(Credit: Alabama Athletic Photography)
Alabama’s basketball team should find plenty of motivation in last week’s SEC basketball poll that saw the Tide picked to finish sixth in the league.
Defending champion Kentucky was selected first. Florida was predicted to finish second, followed by new league member Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama. The rest of the pecking order was Ole Miss, Georgia, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, LSU, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Further, if being pegged for sixth wasn’t motivation enough, the fact that Alabama had no players chosen on either the first or second All-SEC teams surely hit home.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant, in his fourth season, returns four starters from a team that finished 21-12 and lost a controversial game to Creighton in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament last March. Bama opens the season on Nov. 9 when it hosts South Dakota State in the Tuscaloosa Regional Bracket of the 2K Sports Classic and it’s clear Grant is excited about the group that he has this season.
“This is a team that has the potential to get better and better and better over the course of the season,” Grant said. “We’ve got a good nucleus of guys. “We’ve got the potential to be a very dangerous team.”
For starters, there is enough talent collectively to replace departed forwards JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, transfer Charles Hankerson and backup point guard Ben Eblen.
Green and Mitchell are the most substantial losses of the four, but Green never lived up to his potential of being an SEC MVP type player due to his tendency to commit unnecessary fouls and his sometimes immature attitude that led to multiple suspensions. Mitchell, who has NBA ability, was permanently kicked off the team during the season due to off court issues.
In part because of the adjustment that those off-court issues caused last season, Alabama used numerous starting lineups. A blessing in disguise, nearly all the Crimson Tide players – including the three centers Nick Jacobs, Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye as well as point guard Trevor Releford and perimeter players Steele, Trevor Lacey, Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph – now have some starting experience.
(Credit: Alabama Athletic Photography)
Jacobs (6-foot-8, 265 pounds – pictured left) is a real threat to score down low with his baby hook. Engstrom (7-foot-1, 285) and Gueye (7-foot, 255), who is finally healthy after recovering from a knee injury, are ready to move past grabbing an occasional rebound and or blocking a shot and become more complete players. Gueye, a native of Senegal, has only played organized basketball for the past three years and he was only healthy for one of those years. He has lost nearly 40 pounds since last season.
Releford (12 ppg, 3 rpg) should be ready to become one of the top 20 point guards in the nation.
Grant said Releford can be a mentor to the underclassmen.
“Trevor has an opportunity to take on more of a leadership role from a standpoint of being vocal,” Grant said. “He can really make our young guys understand.”
Lacey, Cooper and Randolph are all sophomores from the state of Alabama who made an impact at various times during last season. Lacey was a top 25 national recruit in 2011 who came on strong toward the end of the season. The only senior on the team is Andrew Steele (6-4, 225) who had the maturity as a junior to consistently get the foul line or come up with a big defensive stop. The backup point guard is Retin Obasohan, a redshirt freshman from Belgium.
Tide fans are very excited about the addition of freshman forward Devonta Pollard, 6-foot-8, a top 25 national recruit from the state of Mississippi.
Pollard was a popular topic at Media Day.
“Our veteran guys have really done a good job of acclimating him to who we are as a program and what will be required of him,” Grant said. “Devonta’s got a very high basketball IQ. He’s a guy who picks things up pretty well … but like any freshman, there’s no substitute for experience. Every practice is a brand-new experience for him. He’s got the attitude that he wants to learn and get better every day.”
Alabama is going to be in every game, similar to its football cousins, because of Grant’s suffocating defensive style, evidenced by the Tide finishing first in scoring defense and second in steals a year ago.
But the Tide will need to shore up its glaring weakness of last year — shooting. If inside the arc was pedestrian (45% from the field, good for No. 94 nationally), outside it was abysmal (just 28%, last in the SEC).
With the tendency to dump the ball down low and run the offense through Green no longer existing, Steele and Randolph suggested that, to-a-man, the returnees placed a great deal of emphasis during the offseason on improving in the shooting department.
If this team can elevate those shooting percentages across the board and bank on, once again, the always stout defense, Alabama should have its first NCAA Tournament win since 2006.
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