effectiveness. Even now, he's already one of the key playmakers on offense, showing some nice ability despite not being able to finish on a few occasions near the basket. He was also handed point guard duties on at least two occasions, a bad sign for both Ben Eblen and Retin Obasohan.
- Charles Hankerson showed why the coaches and others have raved about his improvement this offseason. He appears to be in better shape and has clearly worked on his shooting, which is absolutely essential if he wants to play a big role on this year's team. He nailed 3 of his 4 outside shots and provided good minutes overall.
- Levi Randolph got the start at the guard spot, but played a very quiet 17 minutes. Grant praised his defense, but he was beaten badly a few times on that end and failed to score. It wasn't a great performance from Randolph, but he got the start for a reason, so I expect we'll see much more from him this season.
- As expected, freshman Nick Jacobs and sophomore Carl Engstrom split time coming off the bench in the post. Engstrom looked okay, playing 7 minutes and contributing 2 blocks, a rebound and an assist. He looked much more comfortable than last season, but still doesn't have the ball skills necessary to play more than 5-10 minutes a game. However, if he can give us those few minutes and make some blocks and rebounds, it will help the team tremendously. Jacobs got 14 minutes--probably a good indication of how the playing time will break down between he and Engstrom--and was fairly quiet, going 0-for-2 shooting while bringing in 3 rebounds. Jacobs certainly has the body to play in the post in the SEC, so by default he will be relied on to play those kinds of minutes if not more each game, regardless of his scoring ability.