SBNation Alabama Crimson Tide blog Roll Bama Roll has upped their basketball blogging over the last year by bringing on Matt Dover, a writer that is as interested in basketball as football. Last years we did a Q&A with Matt, and this year, we have done yet another one, making it the beginning of an annual tradition.
So without further ado, here are my questions and Matt's answers about the game tonight in Tuscaloosa ([UPDATE] My answers to Matt's questions may be found here):
Who is likely to start for the Tide against Kentucky, and what do they bring to the team?
Here's what you need to know about Bama's roster. We have three players who have legit SEC basketball talent. The first is 6'9" junior forward JaMychal Green, with whom I'm sure you all are familiar. He was a McDonald's AA signed as Gottfried's last hoorah in 2008, and he's been a starter more or less ever since he set foot on campus. During his first two years he was just good enough to keep his starting spot (not that he really had any competition), but frankly he underperformed given his talent and both his attitude and work rate were questioned by fans and coaches alike. He was rightly criticized for being too soft, foul prone, and mentally immature. When he started out with much of the same this year, Grant sat him out for three straight games following the Paradise Jam debacle. Since he's come back, he's finally played like an All-SEC player, and is finally showing the attitude, hustle, and mental fortitude to be a big-time SEC post player. In his three games against SEC foes, he's averaging 17.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks.
The second player is one that you probably haven't heard a lot about: 6'6" sophomore small forward Tony Mitchell. He originally signed in the final Gottfried class with Green, but had to sit a year in prep school due to a transcript issue, so this is only his second year in the program. He's got the ideal body for a college SF and is one of the most gifted athletes in the league. He has elite speed, quickness and hops, and could be the best rebounder in the league under 6'8". He has excellent hands around the rim and scores a bunch in the paint. His weakness is that he lacks a pull-up jumper and is just barely capable of shooting the 3-ball (he's 8-of-31 from the arc this year). If he ever develops those aspects of his game, he'll be All-SEC and probably NBA-caliber in no time. Even with those weaknesses, though, he's what you would call the "glue guy" on this team: he makes steals, can play the three or four positions as needed, cleans the glass, and makes plays in transition. He's second on the team in scoring with 14.4 points per game and leads the team in rebounding with 7.9 boards per game.
More after the jump.
Our third and, sadly, final SEC-caliber player is 6'0" freshman point guard Trevor Releford. No team in the conference needed a point guard this year as badly as Bama did, and thankfully, Grant went out to Kansas City and found a good one. Releford is a point guard in the mold of former Bama player Ronald Steele: he is capable of scoring when the defense gives him chances, but he isn't a score-first point guard. He's an elite ball-handler and has good court vision, and he's certainly the one who controls things on the offensive end. He still has some to learn as far as when to push the tempo and when to slow down, but already he's much improved in this area as the season has worn on. He averages 9.7 points and 3.6 assists, but those assist numbers would likely be significantly higher if he had any shooters to pass to. Bama fans are very excited to have him as our floor general for hopefully years to come.
Aside from our "big three", we have three seniors who would each be role players at best on your average power-conference team. 6'3" shooting guard Charvez Davis (a JuCo transfer last season) will start at the two spot and is your quintessential 3-point specialist. He averages right at 2 makes per game from the arc while shooting at a 39% rate. However he's only 2-of-13 in the three SEC games, but then again he went 16-for-24 in the final three non-conference games. He's that streaky. However, he's worked hard to improve his defense and is learning how to affect the game offensively even when his shots aren't falling. His minutes have gone up as a result, and he's averaged over 30 minutes per game in conference play.
6'8" forward Chris Hines (another JuCo transfer from last season) will start at the four spot. He's your typical "hustle guy" in the post, who most teams would like to have come off the bench. He plays nearly 30 minutes for us. If he scores on anything besides a dunk or basic put-back, it's bonus points for us. However, he is an excellent defender with good quickness for his size and is an aggressive rebounder. He averages 4.9 points and 7.0 rebounds and is tied with Green for the team lead in blocks.
The other senior is 6'1" guard Senario Hillman, who could start for Joker Phillips' team at safety right now. With all due respect to Georgia's Travis Leslie, he's the league's best raw athlete. He's now settled into the team's sixth man role after starting for much of the year, and he plays about 15-20 minutes per game. His athleticism makes him a great defender and he leads the team in steals. He'll make a couple of plays a game that make you go "wow" and a couple more that will make you want to cringe. He hustles though, and is a net positive for the team coming off the bench, a role he's better suited for than playing 30+ minutes.
6'4" junior guard Andrew Steele (younger brother of Ronald) has now returned after missing the first 13 games this season and the last 24 games of last season due to injury. He doesn't do anything particularly well, but he is strong for a guard which allows him to be a solid player on both ends. He's played about 10-15 minutes in each SEC game.
The only other player who has gotten off the bench in SEC play is 6'1" sophomore backup point guard Ben Eblen. Grant loves the kid because, bless his heart, he does play hard and he is the only other point guard on the roster besides Releford. That's about all you can say nice about him as a player, but thankfully Grant now mostly just uses him when Releford hits foul trouble (God forbid).
