The Crimson Tide basketball team picked up an important 73-68 win over the weekend at home against the SEC West-leading Arkansas Razorbacks, who had won five games in a row coming in. Roll 'Bama Roll reacts with some (belated) initial impressions...
- The game followed the usual Alabama game script we've seen all too often this painful season. A quick start to the game leading to a significant halftime lead. A double-digit lead making things look comfortable early in the second half. Then an offensive lag leading to a close game in the final minute in which the lead disappears for good. Only this time, Alabama wasn't the team playing the victim, losing the lead, and watching it slip away in the final seconds. It was Alabama which fought its way back in the second half and for once it was someone else who left the building with a bitter, disappointing defeat.
- After losing four games in a row, this was a huge win for Coach Anthony Grant and the Tide. The victory pulled Alabama up to 14-11 on the season and 4-7 in SEC play. The four-game losing streak ended Bama's hopes of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but with this win the Tide still has a chance to finish things off strongly with an NIT bid if it can rally in the final three weeks of the season with a winning record.
- Things weren't all pretty for the Tide on Saturday, though. Alabama played its worst opening half of the season, and were it not for the epic meltdown in the second half of last Saturday's game in Oxford, we could probably call it the worst half of the season period. Bama's biggest problem was a general lack of intensity and focus--something we've seen in stretches (usually late in games) but never like this at the beginning of a game against a major opponent. The Tide was sloppy on offense and worst of all lazy on defense. Alabama was so sloppy on offense that it turned the ball over on 32% of its possessions in the half (11 turnovers out of 34 possessions). What's more, the Tide managed only 17 shot attempts and one second-chance opportunity. Arkansas meanwhile came out playing like a team that had won five in a row and was looking to make it ten. Their energy level was way above ours and Courtney Fortson in particular was simply having his way with the Alabama defense. Bama's defense was uncharacteristically soft on the perimeter and slow to recover in transition, giving the red-hot Razorbacks far too many easy looks from the arc and on fast breaks. Alabama should have been down double-digits at the half, but a big free throw disparity (16 attempts to 5) and hot shooting on the few shots we did manage to get off in the half (52% from the field) kept the Arkansas lead down to nine at the break.
Read below the jump for more on Alabama's comeback and some individual assessments...
- I don't know what was said in the locker room at halftime, but it seemed to work. We came out looking like a more focused, driven team and played like we were truly determined to win and not just hoping to win. Alabama cut down its turnovers, giving up only five in the half. Arkansas never got any more easy looks in transition. The defense locked down sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke and contained point guard Courtney Fortson. Meanwhile Alabama worked the boards like a team possessed, racking up a stunning (for anyone, but especially for us) 10 offensive boards against an Arkansas team that heavily out-rebounded us earlier in the year in Fayetteville.
- Probably the biggest key to the win though--and the most encouraging development from the whole game--was our ability to get to the free throw line. We attempted an unbelievable 29 free throws and converted a very good 76% from the stripe. Alabama is dead last in the SEC by a wide margin in free throw attempts, a major reason why our offense struggles against good defenses and why we are prone to such long scoring droughts. The fact that we got to the free throw line so much indicates that we were more aggressive in attacking the goal and hopefully will lead to more aggressive play in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on our free throw attempts in the next two games. This will be a big factor in our ability to win on the road in Athens and Starkville.
- What a performance by senior guard and Arkansas native Anthony Brock. I've been somewhat disappointed by his lack of production this season, but he really did everything we could want and more on Saturday against the Hogs. He played 31 minutes, splitting point guard duties with Torrance and leading the team with five assists. Although he was recruited as a point guard out of JuCo, Grant has used him almost entirely at shooting guard this season, but in recent games he has taken Ben Eblen's spot as the backup at point guard and in the Arkansas game spent about an equal time running the offense as did Torrance. For the second game in a row, Brock had success attacking the rim despite his small size. He nailed probably the team's biggest 3-point shot of the season to give Bama the lead for good in the final minutes and iced the game with his free throw shooting in the final seconds. His biggest contribution on the day though was the defensive work he put in on Fortson. Early on in the game thread, I openly questioned the decision to defend Fortson with Brock instead of Hillman, but the decision ultimately payed off in the second half when Brock did a fabulous job containing the SEC's most dynamic penetrator. If Brock can close out his senior season with similar production, we can expect to see some more good team results.
