Bammer- I'd like to officially welcome Bamabrave to the RBR team. He is a current student at UA and has been tasked to cover basketball for the blog. Y'all give him a warm welcome. Roll Tide.
While I know basketball may be the furthest thing from many Alabama fans' minds right now, the hoops version of the Crimson Tide has been hard at work at practice, and the season is only a few weeks away. As we enter Coach Anthony Grant's fifth season at the Capstone, there are many questions about the current state of the program. While there have been many successes (NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012, 3 straight top 5 SEC finishes), there have also been a bevy of unfortunate events that have soured Grant's tenure (inexplicable losses, a barrage of transfers out of the program). Overall, I think it is safe to say that many Bama fans feel mostly underwhelmed by Grant's time here, regardless of the overall success of the program.
Enter the 2013-14 Alabama basketball season. There is no question that Coach Grant is facing a critical season regarding his status as the men's basketball coach. That doesn't necessarily mean that this is a make-or-break type of a season, but being that this is Year 5 of his tenure, it's all on him. This is completely his program now, and he is the one most important person responsible for the success of the team.
After last season concluded with the Tide's loss to Maryland in the NIT, there was a lot of hope going into this season that the Tide would take that next step up to a legitimate SEC contender and NCAA Tournament shoo-in. After all, the Tide was graduating only one scholarship senior in Andrew Steele, and the team was finally going to be one of the most experienced squads in the conference.
But then the 2013 offseason, one of the craziest I have ever witnessed, happened. Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State, stunning Alabama fans everywhere. Moussa Gueye transferred to Valparasio, and former 5 star Devonta Pollard got caught up in some bizarro kidnapping case. Two starters on a top SEC basketball team transferred away. That is literally unheard of.
But enough of the past, let's focus on this year's team. Thankfully, this is still a talented team, and if there is one thing that you can take to the bank regarding an Anthony Grant coached team, it's that they will play defense better than almost anyone.
When discussing Alabama's backcourt, it all starts with senior point guard Trevor Releford. The Crimson Tide will go as far as Releford can take them this year, and that is by no means cause for concern. Releford is the best PG in the SEC right now. Guys like Florida's Scottie Wilbekin and Kentucky's Andrew Harrison both could make a run at that title this season, but there is no question that Releford is the best right now. Releford averaged 14.9 PPG on .476 FG% and .407% from beyond the arc. He also averaged 2.7 RPG, 2.5 APG and 2.1 SPG. Releford is also very good from the free throw line, finishing at 82.4% last year. He has gotten better every year, and that should continue this year as he takes on the role as the go-to scorer for the Crimson Tide.
Another reason to be excited about this year's backcourt is the presence of two juniors with a bunch of experience manning (for the most part) the traditional shooting guard and small forward positions. Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper will be absolutely crucial to Alabama's success this year. The two of them, combined with backup guards Retin Obasohan and Algie Key, will have to really step up to replace Lacey's production. The good news is that Randolph and Cooper are more than capable of doing just that. Together they combined for 18.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, and 1.8 SPG last season. Their experience will be vital to this team, but with reports of Randolph suffering a knee injury in practice, we may have to turn to some other options early in the year. Obasohan came on strong at the end of last year, let's hope he can continue to contribute really productive minutes off of the bench. He reminds me of a less athletic Senario Hillman, and that is no knock on him. The other variable is the JUCO transfer Key, who averaged 17.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 4.5 APG at Barton CC last season. He is very athletic and should add a great dimension to our transition game, although he isn't a very good distance shooter. Sound familiar?
The Alabama frontcourt was almost nonexistent at times last year, and it really hurt the Tide. The loss of JaMychal Green was felt BIG time last season. Juniors Nick Jacobs and Carl Engstrom should get the majority of minutes down low, and we need them to contribute much more consistently than Jacobs and Gueye did a year ago. Engstrom looked like he was finally starting to come around before his season ending ACL injury suffered in December last year. The 7 footer was further along in his development than Gueye was, and we need him to get back on track quickly.
I made a few comments last year that Jacobs was our most important player. He clearly wasn't our best, but whenever he played well, the offense actually ran pretty effectively. But there were times a year ago where Jacobs was a ghost. He would disappear for games at a time, and we just couldn't afford that. Jacobs did finish the season with 7.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 1.1 BPG, but we need that to improve this year. Hopefully he plays stronger with the ball, and gets that ole left hook shot going again. Oh and the 60% FT% has to improve as well.
The one area where the Tide has already improved on this year from last is in depth down low. 4 star freshmen Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale add a MUCH needed boost in depth. Last year we had literally two big men, we will have doubled that this year. Taylor (6'10) and Hale (6'8) should really help us even if they take a while to come around. Simply having two more guys to log minutes and crash the boards will do wonders for the Tide. Hopefully these two will be anti-Pollards, and will actually surprise us in how well they can play around the rim.
As stated above, I am cautiously optimistic about the Crimson Tide basketball team this year. With another strong defense, Releford at the point, plenty of experience at each position, and actual depth in the low post, this could be a very good season for the Crimson Tide. The schedule this year will greatly benefit the Tide as well. Having games against major conference competition (Oklahoma, Texas Tech, at USF, at UCLA), some of the mid-major kingpins (Wichita State and Xavier), and participating in the preseason NIT (which includes the likes of Arizona, Duke, and Rutgers), the Tide shouldn't have the same horrible non conference SOS that has killed our hopes of making the Tournament in the past. The Selection Committee has shown time and again that challenging yourself during the nonconference slate is a huge benefit to getting into the field. The SEC should be much improved this season as well, so as long as the Tide can avoid (PLEASE) ugly losses such as ones experienced in the past (Mercer, Tulane, Auburn, and St. Peter's), Bama's RPI will be a good resume builder this year.
To the chagrin of many Anti-ny Granters (anyone?) out there, you should probably expect this team to look very similar to last year's team. It should be an improved version however, and that will make a world of difference. Alabama basketball is similar to the Muschamp version of Florida football in that there is a small margin for error when you play with a slow paced offense and a stingy defense. In the past, we have eclipsed that margin. An improved version of the Tide should be enough to contend for a 2nd NCAA Tournament appearance in 3 years, and with the current momentum we have in recruiting, as well as the addition of multiple transfers for next season, I believe the future is bright with Coach Grant and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
But, as has become common during the Grant regime, I have my reservations.