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2021 Alabama Basketball Review: Part Two — What happened to the defense?!

Alabama lives and dies by defense, and Alabama’s players chose death

Syndication: Tuscaloosa News Gary Cosby Jr. / USA TODAY NETWORK

When Nate Oats came to town, most knowledgeable hoops fans were excited about the hire (and some of us — ahem, ahem — had been pressing for it for months). What wasn’t there to love? A young coach with a team that punched well above its weight class, that had swagger, that ran the court like hellhounds on their trail, that launched threes from any and everywhere on the court? That’s just some flat-out erotic basketball.

Energetic, modern, analytics-based basketball. The very best of what Jay Wright built at Villanova could be had in Tuscaloosa. Tark’s UNLV Run n’ Gun reborn.

However, what far too many did not realize — indeed, still do not — is that despite Coach’s assurances for three years, Oats’ brand of basketball is predicated on defensive success. Harassment, getting stops, forcing bad shots, defensive rebounds, limiting second-chance points, forcing turnovers on that unloved end of the floor by doing all the stuff that doesn’t excite the Fantasy Nerds. That is what keys the offense’s success, not vice-versa.

Forty minutes of effort on both ends. And, when you play good defense, you get better shot opportunities. But, when shots aren’t falling, and defensive effort lags because players aren’t getting points? That...that is simply unacceptable to the Man.

The players can’t say they weren’t warned about this very thing either. He promised as much when he was hired. It was his brand at Buffalo. When Alabama went on its unexpected tear through the SEC and into the Sweet 16 in 2020-2021, it was not the offense that Nate Oats raved about. It was the “best defensive team I’ve ever coached.” Blue collar basketball means defense, and if you don’t play it, you don’t get minutes.

Given that emphasis on defense, it seems perverse then that what derailed a 2021-2022 so full of promise, and so punctuated by program-defining wins, was lackluster defense, lackluster effort, and ultimately a lackluster 19-14 record.

So, what went wrong exactly with an Alabama team that had all the potential in the world to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament? It’s easy to say that the team saw across-the-board slippage, which is true. But if there was any one culprit that you could lay the finger on, it was a very bad defense.

Before getting into defense too much, there are two specific points to address.

The first is the loss of Herbert Jones, the best defender Alabama has produced in almost 25 years, a Defensive Naismith Finalist, the SEC Player of the Year, and a budding star in the NBA. How critical was Herb Jones, you ask, when his best season only netted 11 points, 3 assists, and 7 rebounds a game, to go alongside almost 3 turnovers a game?

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. What doesn’t show up on that rotowire stat sheet is his defense, where he was the 34th most effective defender in all of college basketball’s 5510 roster players. That puts Herb in the top 12 of 1% of everyone in the nation in defensive efficiency. The end result was that Herb’s defense was worth +11 points per game to the Tide just by being in the lineup. Overall, his net +/- on the court was a full +24 points: turnovers, fouls and all.

Most teams do not lose their most effective defender, and 24 points from the ledger, and get appreciably better. That is especially the case when Herb’s combined +/- placed him in the same elite defensive company as Robert Horry, Antonio McDyess, Roy Rogers, Trevor Releford, Jim Farmer, and Terry Coner.

But, do you notice a trend there?

Those Alabama luminaries were either superstar bigs or superstar point guards. Herb Jones was doing his work from the wing, as a 3. It would not be unfair to compare his output relative to position to that of Scottie Pippen, another tall hybrid guard/forward, with a net +/- of +25.2 for his career.

We’re not saying that Herb is Pippen reborn, an NBA All-Time Top 75 player — though time will tell — but on the court, he had a similar impact for the Tide. And as we know, Jordan didn’t win until Pippen arrived in Chicago.

The second broader group concerns everything else, and we’ll touch on those in a later portion of this review: the multi-headed monster of turnovers, shooting, and defensive rebounding.

By way of preview, shooting was down — way down, in fact. But the offense was not as bad as you remember either from those long ice-cold streaks, and certainly not in relation to the schedule. Alabama actually rebounded better this season than least in one phase. But that was not defensively: The 2022 Crimson Tide would go after their own misses, but were far less effective in getting after the glass on defense. The final factor is sloppiness with the ball. Alabama has turned it over a lot under Nate Oats, as you’d expect with the roster turnover the Tide have had at point guard and the speed at which they play. But, even conceding those mitigators, this 2022 team was beyond cavalier with the ball: it was outright reckless.

Again, though, we’ll get into those in the next piece.

Last season, the “best defensive team” Nate Oats ever coached, the Crimson Tide finished 3rd overall in adjusted defensive efficiency. It was a very hard team to score on, and opponents generally had to work for their shots. But this year saw Alabama drop off in every single defensive category, and not by a little either — defensive performance plummeted off of a cliff.

Look carefully at these contrasting numbers between the 2021 season and the 2022 season. Because I don’t think you quite realize how bad the Alabama defense was. It was far worse than you remember, and easily the worst or second worst in practically every defensive category in the SEC — and it even vied for the very bottom of too many categories among all 358 teams in the country.