JaMychal Green had a monster game all around against probably the second best frontcourt duo in the SEC. He snagged nine total rebounds, including three big offensive boards, while generally avoiding foul trouble. He made it to the free throw line 13 times (converting all but one), indicating that he did what he has at times failed to do consistently this season: attack the defense. His 12 made free throws, added to his 5-of-9 performance from the field, tallied him 22 points on the game. I've said over and over again that Green is capable of these kinds of performances night in and night out if he simply improves his focus, aggressiveness, and consistency. This game was a prime example of what he can do when he takes his game at his opponent throughout a game. He is our most talented player and can be one of the SEC's best players.
- It was a tale of two halves for Mikhail Torrance. For the second game in a row, he was left out of the starting lineup. I honestly don't think this is an indication of anything other than Grant wanting to keep him fresh in an effort to improve his production late in the half and the game. This is just speculation on my part, so there could be more to it, but it makes sense and in any case it seems to be working. He had probably his worst half of the year in the opening period, with no points, only one assist, and two costly turnovers from our most valuable player. He responded in the second half with 12 points, two assists, no turnovers, and some very, very clutch free throw shooting down the stretch. He only played 13 minutes each half despite a lack of foul trouble, with I think is simply a matter of Grant trying to avoid overusing him and his increased confidence in Brock's ability to fill in at the point. Torrance has been averaging close to 35 minutes in SEC play, so him totaling only 26 in such a close game is a big change, as his is omission from the starting lineup. If it is simply to keep him fresh, I think it is a good idea.
- Senario Hillman had another good game. He has become a more consistent player for us the last several games. I think he knows now what Grant wants from him and for the most part he's giving it to him. He has actually cut down on his bad shots, shooting over 50% once again while racking up 11 points and three assists. His turnovers were up slightly though, as he turned it over four times, mostly in the opening half. And of course his defense was huge for us. Instead of being paired with Fortson like I expected, the staff matched him up with Clarke, and he made the SEC's most deadly 3-point shooter a complete non-factor in the second half. Despite what many fans think of his game, we are a better team with Hillman on the court and the coaching staff knows it. He picked up another game of 30+ minutes and in this game seems to have even taken away some minutes from very productive freshman Tony Mitchell, who only played 19 minutes total and 8 in the second half. This could have been either a result of Brock and Hillman's strong play, defensive matchups, or something else. I'm sure we'll see plenty more from this young promising player down the stretch. Charvez Davis saw his minutes pick up slightly, which hopefully means he is beginning to shake off his knee injury. It was great to see him hit that big 3 to complete the comeback early in the second half.
- Down low, Chris Hines once again played significantly more than Justin Knox. Grant went out of his way to single out Hines in his post-game comments, emphasizing that Hines' energy and defense were very important to the team, even if those things don't always show up in the box score. Hines did tally a very nice seven rebounds but his five turnovers are a little concerning. He has to be more careful with his passing when he receives the ball on the perimeter. Despite only playing 15 minutes, Knox hit some big jump shots early on to keep us in it when the team was struggling, finishing with six points and four rebounds. He brings more to the table offensively than Hines and does some nice things for us on that end when Green is out of the game.
- The Tide now has a well-deserved break to rest up for the final five games of the regular season and the SEC tournament. After a week off, Bama will travel to Athens for a road matchup against the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. No remaining game will be easy now that we've already faced LSU twice, but all five are also very winnable now that we've already played the conference's top four teams (all from the East). Basically, these final five games are all against middle-of-the-pack SEC teams, so we can consider them all toss-ups. Hopefully we come back from the short break rested and focused and ready to win some more big games like we saw on Saturday. Roll Tide!