That's your Bama lineup. The starters (Releford, Davis, Mitchell, Hines, Green) each play 30+ minutes barring foul trouble. Hillman and Steele come off the bench to provide depth at the two and three, and Mitchell slides down to the four when Hines or Green sit.
What is the biggest advantage or positive the Tide have coming into this contest?
No question: defense. Here are some numbers on the Tide defense, compliments of Pomeroy:
-10th in the nation in overall opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency
-2nd in the nation in effective field goal percentage defense
-5th in the nation in steal rate
-16th in the nation in block rate
What's even more impressive is how much Bama has improved defensively as the year has gone on. If you were to take into account only the last month instead of the whole season, those numbers above would no doubt be significantly better. Early in the season we struggled mightily with our foul rate (the single reason we lost games to Seton Hall, Iowa, and Providence), but since we have vastly improved in this area.
Alabama is a dismal 12th in 3-point FG% versus conference opponents, and Kentucky is second. How can 'Bama overcome this?
Bama in 3 SEC games: 3-for-21 (1 make per game on 14% shooting)
UK in 3 SEC games: 27-for-56 (9 makes per game on 48% shooting)
To answer your question, we can't.
We have one player who can shoot (one of the serious talent issues this team has), and he's not even that difficult to guard. No doubt we are legitimately the worst shooting team in the SEC, but we aren't 3-of-21 bad. We have to improve on those numbers or we won't beat the better teams in the league like Kentucky, even with an outstanding defensive performance and even playing at home. If we can hit closer to 4 from the arc, that should put us closer to where we need to be. Hopefully Davis can heat up again after having a slow start to SEC play. Furthermore, if the 'Cats scorch the Coleman nets at 48% from the arc we can forget about it. Kentucky is too good defensively for us to overcome that.
In other words, those numbers I posted above have to change in our favor for us to win. Probability would say they will (we can't be that bad and you can't be that good all year), but talent-wise there is no doubt we are in a massive deficit when it comes to shooters, especially against UK.
Who or what about the Crimson Tide might Kentucky not be prepared for?
Alabama's interior defense. Bama simply does not allow teams to get easy shots up in the paint. Part of that is Bama's focus on preventing transition baskets (a huge improvement from the Gottfried years). The Tide very rarely allows teams to score easily in transition. Furthermore, Bama's forwards (Green, Hines and Mitchell) are all very good at weakside help when opposing players penetrate. They are all tenacious in blocking and altering shots around the rim.
Evidence: Bama is #1 in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage defense.
What do Alabama fans think of Anthony Grant so far?
True Bama basketball fans recognize that we simply do not have the talent to compete for an NCAA at-large berth right now. Furthermore, they recognize that this is not Grant's fault. Even further, they see the class he is assembling for next year and know that recruiting and playing with a talent deficit will not be an issue for long. (Keep your dirty Big Blue hands off Trevor Lacey and Bama could really be in business talent-wise as early as next year).
Some Bama fans--mostly not the serious basketball fans, although there were a few of them too--started grumbling after the debacle that was the Paradise Jam. After losing a heartbreaker against a Seton Hall team that included Jeremy Hazell (that team is a mere shadow now without him) on a night when they went 10-for-13 from the arc, we absolutely just tanked the two consolation games against an inferior Iowa team and The Game Of Which We Do Not Speak. We had no business losing those two games. Some began to openly question why we were losing games like that in the second year of Grant's tenure, when even if the talent wasn't quite there the system should have been in place to overcome inferior teams like that. Admittedly, there was some credence to what was being said. There really was no excuse for our performance down at the Paradise Jam, but to his credit, Grant made the necessary adjustments.
We had bottomed out at that point, and Grant responded by sitting Green for three whole games and playing freshmen that were not close to ready. The results were an ugly loss at Purdue and letting a lead go late at Providence. However, by the time Green came back (a new and improved Green I might add) and Grant began to trim the playing rotation, the team started to gel and you could really see the team start to buy into the system, even against the weak opponents we played at home just before SEC play. By the time we went to Starkville we were playing like at least an NIT team, if not maybe even an NCAA bubble team. Honestly, we should be 3-0 in the SEC right now after holding a lead for 38 minutes at Arkansas, but 2-1 is not a bad place to be either.
We are a completely different team now than we were to start the season. Coaches and teams who write us off because of the losses we incurred early on will do so at their own peril. We are light years ahead of where we were early this season. The way we have played the last six games has convinced even the doubters that Grant has what it takes to build a program. If we can play winning basketball with only 3 SEC-caliber players, there's no reason we can't get things rolling again in Tuscaloosa once the talent starts trickling in (or rushing in--keep your hands off Lacey).
Bama fans are tired of waiting for our rightful return to the top of the SEC West and our yearly trips to the Big Dance. A few are impatient, somewhat understandably, but most realize that Grant has a system that works, that he's slowly but surely lining up the necessary talent, and that in another year or two we could be in a strong position within the SEC.
Predict the outcome, and why.
Kentucky 70, Alabama 62.
The Tide will frustrate the Cats at times, but UK will hit just enough 3's to prevent Bama from having a chance to win it late.