To preview the Tide's upcoming game in Lexington, Roll 'Bama Roll has teamed up with A Sea of Blue to bring you a two-part Q&A session on Tuesday night's game and the issues surrounding the two programs' diverging seasons.
In Part II, A Sea of Blue's questions will be answered by Roll 'Bama Roll's Matt Dover, who writes under the username "Bama07" on the blog. A Sea of Blue is our sister blog on the SB network and is an excellent source of analysis and information for any SEC basketball fan. Be sure to check them out and look for some great insight as they preview the game from the other side.
A Sea of Blue: After many long years of great recruiting but dubious coaching, Alabama finally replaced Mark Gottfried with Anthony Grant. How do you think Alabama fans like the hire, and what do you think of his performance so far?
Roll 'Bama Roll: Thusfar I've heard virtually no one come out and say that they think we didn't make a good hire. Almost universally, Alabama fans think Anthony Grant is the right man for the job and will take us where we want to go eventually. With the culture of our fanbase obviously being centered around football, his no-nonsense attitude, focus on defense and intensity, and talk of "doings the things that lead to winning" remind us of another certain someone who has an office next door, and generally gives us a good feeling that he likewise has what it takes to recruit and develop winners and more importantly instill a winning attitude in a program that has forgotten what it takes to win.
As for Grant's performance so far, I have been most impressed by his transformation of the Bama defense from what was typically a soft low-intensity exercise under Gottfried to a high-intensity disciplined component that is already the trademark of this team and looks to be the trademark of the program in the years ahead under Grant. Offensively, we are not very effective in half-court sets or in set plays. Some of this has to fall on the coaching staff but much of it simply has to do with the fact that we are desperately short on offensive playmakers, especially on the outside. We have one player on the perimeter who can create on his own and even he can only go one direction. Grant was never an offensive genius and if there was a weakness in his VCU teams it was half court offense. That said, our offense will certainly improve as the talent level is raised in the coming years. It is important to note that we have been playing with only nine scholarship players since November.
Speaking of talent, Grant never had a chance to bring in guys this year. The only two big-name guys we might have had a shot at landing in the late signing period after he was hired last spring will be on the court Tuesday night in Kentucky jerseys. Luckily for us he inherited Tony Mitchell, a 2008 signee who had to spend a year in prep school before coming in and looks to have a bright future after already nailing down the starting spot on the wing. As for next year, again he was hampered by only having about six months to recruit for the fall signing period, but I think we got a solid point guard (an absolute must) and what could be a major sleeper combo-guard. Word is we will also look to sign an extra big man this spring, probably out of JuCo. His recruiting skills will really be put to the test next fall, when we look to sign as many as six players for the 2011 class. That recruiting class will likely determine how fast and how far we will be able to rise under Grant.
Read below the jump as we discuss the keys to the big game in Rupp and the trials and tribulations of the Tide's season so far...
A Sea of Blue: It is a statistical fact that the Tide are limited offensively, but play very good defense. What is Alabama missing in terms of offense, in your opinion? What makes them such a good defensive team?
Roll 'Bama Roll: What are we missing on offense? Where to start? Well, the thing that gets the most attention here from outside observers is that we only have three post players on the roster. One is JaMychal Green. He's already a legit 2nd-team All-SEC player and has potential to be much, much more than that if he improves his mental toughness. He's a sophomore but younger than many freshman due to a late birthday, so he has plenty of room to grow in that department. He's a weapon, but isn't capable of taking over a game without a strong partner down low with him. JuCo transfer Chris Hines has been getting starts lately, and is quick for a 6'8" player, but has no offensive game to speak of really. Junior Justin Knox can score a little with his back to the basket and at the foul line, but just isn't a real threat either. Senior Demetrius Jemison probably would have started but suffered a season-ending injury before the season started. Basically, we need another big man who demands attention down low and gets Green into more one-on-one situations, not to mention to help on the offensive glass, where we really struggle.
That said, the real issue for this offense is the lack of playmakers on the outside. We have one player who can create anything offensively outside and that's senior Mikhail Torrance. He has his limitations as well (namely an inability to drive to his right) but it's his offense and he runs the show. He's the only player on our roster who will hurt you driving to the lane. Freshman Ben Eblen is the only other point guard on the team, and he just plays to give Torrance a breather. He is not a threat whatsoever offensively. When you only have one player who can break down a defense, things get really tough in half court sets. This is the biggest weakness of our offense, and it's not even close.
So basically our offense and team would be a powerhouse this year with the two pieces I noted above. Say, I don't know, maybe an (ahem) Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins? With two players like that we would be giving you a run for your money for the SEC title. As it stands, I suppose we'll just mark the whole thing down as payback for Shaun Alexander.
On defense, our success comes primarily from coaching, as I discussed above, although we do have some nice athletes that thrive in this system. Although we lack tremendous size down low, both JaMychal Green and Chris Hines are quick defenders who generally do a good job preventing easy looks around the rim, although Green is notorious for getting into foul trouble. Tony Mitchell is a freakish athlete on the wing and at 6'6" can get a lot of deflections. The best perimeter defender is junior guard Senario Hillman, who has started at shooting guard the last two games. He's probably the best pure athlete in the SEC, and that ability really shines through on defense. Expect to see him on Wall most of the game.
The biggest factor in our defensive improvement aside from the overall increase in emphasis and intensity and the change in mindset is the way our perimeter defenders play ball screens and close space around the arc. Unlike the Gottfried years, where a simple ball screen was often enough to free someone up for a spot-up 3 or drive-and-dish, Alabama is rarely beaten on these and is usually flawless in executing switches on screens and hedging when necessary. Also, the staff does a great job scouting and the Bama players typically apply appropriate pressure given the opposing guards' tendencies.
