Basketball Scouting Report: Alabama
What can Vanderbilt achieve in the SEC this season? The Commodores don't have Kedren Johnson, Kevin Bright, or Josh Henderson. Yet, they whacked Georgia Tech and gave Saint Louis a full-length battle. That's not too shabby for a depleted team. Given the struggles of teams such as LSU and Tennessee this season, the Dores – who barely avoided the SEC Tournament's play-in round last season – might actually be able to finish fifth or sixth in the league if things break just right. An NIT bid could fall within the range of possibility, giving this roster some meaningful postseason experience as a building block for the 2014-2015 campaign.
Let's see what this team can do, now that it's playing with house money and freedom from the high expectations that would have existed if Johnson, Bright and Henderson could have taken the floor for the SEC season.
The Commodores will be playing a desperate opponent tonight… or at least, an opponent that should be desperate. These are grim times in Tuscaloosa, and no, not just because Nick Saban's team got whipped by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama basketball – like Tennessee and LSU – was supposed to be NCAA tournament-ready this season, but the Tide has been a washout so far, losing every meaningful game on the schedule, to the point that a 12-win SEC season might be needed to claim an NCAA berth. Alabama is already at a point where the margin for error is uncomfortably small. Head coach Anthony Grant has to quickly turn around his season and, for that matter, his career.
The persistent problem with Alabama hoops under Grant has been an inability to finish games. Yes, many other teams fall victim to this same problem, but it's conspicuous with the Tide. Last year, Alabama played Florida well and close for roughly 35 minutes on multiple occasions, only to falter in the final five minutes of regulation. This season, the tendency to hit a wall at or near the five-minute mark of the second half remains intact, as shown in a loss to UCLA. When the under-eight television timeout hits in the second half, teams need to gather an extra measure of strength so that they can push ahead to the under-four timeout and set themselves up in a favorable endgame position. Alabama seems to grow weary in this crucial stretch of time, and until the Tide figure out how to grow stronger as the second half unfolds, the team will continue to languish.
It's true that Vanderbilt's loss at Texas doesn't look nearly as bad as it did at the time. The Longhorns have become a solid team that has competed with North Carolina and Michigan State on fairly even terms. Yet, Vanderbilt lacks a comfort zone on the road, so if the Dores are locked in a close one with Alabama at the under-eight timeout in the second half, we will witness a major proving-ground moment for each of these teams, not just one of them.
Forward – Shannon Hale – Freshman, 6-8, 220 2013-14: 4.5 points per game, 2.9 rebounds per game
The first thing to note – not about Hale, but about Alabama's nine-man rotation in general – is that it is a study in interchangeable parts. More specifically, the distinction between starters and non-starters isn't a particularly meaningful one. Hale's teammate, Jimmie Taylor, did start Alabama's most recent game against Robert Morris on Jan. 4, but he played only six minutes. Hale logged 21 minutes, so he can reasonably be seen as a true starter. Retin Obasohan did not start the Robert Morris game, but he played 33 minutes, the most on the Crimson Tide roster in that contest. Nine players average double-figure minutes for Grant, so Kevin Stallings has to be ready and able to throw different combinations on the floor as the need arises. Alabama generally goes with a guard-oriented starting five, but the Tide has two tall trees – Taylor and teammate Carl Engstrom – if it wants to go with a bigger lineup.
Guard – Rodney Cooper – Junior, 6-6, 215; 2013-14: 7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.8 assists per game
The not-so-secret reason Alabama is failing to measure up is that it doesn't possess quality depth on its roster, at least in terms of scoring production. There's only one particularly reliable scorer on this team, Trevor Releford, and everyone else has fallen short, including Cooper. The one thing Cooper does is that he rebounds from his position as a big guard/wing. Cooper averages more rebounds than anyone on the Tide… which is a problem, given that the bigs are 7-1 and 6-10. Cooper works hard… but he really shouldn't be the leading boardman on this squad.
Guard – Levi Randolph – Junior, 6-5, 205; 2013-14: 9.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.6 apg
Randolph, a veteran, is not giving Grant a sufficient level of production. Releford commands the ball, but he also commands defensive attention. Randolph should be taking advantage of this reality, but he hasn't been able to do so… at least not to this point in the season. It's reasonable to say that Randolph has to be a breakout player in the next two and a half months for Alabama to realize at least some of its hopes and dreams for the current season.
Guard – Retin Obasohan – Sophomore, 6-1, 205; 2013-14: 12.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 2.8 steals per game
It was said above that Alabama has only one truly reliable scorer. Obasohan – who is a consistently good defender, by the way – doesn't qualify. If you look at his performances this season, the sophomore has stuffed the stat sheet against Alabama's weaker opponents. In the bigger games against the likes of Duke and UCLA, Obasohan has been noticeably quiet. The imbalanced nature of his scoring relative to the quality of Alabama's competition marks Obasohan's season as a disappointment. If he and Randolph can use this SEC season as a wake-up call, Alabama might still find a way to turn this mess of a season into a productive journey.
Guard – Trevor Releford – Senior, 6-0, 190; 2013-14: 18.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.5 steals per game
Want to identify Alabama's problems? Don't look at Releford. The senior leader on this team is doing what he can at both ends of the floor. He needs help from his teammates. A contributor not just as a scorer but as a rebounder and defender, Releford makes his presence felt at all spots on the floor. His teammates have to work in concert with him and make shots when Releford draws extra defenders. Vanderbilt must force "the other guys" to win this game, making Releford work for each and every basket he'll get.
As said above, Alabama's size resides on the bench. Big men Carl Engstrom and Jimmie Taylor have not been able to make much of a statistical imprint upon this season – that's why they spend a lot of time on the pine compared to the court. The best reserve for the Tide is forward Nick Jacobs, who averages 9.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. Guard Algie Key rounds out the nine-man rotation, averaging 6.3 points and 2.4 boards per contest.
Keys to the Game
1) The first 32 minutes could be decisive, but they probably won't be – prepare to win the final eight minutes. It's not as though any minutes in a college basketball game aren't important, but Stallings has to emphasize to his team the need to rise at the under-eight timeout in the second halves of games. Playing Alabama, a team that normally crumbles at that stage of a contest, offers Vanderbilt a chance to cultivate a new and strong mindset for league road games and for the SEC season as a whole.
2) Make the other guys perform. Charles Barkley famously says that in the NBA, "Ya gotta make the bad guys beat you." His analysis is ruthless… but not inaccurate. When one team has an elite player and lots of (not bad, but…) average players, it's essential to take the ball out of the elite player's hands. Vanderbilt can't let Trevor Releford win this game on his own. The Commodores need to maintain structural integrity on defense, but they need to pry the ball out of Releford's hands if this game is tight in the final two minutes.
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