We're just over 24 hours away from the Tide's 2010-2011 basketball season tipping off, but before we begin focusing on individual opponents and game results, it's important to take a look at where the Alabama basketball program stands heading into the 2010-2011 season, and how this year's team is positioned for the upcoming season.
As you may have heard, yesterday was National Signing Day for basketball's early signing period, when about 80-90% of players heading to major programs sign (the remaining 10-20% wait until the late signing period, which happens after the season). All four of Anthony Grant's commitments for the 2011 class all signed as expected. Right now this is a top-20 class at least, probably top-15. Grant said in his press conference yesterday that he was "obviously looking to add one or two more pieces." Considering Bama is among the favorites for 4-star forward Angelo Chol and 4-star guard Trevor Lacey, who both plan to sign in the late period, a top-10 or higher finish could well be within reach. You can read more about the signing class here.
Not only has Grant assembled one of the top classes in the country in the early signing period, but he has addressed the biggest needs for the team heading into next season. And we do have needs--big needs. Which brings me to my next point. Coach Grant said it best in yesterday's press conference.
We need to add some skill level to our perimeter. I think that’s something that we talked about from day one. Our job is to continue to develop the players that are in our program in terms of maximizing their potential and also add to the needs of our team on a unit basis. [...]
We’ve got to get better. I think right now as a team, we want to continue to add talent to our roster, to continue to build a style of play and to build a program to compete for championships.
Despite some nice additions to the roster from the 2010 signing class who are part of the team this year, we are sill a very "under-sized and under-skilled" team--exactly as Grant described us last year. The sobering truth is that we have some major deficiencies that will prevent us from competing for any sort of championship this season, and may even prevent us from seeing our results improve much from a year ago.
Earlier this week on Monday we faced Division II UAH in a preseason scrimmage. I said before the game that UAH, as one of the top D-II teams in the country, is probably a better team than a few of the lower-tier D-I teams we will face at home early on in the regular season, and as such, our performance against them would tell a lot about where we are right now.
I wasn't able to do a write-up specifically about the scrimmage, but most of you probably saw the headline that we needed two overtimes to beat them. I said before the game not to be surprised or overly concerned if the final margin was less the impressive. While the margin of victory isn't itself that concerning and the scrimmage, of course, didn't count, it nevertheless exposed our glaring weaknesses as a team and should serve as a sobering reality check for those who think we're going to magically become a great team just because it's Coach Grant's second year.
Our biggest weakness right now is a lack of perimeter scoring threats, specifically a lack of 3-point shooters. This was a weakness last year, and with two of our three true 3-point threats (Torrance and Brock) having graduated, we're now left with reserve guard Charvez Davis as our one true shooter, and he likely won't play more than 20 minutes per game or so. Sure, we have a few other guys who are capable of hitting from beyond the arc if they're left wide open, like starters Trevor Releford, Senario Hillman, Tony Mitchell, and reserves Charles Hankerson, Andrew Steele (if he ever gets healthy), and Kendall Durant. But none of those guys are big enough threats from beyond the arc to scare any opposing coach. In modern day college basketball, you simply can't expect to have a successful offense without having multiple perimeter shooting threats on the floor at all times, and we simply don't have that. UAH may be a better than a few teams we play this season, but they certainly aren't better than most, and they were able to hold us to a paltry 59 points in regulation by playing super soft on the perimeter and packing in their defense. It's like having no vertical passing threat in football, whereby even mediocre defenses can shut you down by packing 9 in the box. Sure, we were missing our best shooter in Davis, but UAH really shut our offense down, and that's discouraging.
Aside from just perimeter shooting, we also lack a perimeter playmaker. I said repeatedly last year that Mikhail Torrance was the alpha and omega of our perimeter playmaking--the only guy who could create on his own from the perimeter with the shot clock or game clock winding down. With him gone, our only hope is true freshman Trevor Releford. Through two exhibition games, Releford has the look of a guy who will be a great college point guard, and make no mistake about, Releford will be the piece Grant builds his team around in the coming years. That said, Releford isn't the type of point guard who's going to be able to score in isolation situations the way the 6'5" Torrance was. Still, it became evident in the closing moments of the UAH scrimmage that Releford was the only guy we had who could step up and make plays in those situations. To his credit, he made those plays against UAH, but looking forward at future opponents like Xavier, Purdue, Oklahoma State, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, MSU, etc., you have to worry about the lack of playmakers on the perimeter.
Finally, we still lack quality depth at point guard and in the post. Grant was clearly experimenting with the lineup in the first scrimmage and in the first half of the second scrimmage, but when it became apparent that UAH was threatening to walk away with an embarrassing exhibition win, he resorted to essentially an 8-man rotation, not entrusting either of the freshmen post players (Engstrom and Carter) with a single minute in the second half or overtime and only entrusting the two newcomers on the perimeter (Hankerson and Durant) with a combined 9 minutes between them. Instead, Ben Eblen, whose offensive game is so limited that UAH literally refused to guard him further than 10 feet from the basket, saw loads of action off the bench at guard. Aside from maybe Auburn, who should be the league's worst team this year, I can't think of another SEC team where he would play a single meaningful minute. Chris Hines played over 40 minutes, and while he brings a lot to the table and is a good enough athlete to see minutes for most SEC teams, I can't think of but one or maybe two he would start for. Don't forget we lost Justin Knox in the post, a huge hit for our front court depth.
The bottom line is that the same personnel weaknesses we had last year are still present this year, and with the loss of Torrance, Brock, and Knox, some of those weaknesses may actually be even more acute this years. That doesn't mean we can't improve this year, it just means whatever improvement we do make will have to be in spite of some glaring weaknesses that simply aren't going away before this season is done. In order to overcome these weaknesses, we need to see the following four things occur this season:
- Releford must play above and beyond what would normally be expected of a freshman point guard, and in doing so replace Torrance's lost production as much as possible.
- Our returning core players like Hillman, Davis, Mitchell, Green, and Hines must raise their games noticeably in their second year in Grant's system. Specifically, Green must consistently be a dominant force and live up to his pre-season first-team All-SEC hype, and Hillman and Mitchell must become more consistent scoring threats from the perimeter.
- Our defense, already the top defense in the SEC last season, must become even more dominant as we begin to utilize the full court press more. With our increased depth in the back court, indications are that we will be employing the full court press on a regular basis this season, something our limited numbers last year wouldn't really allow us to do. Forcing more turnovers and getting fastbreak chances is the best medicine for a team struggling to produce in the half court offense.
- We must learn how to finish and win close games. Our failure in this area was all too evident and all too painful a year ago. Finding a way to pull out a "win" in the second exhibition game against an inspired opponent on a night where we otherwise struggled was the one encouraging thing to come out of that UAH matchup. Simply by having the confidence and fortitude to close out these games and hold onto leads would be a big step forward for this team.
I am hopeful that all four of these key areas can play out like we want, and if they do we may very well see a significant improvement in our final record, but it will be tough.
In the words of the great OTS, hope for the best.