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Sunday Conversation: The Answer or Average?

Is Anthony Grant the man to bring Alabama basketball back to national prominence? Or is the status quo as good as it gets?

In Anthony Grant the answer at Alabama?
In Anthony Grant the answer at Alabama?

Anthony Grant has a problem. And it's one that even the Great Saban can't help him conquer.

The demon that is haunting Grant currently is that of public perception. It's just as ephemeral as the more traditional type of haint, only the dangers of leaving this one free to roam may ultimately prove much greater.

In his four years as the head coach of the Alabama basketball team, Grant has made strides. No one who has even a passing familiarity with the state of the program left in the wake of previous coach Mark Gottfried's tenure can make an argument to the contrary. Grant has restocked what had become a depleted roster in Gottfried's final years at the Capstone, and the Tide has seen moderate success. Grant's winning percentage is on par with, and in some cases better than, those of his predecessors, two of whom are considered Crimson Tide coaching legends.

So why all the hatin'?

That's where the perception piece comes into play. Let us chisel through some of that perception baggage and look at the facts of the matter as they stand today.

Grant, in his fourth season at Alabama, has proven himself reliable, winning at a rate similar to that of legendary former Tide coaches Wimp Sanderson and C.M. Newton. Grant's winning percentage at Alabama (as of press time), is respectable, at 61% (82-50). Newton mustered a winning percentage in Tuscaloosa of only 58% (211-123) over 12 seasons, compared with Wimp Sanderson's 69% (265-118) and Mark Gottfried's 62% (210-131).

Let's pry a little deeper and look into two of the major points of evaluation for NCAA basketball coaches, namely NCAA tournament appearances and conference titles. Grant has not won the conference thus far in his four year tenure, but he has led the Tide to the NCAA tourney in his 3rd year (2011-2012 season). Add into that equation an NIT runner up finish in 2010-2011, and that rounds out Grant's success in regards to that particular measurable.

His predecessors had varying degrees of success in that regard, with Newton leading the Tide to 3 consecutive SEC titles in the mid-1970s, along with two NCAA tourney appearances and 4 NIT appearances. Sanderson stands alone in this category, with 10 NCAA tourney appearances in his 12 year career at Alabama, including six trips to the Sweet 16 and five SEC titles. Gottfried marshaled the Tide into five NCAA tourneys, once going as deep as the Elite 8. Add to that a SEC championship and 3 NIT appearances over his11 seasons at the helm.

To make these statistics somewhat meaningful to the discussion, let's look at this info in a different light. Newton appeared in the tournament in 16.6% of his seasons at Bama, Sanderson (83.3%) and Gottfried (45.4%). Grant's ratio of seasons/ NCAA appearances is not the best, nor the worst, at 25.0%. In other words, you can count on Grant making the tournament once every four years (there is some margin for error due to the statistical sample). As for the other coaches included in the discussion, Newton reached the tourney an average of once every six years; Sanderson went to the tourney nearly every year, and Gottfried found himself in the NCAA mix an average of once every two years. (If Grant's VCU stats are combined with his Bama stats, then we may get a better reflection of reality, as Grant has now had 3 tourney teams in 6 full years as a head coach for an appearance percentage of 50%).

We've looked at overall winning percentage at Alabama, conference titles, total number of NCAA appearances and rate of NCAA appearances. And in all of these categories, Anthony Grant's results stack up at best favorably, and at worst equivalently, to those highly lauded numbers posted by his predecessors.

So again, why all the hatin'? What are we missing?

Recruiting, you say? All of his predecessors had relative success with recruiting, to one degree or another. Wimp Sanderson put more players in the NBA than any other Bama coach in recent memory, with 11 players moving on to the next level during his tenure. And Wimp's guys, at least some of them, were league stalwarts (Robert "King of Rings" Horry, Latrell "I Will Choke You" Spreewell, Derrick McKee and David Benoit to name a few). Grant has had success in recruiting as well, though time will tell if these players will make it to the NBA. Several highly touted recruits, including Trevor Releford, Trevor Lacey and Devonta Pollard, have pledged themselves to Grant in his time at Bama.

Is there an apparent disconnect between the talent the Tide players possess, and the production Grant milks from them night in and night out? That's a valid criticism, one that can easily be supported by countless examples from this season alone. The second half collapses are indicative of this potential issue.