A Sea of Blue: Alabama shoots the ball pretty well from three at almost 35%, yet they are eighth in 3-point FGA in the conference. Why doesn't Alabama shoot more from the perimeter?
Roll 'Bama Roll: Again, this simply goes back to personnel. At any given time we usually only manage one-two guys on the floor who can knock down the 3-ball consistently. In fact, our starting lineup really only features one decent 3-point shooter, Torrance, and even he's more comfortable driving the lane, although he's been shooting more the last few games. Our other two perimeter starters, Hillman and Mitchell, are both capable of hitting, but Hillman has a very slow release and Mitchell is really just developing that part of his game (if he ever develops it fully, watch out). Both will shoot and can hit, but only if wide open. Our two best shooters are JuCo transfer guard Charvez Davis and senior guard Anthony Brock. Brock has been in and out of the starting lineup all year, but at only 5'9" he needs space to shoot. Davis is our best 3-point shooter overall and has a super-quick release, but as luck would have it he is struggling to recover from a nagging knee injury and hasn't been able to play more than ten minutes in the last three games. Even when healthly, he is no threat to dribble and so is rather easy to defend. Sophomore guard Andrew Steele was also capable of knocking it down, but alas he seems to be cursed like his brother and suffered a season-ending injury back in late November.
In short, it's simply a product of not having enough players to put on the floor at the same time who can get looks and hit them. The biggest part again is getting looks. Torrance is the only one who can create his own shot, so looks from the others are all going to be limited and dependent on the defense breaking down or making a mistake.
A Sea of Blue: Three of Alabama's six SEC losses have been by a total of seventeen points, three of them by only one. How can Alabama turn these narrow losses into victories, or more to the point, how are they losing so many close games?
Roll 'Bama Roll: Did I mention personnel? Well it's no secret that the team lives and dies offensively with Mikhail Torrance and JaMychal Green. When both are playing well and Bama gets its usual contributions from the rest of the cast, we're a good team. Heck, one might even say we're a very good team. The problem is that a) Green loves foul trouble and b) Torrance wears down after carrying the team on his shoulders for 30+ minutes. Green actually does a better job this year avoiding early fouls, although I'd say he still goes to the bench in the first half early with two fouls probably 1/3 of the time. His real problem though is the last six-eight minutes or so of each game when he just consumes fouls--often cheap, silly, tired fouls--and ends up missing the most crucial stretches of games more often than he doesn't. Torrance simply gets tired and almost like clockwork gives up a crushing, costly turnover in the final two-three minutes and just loses his legs on his shots and free throws late in the game when we need him to hit. When those two aren't producing and especially when Torrance is making mistakes, we become a shadow of what we are otherwise.
To avoid this, Grant has tried to give Torrance more breathers, bringing in Eblen for a minute at a time or letting Brock run the point. A bigger factor is Green and his foul troubles. Even when he's not fouling out, he's missing the 6 min.-3 min. stretch of the game, where we usually lose our leads, and when he's in he can't be the aggressive game-changing defender that he is normally. He simply has to avoid foul trouble against UK or else Cousins and Patterson will eat us alive.
The biggest factor though, which became all too evident in the infamous Oxford meltdown on Saturday, is that the team has just so much doubt and negative energy after losing so many leads and close games, that they just expect to lose. As Grant said in his Ole Miss post-game presser, "other teams come together and fight [adversity]; we don't do that."
A Sea of Blue: What do you think are three things that have to happen for Alabama to pull the upset over UK in Rupp Arena on Tuesday?
Roll 'Bama Roll: 1) Score in transition. Bama looks to get out and run off turnovers and long rebounds. One of our few strengths offensively is speed in transition, and when we can get some easy buckets without having to go to our halfcourt offense, we become much more difficult to beat. Unfortunately for us, teams know that stopping us from running is a big key, and they usually don't give up too many fastbreaks against us, not to mention Kentucky has some stellar athletes of their own. Our best chances to run come when we force turnovers, and UK's young lineup is prone to turnovers. We must force them into several costly ones and get at least 15 points in transition.
2) Prevent offensive rebounds. Kentucky rebounds an impressive 42% of their missed shots on the offensive end in conference play. Alabama only rebounds 60% of opponents' missed shots on the defensive end. To win, Alabama can not afford to give the 'Cats second chances. The Tide needs to rebound at least 2/3 of UK's missed shots.
3) Take and make 3's. Given Alabama's lack of consistent scoring and perimeter playmaking, the Tide must convert from the arc to capitalize on offensive chances. When Alabama is able to hit from deep, we become a very dangerous team (see first halves of Vandy, Florida, Ole Miss, and the MSU game), but when we don't, our offense becomes stagnant for long periods. We can't afford that against the 'Cats. We need to hit at least three 3's each half.
I think we need to do all three of those things to win, and even then we could lose in a close one if we let John Wall and company get going offensively.
A Sea of Blue: Predict the score, and describe how the game will go.
Roll 'Bama Roll: I see us coming out loose with something to prove, making some shots early and getting some fast breaks off of some sloppy Kentucky play in the early going. Kentucky maybe gets tight after finding themselves in an unexpectedly close game early on. We build up a little lead, then UK goes on a small run late in the half and the game is very tight at the break.
Obviously Alabama will have the lead at the half. If not, something isn't going according to the usual Bama script, which either means we're in for a beatdown (likely) or it signals our fortunes have reversed and we might actually win a close game (far less likely).
Eventually though Kentucky's young players will loosen up in the second half when Alabama inevitably goes cold shooting or loses its intensity on the defensive end and gives up some easy second-chance points. The crowd will come alive after a relatively quiet first half, and Kentucky will have a double-digit lead by the under-8 timeout. Bama will avoid the blowout but never threaten the UK lead down the stretch.