Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 11/30/11
By JOHN ZENORMONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- No. 12 Alabama has evidently learned its lesson. The Crimson Tide (7-0) have ridden smothering defense and a blend of veteran players and impact freshmen to its best start in nine seasons. This time last year, Alabama was a struggling group that would get it together too late to salvage its NCAA tournament hopes. "Last year we started off pretty bad," forward Tony Mitchell said. "We just tried to come in this year and try to be the opposite. Instead of taking plays off, work hard and start playing defense in the beginning instead of in the end." The results so far have been impressive, but yet another big test awaits. The Tide hosts Georgetown (5-1) Thursday night after brushing off Final Four team VCU and winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic. JaMychal Green, Trevor Releford and Mitchell have been complemented nicely by four freshmen playing significant minutes. Defense has been the key for coach Anthony Grant's team, just like it was in the resurgence after a 4-5 start last season on the way to 25 wins and the NIT championship game. Alabama ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense (52.6 points per game) and third in opponents' field goal percentage (32.0). Only two opponents have reached 60 points and three didn't crack 50. "We just want to compete for 40 minutes," guard Charles Hankerson said. "One of our main things this year is just 90 feet both ways. We want to put relentless pressure on our opponent and make it really difficult for them to get into their offense. We consider ourselves a defensive team. "We just want to come at you in waves with relentless effort and relentless pressure." It's the aggressive style Grant wants, and Hankerson said "whatever he preaches were going to listen and do it full-force." The early success has come with the football team still in the running for a national title shot. Alabama and Wisconsin are the only schools with their football and men's basketball teams both ranked in the top 15. The formulas for Alabama football and hoops are fairly similar, too: Formidable defense and a coach who has gotten the players to buy into his philosophy and seldom strays from his message. Alabama hasn't won its first seven games for the first time since starting 9-0 and ascending to the No. 1 ranking for the first time during the 2002-03 season. This is the program's highest ranking since rising to No. 8 in January 2007, and the Tide has run its home winning streak to 24 games, four shy of the school record. "For our players, there's a level of pride in continuing to win at home, but the truth of the matter is you have to stay in the present," said Grant, who is in his third season. The core of Alabama's lineup returned. Green, a preseason all-Southeastern Conference pick, is averaging 15.5 points and 8.0 rebounds. Mitchell was the tournament MVP in Puerto Rico and has produced 14.4 points and 7.6 rebounds a game. Releford leads the Tide in assists and is also scoring in double figures. Three of Grant's four healthy freshmen -- a fifth, Moussa Gueye, is recovering from knee surgery -- are all logging at least 22 minutes and six points a game. Guards Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper have started every game. "They're probably the most athletic team we'll face all year," VCU's Bradford Burgess said. "Those guys 1 through 5 are athletes. They can jump out of the gym." Top-rated signee Trevor Lacey has played some at both shooting guard and point guard while the lone healthy freshman big man, Nick Jacobs, is averaging 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots in 15 minutes. "I like their freshmen a lot. I think the future is bright for Alabama," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "Levi Randolph is kind of a do-it-all guy. I kind of see him as a glue guy for them. He plays so many minutes for them. The thing that's impressive about him and really all their freshmen is how they've bought into Grant's defensive system. "Sometimes with freshmen the defense comes along a little bit slower than the offense." The Tide already have beaten Maryland, Purdue and NIT champion Wichita State. VCU came the closest to beating Alabama but fell 72-64 Sunday night. It's a big turnaround for a team that lost three straight nonconference games to middling teams a year ago and didn't pick up any real stock-boosting wins outside the league. The result was a low power rating and an NCAA shutout for a team that flirted with a regular season SEC title going into the final week. If Alabama doesn't make the NCAA field, it won't be because of a weak nonconference schedule. The Tide still has games against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Georgia Tech before opening league play. "Playing against big names like that is always good for you in the end when you make your tournament run," Mitchell said. "It will help you a whole lot on your resume."
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