By Kirk McNair
Alabama coach Anthony Grant was a highly-regarded assistant under Florida's Billy Donovan, and there is a resemblance to the Gators in the way the Crimson Tide plays. But, of course, Grant has not been playing with Florida-caliber players in his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa.
Bama may still be short of the talent level of the Gators and Kentucky and perhaps some others in the Southeastern Conference, but progress is being made. The Tide was ranked 14th in the nation by Scout.com in 2011 recruiting, which was behind only Kentucky (1) and Arkansas (6) among SEC teams.
Last year Alabama was something of a surprise, finishing 12-4 in SEC play and winning the SEC Western Division by three games. That won't happen this year...because the SEC has done away with division play. This year it will be straight up, 1-12, when the seeding is made for the SEC Tournament. Last year Bama was second by a game to Florida for the overall best record in the conference.
Another surprise for Alabama last year was being left out of the NCAA Tournament. That was hard for Bama followers to swallow, particularly when Georgia was selected, and the Tide had defeated the Bulldogs twice within a week just prior to the selections. The Tide was reportedly left out because its strength of schedule was not a strength. This year Bama may have trouble duplicating its 25-12 record from last year because of a schedule upgrade that includes the Tide playing non-conference games against Maryland, Georgetown, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech. Bama may also meet Wichita State, the team that defeated top seed Alabama in the final of last season's NIT.
Grant is not expected to change his style, which is a fast-paced offense and tenacious defense. Last year the Tide led the SEC in scoring defense by a full four points per game, surrendering just 59.4 per game by holding opponents to a league-low 38.6 shooting percentage. Bama's 9.5 steals per game was easily the best in the conference, helping the Tide to the best turnover margin in the SEC.
On the other side, Alabama was last in the SEC in three-point field goals made, only 4.1 per game.
Grant acknowledged earlier this year that shooting – particularly outside shooting – needed to improve. Last year Alabama ranked a woeful 10th in the SEC in scoring, only 66.8 points per game. Bama shot 45 per cent from the field, but only 29.8 per cent from three-point line, which was 12th in the conference.
The Crimson Tide returns three key starters from last year – senior inside first team All-SEC performer JaMychal Green (6-8, 228, 15.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg), junior wing Tony Mitchell (6-6, 210, 15.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg), who was second team All-SEC; and sophomore point guard Trevor Releford (6-1, 180, 11.0 ppg, 3.4 apg), who was Freshman All-SEC.
Both Green (8th) and Mitchell (10th) ranked in the top 10 individually in SEC scoring and in rebounding Green was fifth and Mitchell 13th. Mitchell was fifth (52.2 percent) and Green sixth (50.8 percent) in field goal shooting.
All five 2010-11 starters ranked in the top nine in the SEC in steals – Releford third, Mitchell fourth, Chris Hines sixth, Green seventh, and Senario Hillman ninth.
Bama lost two perimeter players, but appears to have recruited well on the wings with four-star guards Trevor Lacey (6-3, 200, and pursued by Kentucky and Kansas, which makes one think five-star) and Levi Randolph (6-5, 185); and three-star Rodney Cooper (6-6, 205), who joined Lacey on the Parade All-America list. Sophomore Charles Hankerson (6-5, 210) returns as a back-up wing.
The Tide thought it had replaced post player Chris Hines with junior college star Moussa Gueye, a 7-0, 280-pound native of Senagal who has three years of eligibility remaining. Gueye, however, will miss at least the pre-conference schedule after suffering a knee injury in a fall pick-up game. Freshman Nick Jacobs (6-8, 250), another four-star signee, should be able to help on the inside, and 7-1, 250-pound sophomore Carl Engstrom, a relative newcomer to basketball, had a good summer performing for the Swedish Under-20 team.
In an era of players turning pro almost before they've worn out their first pair of college sneakers, it was something of a surprise to have Green back in the fold for his senior year. Grant has said having the forward is about more than Green's considerable basketball ability, but also having the leadership of the Montgomery native.
Both Green and Releford were named to the NIT All-Tournament Team at the end of last season.