For the past decade, we’ve seen time-and-time again Alabama play down to their level of competition. The Tide might be competitive against Kentucky, but would then go a squeak out a win against some obscure team who had no business staying in the game.
While Coach Avery Johnson is still trying to build this program to his liking (and has suffered some tough losses), he’s also blown out multiple weak teams already this season. While to many that seems insignificant, to me, that shows a the gradual change in mental fortitude with this basketball program, and that is very encouraging.
USC-Upstate came out competitive early on, and it looked like the Tide might have their hands full as the Spartans jumped out to a 5-2 lead. A flurry of impressive work in the paint by Alabama though got the Tide up to a 14-5 lead, and Alabama never really looked back from there. Particularly, the Alabama squad showed a propensity for multiple quick passes underneath the basket, eschewing the philosophy we’ve become so accustomed to of passing the ball around the 3-point arc and trying to slash inside off of screens. Here’s a quick excerpt from Ranier Sabin on the matter:
Whether it was by happenstance or design, Alabama made an effort to attack the rim. The Tide repeatedly crashed the basket and created open looks with clever interior passing. Twenty-eight of the Tide's 39 points in the first half were derived inside the paint.
Alabama's effort to seek out high-percentage shots came four days after the Tide connected on only two of 19 three-point attempts in a 65-56 loss at Oregon last weekend.
"We feel like we had a lot of wasted possessions in the Texas and Oregon games," said freshman Braxton Key. "We broke the film down and we just executed, I thought, tonight."
It was beautiful. And that’s all I can really say on the matter. It almost brought tears to my eyes to see our big men involved that way.
Alabama ended the half up by 13 points, and the score never got closer than that. The second half showed the Spartans more or less waving a white flag while Alabama practiced with some different lineups. Alabama finished the game with an exceptional 53.4% shooting on the night and out-rebounded the Spartans 44-33. On the other hand, Alabama only hit 6 out of 20 shots from beyond the 3 point arc, and put up another putrid 55.6% clip on free throws. I don’t understand how a college basketball team can be so consistently awful from the free throw line, but that HAS to be fixed somehow.
Donta Hall continues to become not just a human jumping jack on defense, but is really starting to show some prowess in the offensive game as well. He led the team with 15 points, including a couple of emphatic dunks and some work in the alley-oop game. He added 8 rebounds, a block and even a couple of assists, coming very near a double-double.
Freshman Braxton Key continues to impress, getting 10 points of his own with 9 rebounds, a block, and 5(!) assists. He was only one rebound away from a double-double of his own, and was the main catalyst for the artful under-the-basket passing.
The other starters included Corban Collins, who was tied for second on the team with Key with 10 points of his own; Dazon Ingram, who struggled with his shot accuracy, but added 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and a steal; and Bola Olaniyan, who led the team with 10 rebounds.
Avery Johnson Jr. didn’t start, but got nearly equal playing time as did Collins at point guard, he added 6 points and an assist. Riley Norris and Armond Davis scored 9 and 8 points off the bench, respectively. Davis is still little more than a 3-point launching machine... with some ridiculous shots going in and others really missing their mark.
Seniors Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale continue to see their minutes fall and role diminish with the team. Taylor still got 2 blocks and a steal, but also quickly racked up 4 fouls. With the offensive emergence of Donta Hall, Taylor’s shot blocking prowess is becoming a bit expendable. And Shannon Hale is just still Shannon Hale. He scored 5 points, hitting one three point shot and a couple of free throws. He did lead the team in free-throw accuracy, being the only player to actually hit 100% of his free throws.
At this point, I think that Ingram, Key, Hall, and Collins going to be the core of this team. The fifth spot will likely rotate between Bola Olaniyan and Riley Norris, depending on the matchup and sizes that Coach Johnson wants to use, with Armond Davis and Shannon Hale playing in relief roles for those two. Avery Johnson Jr. will be a key bench player when the offense struggles and needs a new spark at point guard. Jimmie Taylor appears to be taking a back seat to Hall underneath the basket, but should still have a significant role, especially against teams with a strong offensive presence underneath the basket. When/if he recovers from his sickness, Nick King will be the wild card.
The team still has a long way to go, especially in regards to not folding when losing to a strong team, but the core of Braxton Key, Dazon Ingram, and Donta Hall is quite encouraging— two freshman and a sophomore, all of which are really beginning to show some chemistry with each other underneath the basket.
The season has a long ways to go yet, and Alabama can only get better from here with such a young team.
Buckle up, and Roll Tide!