The Alabama basketball team has been struggling mightily since starting off the season with a comfortable 6-0 record. More disheartening than the actual 7-5 record is the way Alabama has lost its five games. The Tide has been seemingly unable to get anything going on the offensive side of the floor, something that has been a problem for a number of Anthony Grant-led teams in the past.
To be sure, there isn't much that can be done about the injuries the Tide has endured this season. Carl Engstrom, while raw in just about every area of his game, was supposed to be a vital frontcourt asset this season. Instead, he tore his ACL and MCL against Cincinnati and is out for the season.
Fifth-year senior Andrew Steele, perhaps the Tide's best on-ball defender, is suffering from a sports hernia and will be out for at least the immediate future after having surgery in early December. And while losing Steele and Engstrom hurt the Tide's depth, an issue that was already present coming into the season, there are a number of on-court issues that have led to the Tide's struggles to close out non-conference play.
For a system that is predicated on pressure, creating turnovers and getting out in transition, Alabama has struggled to overwhelmingly impact the game defensively during a number of games this season. The full court pressure is present, but the Tide's defense hasn't been nearly as steady as it has been in years past.
One of the many indicators of this is Alabama's defensive rating. Defensive rating for a team is an estimate of the amount of points allowed per 100 possessions. To date, Alabama has a defensive rating of 93.7 -- 105th in the nation. Compare that to last season when Alabama posted a 91.8 DRtg, good for 18th in the nation, and you can see that Alabama's defense has dropped off a bit. All of that while playing a number of teams that don't posses the most potent offenses in the nation.
Perhaps it's just a product of teams shooting well against the Tide, but Alabama's perimeter defense has not been up to standard, either. Last season, the Tide allowed opponents to shoot just 28.9 percent from beyond the arc. That percentage was the best in the Southeastern Conference and fifth in the nation.
However, this season the Tide is holding its opponents to just 31.9 percent from distance, 7th in the SEC and 116th in the nation. Equally as troubling is the percentage opponents are shooting from inside the arc. Teams are shooting 45.2 percent against the Tide from inside the line (2FG%), a number that puts the Tide at 10th in the conference and 109th in the nation. Last season, the Tide held its opponents to just 43.9 percent on two-point field goals, third in the conference and 36th in the nation.
Now, a bit of the 2FG% numbers are indicative of the Tide's interior struggles. With Engstrom out, Moussa Gueye is Alabama's tallest active frontcourt asset, but he's only averaging 13 minutes per game. Nick Jacobs and freshman yet-to-settle-in-and-breakout phenom Devonta Pollard are the Tide's next largest interior players, but all of them have had a difficult time consistently making an impact at the rim.
Gueye is likely still suffering from some conditioning issues, having spent his entire first season at Alabama recovering from a knee injury, but with Engstrom out for the season, it would help the Tide immensely if he found a way to make steady contributions in conference play. His personal DRtg is 90.6, which is the best on the team among active players. However, the offense struggles when he's on the court, as is partially evident by his awful 61.6 offensive rating (ORtg, an estimate of points produced per 100 possessions while on the court).
Offensively, Alabama has gotten more production from three-point range. Before the season, Anthony Grant noted that the Tide used its 2-hour per week workout time (as given by the NCAA) to work on shooting, primarily from distance. The improvements are noticeable. Last season, three-point field goals accounted for 19.11 percent of the Tide's point distribution, whereas this season that mark is up by over six percent to 25.88.
Alabama's percentages from deep have also improved. The Tide is shooting 33.8 percent from beyond the arc compared to last season's 28.9 percent. In fact, Alabama hasn't shot over 33.8 percent for an entire season since Grant's first year in Tuscaloosa.
The Tide is methodical on offense and it thrives in the open court. Grant's squad is forcing turnovers at a larger rate than last year, but its numbers are still down nationally and within the conference. The result of this can be negative at times for Alabama, as an inability to create turnovers and get stops reduces the amount of chances to get out on the break. As a result, more and more of Alabama's offense is coming out of the halfcourt.
While the numbers from deep are up, Alabama is shooting its worst percentage (44.3%) from the field since Anthony Grant's first season at the helm. In addition, the Tide's floor percentage (40.5%), a stat that measures the percentage of offensive possessions in which there is at least one point scored, is the lowest it has been since Mark Gottfried's final season in Tuscaloosa.
This isn't a damning statistic, given that it's above the national average, but it is still lower than the SEC average. And the SEC is pretty, well, average this year.
The Trevor's: Impact players
As much as Alabama has struggled, the Tide is still benefiting from really good seasons from both Trevor Lacey and Trevor Releford. Releford began the season coming off of the bench but has since transitioned back into the starting point guard role. Now, he's playing the most minutes of any player on the team and has the highest efficiency (a statistic that measures a player's contributions to the good statistics, such as points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks; it also takes away impact for contributions to bad statistical categories, such as turnovers, missed shots, etc) while averaging 15.4 points per game, the most on the team.
Lacey, Grant's prized recruit from a few years ago, is playing much better this season after struggling a bit during his freshman campaign. He's shooting 48.6 percent from the field, a team-high 44.6 percent from distance and is averaging 13.2 points per contest. He'll continue to improve, one would hope, as he continues to gain confidence. If Alabama can find a rhythm in the halfcourt and find Lacey in his spots he will continue to help out a struggling Alabama offense.
What's the problem?
So, with all these numbers, it would seem like Alabama is having a bit of a down year defensively while improving in some areas on the offensive side. First, take into account that the season is somewhat young. We're 12 games into the year, and there's still plenty of time for things to click for Alabama on both ends of the floor. However, while it's obvious the Tide is struggling in certain areas defensively, the statistics are less revealing on the offensive side of the ball.When the Tide is unable to produce turnovers or stops on defense, teams are not allowing Alabama to get out and run quite as often. As such, Grant's team is forced to settle into a halfcourt offense, one that is hard to watch no matter how much of a basketball fan you may be. The result? A lot of passing around the perimeter, not a lot of dribble penetration and an increased amount of low-percentage shots. That's not a recipe for good production on offense.
To be fair, Anthony Grant's teams have rarely been known for being killers in the halfcourt. For that matter, outside of the top programs in the nation, very few college basketball teams are highly potent in the halfcourt. But the product being put forth this season, especially during the woeful 5-5 stretch the Tide is on, is unacceptable if Alabama wants any hope of postseason life.
Alabama is a talented team. However, the Tide lacks some depth in the frontcourt, and the depth it does have is largely incapable of stretching the defense. One area where the Tide appears to miss JaMychal Green is his ability to face up and hit a mid-range shot, pulling interior players away from the basket and opening the lane for drives to the rack and second chance opportunities.
Against Tulane, the Tide created a number of open chances and simply couldn't connect. Every team has bad games. Every team has a bad stretch. But good teams respond from bad games. Good teams will hit those open shots with consistency.
It's too early in the season to begin calling for head coach Anthony Grant to be fired. There are too many things that can happen over the course of a season that can change the entire way this team will be remembered. The Tide has struggled before under Coach Grant and has been able to find a way to get itself back on track. But for now, this team will continue to be judged by its current record, its current production. And for now, Alabama's record and its production are leaving much to be desired.