It was an ugly, sloppy game throughout, but in the end the Crimson Tide basketball team got exactly what it wanted: a comfortable home win over an in-state mid-major foe. The 72-50 win over the South Alabama Jaguars moves the Tide to 4-3 at the halfway point of the non-conference season, with three very tough road games on the horizon for the next three Saturdays.
Early on the game looked like it might follow the script of the Tide's ugly losses down in the Virgin Islands, with the Jags running out to an early lead after several costly turnovers by the Tide. Big credit has to go to Charvez Davis, who hit two big 3s in a 2-minute span at that point in the game that put the Tide ahead for good and really sparked the offense. In fact, Davis's 3-of-4 shooting from the arc in the first half was the biggest--and perhaps only--reason the Tide went to the locker room at halftime with a double-digit lead. He had an excellent all-around game and was a big-time difference maker in this win. Keep in mind Davis went 0-for-8 from the arc in the Iowa and St. Peter's losses where Bama failed to crack 50 on the scoreboard, so that should tell you just how big a key his shooting is for this offense.
Once Bama built that lead in the first half, South Alabama started to press things with the tempo, and that's when Tony Mitchell stepped up an took over the game. He was an absolute monster last night, and has now recorded back-to-back double-doubles in the absence of the still-suspended JaMychal Green, pouring in 20 points and collecting 13 boards, capped off by at least three spectacular plays. He's really starting to step up and assert himself more consistently on offense, defense, and especially on the boards. Senario Hillman has also shown improvement in his offensive game this year, despite a couple of poor outings in the Virgin Islands.
One player who did struggle a bit in this game was freshman point guard Trevor Releford. He's certainly been a bright spot for the team so far, and has for the most part exceeded expectations for us at the point guard position this year, but he had probably the worst game of his young college career last night. He struggled to protect the ball in the first half and failed to get the offense rolling in this game. Fortunately Davis's shooting and the increased tempo later in the game made up for it, but Releford will have to play at a much higher level over the next three weeks if Bama wants to have a chance to pick up a tough road win in December.
Ben Eblen is a player who has been something of a pleasant surprise. Keep in mind that I'm saying this after a game where he scored 1 point and had 5 turnovers on only 3 assists, so that shows you how low expectations were for him. That said, in his 17 minutes on the floor, Bama had a +17 scoring margin, highest +/- margin on the team per minute played. While he still brings nothing to the scoring offense, he is an excellent defender and is a capable enough ball handler to fill in at point guard. He's been most effective when paired with Releford, but he's most needed when Releford is on the bench. Bottom line: the team is capable of playing winning basketball when he's on the court, a not-so-trivial fact given he is the only other point guard besides Releford.
In the post, Chris Hines had a very solid game, especially on the defensive end. He led the team with 5 blocks, and contributed 8 points and 7 rebounds. On a couple of occasions he was able to back USA's small post players down relatively easy--not a strength of Hines--which leads me to believe this is a game where Green could have dominated had he been dressed out. We didn't need him against Alabama A&M and South Alabama, but it's hard to foresee us being able to hang with the likes of Purdue down low without him. Whatever he did, let's hope he's made amends to Grant before the team plane leaves for Indiana tomorrow.
To be honest, I was not at all impressed by South Alabama. Their offense is sub-par, and they lack size inside--and that's lucky for us, because as sloppy as we were for much of the game last night, we would have had trouble beating a team that could score more consistently. We committed 22 turnovers, far too many for this team--especially while missing its biggest scoring threat--to beat a strong opponent. The biggest thing though was the result, and on that subject we really don't have anything to complain about. After two easy wins at home against in-state mid-major schools that likely won't even be in the top half of their respective conferences, we can't say that we're back or that we've recovered from the shipwreck in the islands or that we're now where we want to be.
I think we can say, however, that we've taken the necessary steps to begin to move in the right direction. Grant made a huge statement by suspending the team's top player for multiple games, and other players have started to step up. We've gotten back in the win column with two confidence-boosting wins, and the team has shown a good attitude and good effort in doing so. 4-3 isn't where we wanted to be right now, but of course, things could be worse (see: Auburn). We still have about 80% of the season remaining, so the story of this year has yet to be written by any stretch. What we do in the next month will say a lot about where this season will go.
This is when things really get started. Each of the next three Saturday afternoons, we will face a major-conference opponent on a hostile court in front of a national television audience, beginning with a trip to face #18 Purdue in West Lafayette in two days. Winning any of these games will be tough, but if we are going to truly turn our postseason fortunes around before it's too late, this is when it needs to happen. Buckle up folks.