The Crimson Tide basketball team survived a sluggish offensive performance and a cold shooting night to hand the South Carolina Gamecocks a 57-47 defeat in Coleman Coliseum last night. The win moved Bama to 2-0 in SEC play, the first time the Tide has opened conference play with back-to-back wins since 2002, which incidentally was the last time Bama claimed the SEC championship.
While Bama's offense wasn't pretty at times, the defense lived up to its billing as one of the nation's best. South Carolina shot only 29% for the game, scored nearly 30 points below their season average, and most telling of all had more turnovers (20) than made baskets (16).
Coach Grant likes to say that this team's identity comes from the defensive end and that if we play well enough in that phase, we'll be in a position to win every game even if shots aren't falling that night. That was certainly the case last night, and really, winning a game against a decent SEC team on a night where we simply didn't play all that well offensively is very encouraging. That has to be a good sign moving forward in SEC play.
It wasn't all bad on the offensive end, though. JaMychal Green continued to play like the All-SEC player we've been waiting to see all this time. He put in 20 points and grabbed 9 rebounds against one of the nation's best shot-blockers in Carolina's Sam Muldrow. Green isn't really doing anything skill-wise or physically that he hasn't shown before, but in terms of his mindset and work rate on the court he is light years ahead of where he was before his suspension earlier this year.
The other big key for Bama last night was Tony Mitchell. The guy doesn't get much talk as a star in the SEC or even on the team but he's at least equally as important to this team as is Green, in my opinion. No one one makes more plays all-around than does Mitchell. He finished the game with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and even more importantly he seemed to give us baskets at times when we really needed them. He's an absolute monster on the glass for a small forward and his speed and athleticism allow him to make big-time plays around the rim and in transition. He still hasn't found his shooting stroke, though, which is the one thing keeping him from becoming an All-SEC player (and probably an NBA player too).
Once again, Grant stuck with the same playing rotation, relying very heavily on his starting five of Releford, Davis, Mitchell, Hines and Green and using Hillman as his sixth man. Releford had an off-night offensively with only 3 points and 1 assist to go with 4 turnovers, but he was superb on the defensive end against Carolina's star point guard Bruce Ellington. Davis was shut down from the 3-point line, only getting off two shots (both misses), but just like in Starkville last Saturday, he played very well defensively and made some plays driving to the hoop, especially for a player not really known for either. Hines only played half the game, probably due to Carolina's smaller lineup, but he was his usual self, very active on defense and on the boards but not really looking to score offensively. Hillman made some big-time contributions, especially late in the second half that really helped push the team across the finish line.
The only other two players to see action were Andrew Steele and Ben Eblen. Steele played 14 minutes and looks to be fully healthy and capable to contributing to this team the rest of the way. His return is huge for the team's depth, although his minutes look to be coming at the expense of Charles Hankerson, who hasn't seen the court in either SEC game. The two players have very similar styles, but Steele has the edge in experience and on defense. Eblen is likely to only see major minutes when Releford gets into foul trouble from here on out, but for the second game in a row he had to come in late in the first half due to Releford's foul situation. Those minutes he contributed late in that half last night were among his most productive of the season. He scored a runner to kill a South Carolina run and he racked up 4 steals on the defensive end.
As fun as Bama's 2-0 SEC start has been, it's important to keep things in perspective. For starters, the two wins have come against one of the conference's weaker teams in a state of transition (MSU), and against a middle-of-the-road team (South Carolina) at home. Our next two games will be much tougher, as we must travel to Fayetteville to take on a good Arkansas team on Saturday before returning home to play top-15 Kentucky next Tuesday. Furthermore, I'm afraid that the hard truth is that no matter what we do in SEC play--even winning the division--we are in too deep a hole to qualify for a bid to the Dance.
I say those things not to be a downer, but just to keep things in perspective. This team is growing and improving right before our eyes, and this could be the first enjoyable SEC basketball season for Bama fans in about five years. For now let's just focus on that and support this team in every way we can.