But we're still groping in the dark. Grant says all the right things, demands accountability and has dealt aggressively with discipline problems (paging Tony Mitchell). He stepped up as a pillar of the Tuscaloosa community in the aftermath of the tornadoes several years ago, proving a worthy counterpart for Coach Nick Saban in the leadership department.

So why, despite the relative uniformity on the scale of success, does Grant have to prove so much more than his predecessors?

The answer, quite possibly, lies with perception. And this perception problem has been fueled not by overall statistics, but by failures at key moments to seize success and relentlessly chase victory.

Take this year for example. The Tide was primed to make another NCAA run, with the bulk of the returning talent healthy and available, and the addition of difference makers such as Pollard. And the team started strong, that is until an inexplicable series of losses to teams such as Tulane and Dayton in the month of December. The Tide scrapped its way back into contention and a spot on the bubble in January, only to see that momentum turned back with a horrible loss to Auburn. Hobbled but not yet dead, Alabama needed only to beat LSU and Ole Miss to seize a potential tournament berth, only to drop both games after leading by a comfortable margin.

All teams lose games. But what may be creating more of a problem for Grant is the games that he has lost, and the timing of those losses. In other words, Perception Problem #1.

Next up is the way Alabama has typically lost games this year. In many games, the Tide was leading at the half, only to see victory slip away thanks to putrid offensive production. The offensive problems seem related to fundamentals: the big men missing the easy shots down low, the prolonged droughts from outside the 3 point arc, lack of movement on the offensive end, lackadaisical passing, etc. The Tide literally had the halftime lead in half their losses, and in several victories, poor offensive production in the second half allowed games to become much more nerve-wracking than necessary. Unable to finish, Perception Problem #2.

Grant was successful at his previous stop at VCU running a particular style of play, specifically defense-heavy, four-guard rotation basketball. In the Colonial Athletic Association, that style of play was very effective. Critics have argued that Grant continues to force a square peg into a round hole with his preferred style, as it is not optimal for the SEC schedule. Oftentimes, Alabama sees poor offensive production from the big men, and lesser defensive play from the guards. Alabama is desperately in need of a big man who can D up as well as contribute to the scoring, and right now the Tide simply does not have that. Moussa Gueye has a hard time with the put-backs despite stellar defensive play down low, and Nick Jacobs has more scoring touch but lacks the defensive prowess of his counterpart. In order for Grant's system to work against SEC competition such as Florida, a true scoring big man is needed, and guards who specialize in defense are a must.

Whether the above is a recruiting issue or a system issue, it is clearly a coaching issue, as both of those responsibilities (and resultant accountability) fall on Grant's shoulders. Stubborn coaching, Perception Problem #3.

This trio of perception related issues continues to magnify the heat being applied to Grant, especially on the heels of the 2012-2013 campaign. Many thought with four years invested in the program, Grant would lead Bama to a breakout year. After all, it's his system, his recruits, his coaching. Many expected Alabama to contend for an SEC title, which they did (briefly, despite their best efforts to the contrary), and to improve upon last year's short NCAA run. However, that lofty bar was not attained, and Grant is being judged for this failure in some quarters. Whether that is fair or not is conjecture. After all, historically, his success metrics are in line with those of his predecessors, and his short stint at Alabama has not been without success altogether.

So I ask again, why all the hatin'? Is the basketball team an unintended victim of the football teams continuing success ala elevated expectations? Does a Nick Saban-led football program hurt or help the basketball program, and by extension, help or hurt Grant? Is Grant just an average coach with an above-average paycheck? Does Grant get his players to "leave it all on the court" in each game? Is Grant's burgeoning public perception problem the result of his rigid personality, bad losses, an inability to finish, failure to adapt to the conference, or some combination of all of the above? Do you think Grant is doing the best possible job as coach of the UA basketball program? Or is he taking advantage of a fan base so obsessed with football that it will tolerate mediocrity in other sports? What can Grant do to win his case in the court of public perception? Is there another coach who could do a better job than Grant, and is that coach attainable for a program that will always list basketball as its second favorite sport (at best)?

So what do you think, is Grant the answer at Alabama, or just an average coach? Let's talk...

*Disclaimer: I am the first to admit I'm not a stats guy, so if there are more advanced stats that help flesh out the picture, please feel free to add them into the comments. Maybe there are additional measurables that can illuminate the situation. We will all benefit from said knowledge.