2021 vs. 2022 Defensive Comparison: It was THAT bad

STATISTIC 2021 2022
STATISTIC 2021 2022
Defensive Efficiency 3rd 100th
Opponent Adjusted Eff. 3rd 92nd
Floor % 36th 256th
Opponent PPG 105th 308th
Second Half PPG 129th 339th
Steals PG 14th 102nd
Steals Per Possession 26th 145th
Steals Per Play 29th 155th
2nd Chance PPG 69th 149th
Opp. Eff. Possession Ratio 82nd 289th
Opp. Adjusted Shooting % 32nd 183rd
Opp. Shooting Efficiency 16th 169th
Opp. 3PT Shooting % 10th 194th
FT Allowed Per Play 142nd 293rd
Opp. FT Attempts 217th 325th
FTA per FGA 158th 285th
Opp. True Shooting % 17th 188th
FG Efficiency Defense 18th 168th
Forced TO % 70th 315th
Def. Rebound % 160th 288th

A careful look at the numbers will show you a very grim portrait of a team that either could not or would not play defense. For those of you who’d prefer these in narrative form, allow me to explain what we’re seeing here.

Natesketball is uptempo, for sure, and it is very aggressive. Therefore, Alabama will always give up quite a few shot attempts, more free throws than other defensive teams, and usually a few more points. More possessions: more points.

Fouls are incident to this style of play and just baked-in to the scheme. But, that is meant to be offset by on-ball pressure, forcing turnovers, getting after the glass, and limiting second-chance points so as to turn it back upcourt with tempo for Alabama’s offense to operate. Better looks, quicker looks, numbers. That is why Oats consistently stresses the need for “blue collar basketball” — a gritty, 40-minutes of hell for opponents. Not only does the defensive scheme require it, but the offensive scheme does as well. Every made basket, every made free throw is an opportunity for the defense to get back, to reset, and to prevent the break.

When you couple the built-in limitations of that style of basketball along with the lack of bigs for ‘Bama in the 2021 season, you saw a team that hustled, but that had problems in the post and could get outmuscled on the boards. However, those limitations were offset by ‘Bama also forcing turnovers, forcing charges (Alabama forced almost 4 charges per game in 2021, versus 1.7 in 2022). And it especially showed in a very aggressive perimeter defense from the Alabama backcourt.

Contrast that with what the numbers tell you about the 2022 defense — and I say this without hyperbole, it was as lazy a group of defenders as I have seen since Mark Gottfried was fired 15 years ago. We’ll do this by way of walking through a few hypothetical plays, and let that refresh your memory of what you saw this season.

  • It begins with the opponent bringing the ball up the court. Alabama pressured teams very poorly, and forced very few turnovers. However, Alabama did foul quite a lot in rotation, though had very little to show for it.
  • When the opponent had the ball outside the arc, it found a Tide perimeter defense that had cratered versus last season’s. Teams were getting better deep looks, thus taking more threes, shooting a better percentage of them, and also making more of them in raw terms — over 2 more per game. Texas A&M ring a bell?
  • On those occasions when the opponent decided to work their 2PT offense, on-ball pressure was very poor, just as it was with perimeter defense and press attempts. Teams were finding better looks, for better shots, finding them more often, and then shooting a better percentage. In fact, teams averaged almost 3 more assists per game over last season.
  • In the post, Alabama was unable to draw charges consistently or to play aggressively enough on the ball-handler to force an offensive foul. They did however foul a great deal trying to do, or when when getting out of position, or when attempting to rebound. The Tide did not pursue the ball aggressively on opponent misses, and as a result, its defensive rebounding efficiency plummeted.
  • If Alabama did have a lead, despite all of these foibles, the second-half defense was abysmal. Whereas the 2021 Crimson Tide locked down teams in the second half to secure wins, the lack of defensive intensity resulted in Alabama’s guys blowing leads, taking bad losses, and yet still not learning from one game to the next why it had happened: as if it were all a great mystery.
  • And all of those problems led to serious problems for the offense, which we will discuss in our next piece.

The end result of all these deficits is that Alabama’s defensive efficiency dropped off a cliff, and it was apparent with your own eyeballs. There was not a single area, not one, in which Alabama was defensively competent, much less one it excelled at. From defensive rebounding, to perimeter defense, to rotation, to playing out of position, to taking far more fouls with far fewer results, to giving up easy looks and put-backs, the 2021-2022 Crimson Tide was an abject mess in fully half of the game.

The frustrating part is that when Alabama tried to play defense, they were certainly capable of doing so. It is a long, athletic team. It was one that brought in several Bigs and had others returning healthier. Granted, it was never going to be as good as 2021’s defense — Herb Jones, John Petty, Josh Primo’s departures still mattered — yet it could have been a competitive one. The thrashing of Gonzaga in the Battle for Seattle was a masterclass in what this team is supposed to look like and what it is capable of doing. But, Alabama’s roster simply did not do so in far too many of those 14 losses — nor, for that matter, in a great many of those 19 wins.

Aside from any shooting woes, or the season-long turnover bugaboos, if you want to know why Alabama finished .500 in the SEC, or why ‘Bama had 14 losses, or why the Tide bowed out of the first round of the SEC Tournament, or why UA let Notre Dame rout them in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, look no further than this: The defense sucked because the defenders sucked.

And, if you want to know why practically the entire roster is being turned over, look there as well.