The Crimson Tide basketball team got the 2012-2013 season started off this past weekend with a pair of home games over non-conference foes. In the nationally televised opener on Friday night, the Tide claimed a dramatic comeback victory over a very good mid-major team in South Dakota State, culminated by a game-winning three-pointer by Trevor Lacey at the buzzer. Watch the game-winner here if you missed it. The Tide then steamrolled Division II West Alabama on Sunday afternoon to improve to 2-0 on the year.
Some observations from the Tide's 2-0 start below:
What do these two wins mean for Alabama's postseason hopes? First of all, it should be noted that games against Division II opposition do not count in any way, shape or form in the RPI or in any other considerations for the NCAA Tournament. Practically, this means the win over West Alabama will have no impact whatsoever on Bama's postseason resume, other than adding an extra number to the win total in the team's win/loss record. The victory over South Dakota State is another story entirely, though. The Jackrabbits are a team that won the Summit Conference last season en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance, and with four starters returning, including an All-American candidate, they are expected to repeat as conference champions, return to the NCAA Tournament, and be ranked among the nation's top 100, if not top 50 teams by year end. A win over a top 100 or possibly top 50 team in nonconference play will ultimately be more valuable than the majority of the wins the Tide will claim later on in SEC play. In fact, SDSU may well end up being the third or fourth highest ranked team Alabama faces this season in nonconference play. This win will help tremendously come selection time in March.
Generally speaking, how is the team looking this year? It's difficult to gauge much of anything from the Tide's easy win over a Division II opponent, but Bama was tested to the max in the opener on Friday night, and in that game we saw many of the same strengths and weaknesses we've seen in Anthony Grant's teams the last two years. The defense was fairly effective in terms of limiting a very good offensive team to under 70 points and in creating turnovers at key times, but the offense struggled to produce when outside shots weren't falling and turnovers weren't being created on the defensive end. Some fans will groan when reading this, but keep in mind that Alabama has been an NCAA Tournament-caliber team the last two years. If the Tide is able to maintain that level despite losing its top two players from last season, and with all but one player set to return next season, including all five starters, maintaining the status as an NCAA Tournament caliber team is far from the worst outcome in the world. That isn't to say that Alabama won't improve from last season (or regress for that matter), just to say that through one competitive game, this team showed many of the same characteristics of recent versions of the Tide basketball team.
Is Trevor Lacey on the verge of a breakout season? After signing with Anthony Grant and the Tide as a high-profile 5-star recruit prior to last season, Trevor Lacey underwent offseason knee surgery and was never quite 100% for most of his freshman season. Then just as things started to click for him in the last month of the regular season, he suffered an ankle injury that hampered him on and off down the stretch. Now, as a seemingly healthy sophomore, the former star recruit has started things off with a bang, scoring 15 points, including the dramatic buzzer-beater against South Dakota State, and then following that up with a career-high 23 points in only 22 minutes of action against West Alabama. Even more exciting for the Bama fans out there, Lacey is off to a 7-for-10 start from behind the arc. After suffering through two seasons without a consistent three-point threat, fans are hopeful that this is a sign of things to come from Lacey this year. It's still way too early to tell just how good a season Lacey will have, but at this juncture, he's probably the odds-on favorite to be the team's leading scorer this year, at the very least. While he's improved his game inside the arc, Lacey will need to continue his hot shooting from outside and shoot more often and more efficiently than he did last year in order to not just lead the team, but also begin to emerge as a star in the SEC.
How big a concern is the lack of interior scoring? Through two games, starting center Moussa Gueye has failed to score in 28 minutes on the court. Fellow 7-foot center Carl Engstrom has manged six points in 29 minutes of action. Sophomore forward Nick Jacobs, who averaged over six points per game last season as a freshman despite just seeing 19 minutes on the floor each game, has only four total points to his name this season. However, it should be noted that Jacobs, who showed flashes of being a very effective low-post scorer last season, has been severely hampered with an ankle injury during the first two games and has seen minimal time on the court. There's no reason to think that once healthy, Jacobs won't significantly improve on both the 19 minutes played and six points scored averages he posted last season. However, the bulk of Bama's interior scoring will have to come from Jacobs, because neither Engstrom nor Gueye is going to produce points beyond some clean-up work from put-backs and finishes near the rim. All told, Alabama won't be able to rely on a go-to post player for points the way the team could in the last few seasons with now-departed JaMychal Green. That said, the Tide does have someone who can produce in Jacobs once he's healthy, but even with him back at full strength, the onus will be much more on the Tide perimeter for scoring this year, which brings us to the next point.
Aside from Lacey, where will the points come from? Since Bama will need more scoring from its perimeter players this year, who besides Lacey is poised to step up and fill the void? We've already mentioned Lacey's hot start and the expected contributions of forward Nick Jacobs, who ideally can break the double-figure threshold once healthy. The leading candidate remaining for scoring output would seem to be sophomore wing player Rodney Cooper. The versatile Cooper is picking up where he left off last season, when he began to show flashes of his offensive potential late during his freshman season. He's already launched 14 three's in two games, a big sign that he's got the green light to look for buckets on the offensive end. He's already second on the team in scoring, and if I had to guess, that's where he'll end the season. He's at 16.5 points per game now, which will be a difficult pace to maintain, but if he can come close to that and shoot around 30% from the arc, it will be a huge boost for this team. The other key player to look to for scoring will be the team's most valuable player (regardless of scoring output), junior point guard Trevor Releford. Releford has been a full-time starter and double-digit scorer for two years now, but in his third season as the team's point guard, he'll likely need to step up his scoring beyond the 11.5 points he averaged during his first two seasons. He's averaging 16.0 through two games this season despite starting on the bench each game for some unknown reason. If he can keep his scoring average in the mid-to-high teens rather than the low teens like his first two seasons, Alabama's perimeter scoring will become much more prolific.
What role will freshman 5-star recruit Devonta Pollard play? Pollard has started both of the games so far at the forward position. He's shown the athleticism that made him such a prized recruit on both the defensive end and on the glass, already recording a team-leading 4 blocks on the season. He's also played a majority of the team's minutes, leaving little doubt that he'll play a significant role on this year's team--not that there was really any doubt. However, while Pollard has shown every bit of the athleticism that was expected, he has also looked a tad raw at times with the ball in his hands. Bama fans should not expect him to be a consistent scorer, but with the minutes he'll earn from his size and his defensive and rebounding attributes, he should find ways to get the ball in the hole on a regular basis. Like Tony Mitchell early in his career, Pollard should be able to find ways to make plays one way or another even if he isn't creating a lot of good shots for himself in the halfcourt offense. Look for him to also match up defensively with some of the quicker forwards on opposing teams that might not be good matchups for the slower Jacobs or either of the two 7-foot centers.
What is the team's biggest weakness? Defensive rebounding. None of Alabama's three post players, Gueye, Engstrom, or Jacobs, are great rebounders, and aside from Pollard, no other player on Bama's roster stands more than 6'6". Boxing out will be imperative for all three of the aforementioned post players, and others like Pollard, Cooper, Levi Randolph, and Andrew Steele will have to crash the boards and compete with taller players to claim missed shots, especially on the defensive end. South Dakota State wasn't a very good offensive rebounding team, but even they were able to hurt the Tide badly with some key offensive rebounds in the opener. This could be a major concern when Bama plays teams with even more physical frontcourts.