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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Alabama

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To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: Alabama, where Anthony Grant faces a must-win season.

Last year on the Capstone?
Last year on the Capstone?
Kevin C. Cox

We're counting down the days to basketball season, and to get everybody up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of projected finish (according to me, anyway), so as this is the eighth of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 7th in the conference.

Alabama Crimson Tide 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

Whenever a team enters a season expected to do well, and instead doesn't, the question is always: why?  Alabama went from 23-13 and tied for second in the SEC in 2013, to 13-19 and tied for 10th last year.  The Tide were expected to contend for an SEC title and NCAA Tournament berth, and instead just barely avoided playing on Wednesday in the SEC Tournament.

Well, one obvious answer was that in spite of the implosion in the record, the Tide were only marginally worse in 2014, going from 60th to 92nd in KenPom.  Basically, the Tide in 2013 weren't as good as their record looked, and in 2014 they weren't as bad as their record looked.

Going into 2014, the Tide lost Trevor Lacey, Devonta Pollard, Moussa Gueye, and Andrew Steele, the last one the lone senior on the 2013 team.  And while only Lacey out of that group was all that good on the offensive end (though Pollard had potential), all four were important to varying degrees on the defensive end.  The result was that the Tide, after having a good defensive year in 2013 (20th according to KenPom in defensive efficiency), regressed on that end of the floor last year (76th in KenPom.)  They didn't force turnovers, and while they could keep opponents to a fairly low shooting percentage, they couldn't rebound and couldn't keep opponents off the free throw line.

If there's a simple reason why Alabama seemed to underachieve, it's that most sportswriters tend to underrate defense.  If you only looked at offensive contributions, Alabama's personnel losses after 2013 didn't seem like that big of a deal; but then Alabama in 2013 was a team that won with defense and had a relatively average offense, so losing key defensive players hurt.  (It didn't help, either, that big man Nick Jacobs strangely got worse from 2013 to 2014.)

And while 2014 was Anthony Grant's first truly bad year at Alabama, it's also true that Grant has only made the NCAA Tournament once in five years.  In short, Grant needs to win this year.  The good news for Grant is that he might have the team to do that.

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards appearing as forwards, forwards appearing as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.

Losses
  • Trevor Releford (34.8 mpg, 18.5 ppg, 3.1 apg); graduated
  • Nick Jacobs (20.0 mpg, 8.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg); transfer/Georgia Tech
  • Algie Key (15.4 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 1.4 apg); transfer/Washburn
  • Carl Engstrom (11.8 mpg, 1.6 ppg, 2.5 rpg); turned pro
Starting Five
  • PG Ricky Tarrant (6'2", 190 Jr., Pleasant Grove, AL); transfer/Tulane
  • SG Levi Randolph (6'5", 205 Sr., Madison, AL)
  • SF Rodney Cooper (6'6", 215 Sr., Hurtsboro, AL)
  • PF Shannon Hale (6'8", 220 Soph., Johnson City, TN)
  • C Jimmie Taylor (6'10", 240 Soph., Greensboro, AL)
Top Reserves
  • F Riley Norris (6'7", 190 Fr., Albertville, AL); #27 SF and #112 overall
  • F Michael Kessens (6'9", 215 Soph., Nyon, Switzerland); transfer/Longwood
  • G Justin Coleman (5'10", 160 Fr., Birmingham, AL); #9 PG and #47 overall
  • G Retin Obasohan (6'1", 205 Jr., Antwerp, Belgium)
Bench
  • F Jeff Garrett (6'7", 210 Fr., Gadsden, AL); #67 PF and #260 overall
  • G Devin Mitchell (6'4", 175 Fr., Suwanee, GA); #32 SG and #120 overall
Out for season
  • G Christophe Varidel (6'3", 175 Sr., Geneva, Switzerland); transfer/Chaminade

Like Marshall Henderson and Jamal Jones, Trevor Releford was the leading scorer on a team that was pretty bad on the offensive end.  But the similarities end there: Releford was a highly efficient scorer and distributor.  Alabama's issues on the offensive end had to do with, well, the rest of the team.

The good news for Grant is that he has a ready-made replacement for Releford in Ricky Tarrant.  Tarrant, who sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, averaged 17.9 ppg and 4.0 apg in two years at Tulane and should be able to step in and do a reasonable impersonation of Releford... on the offensive end, anyway.  The underrated aspect of Releford's game was his contribution on the defensive end, where he led the SEC in steals per game.  Suffice to say that Releford is going to be difficult to replace, but Tarrant is as good a candidate as anybody to do it.

Having Tarrant available also means that Grant has the luxury of bringing touted freshman point guard Justin Coleman along slowly.  Grant also has Retin Obasohan at his disposal; while Obasohan isn't a great offensive player, he might be Alabama's best perimeter defender and could start based on that alone.  But his ability to play both guard positions should make him a good bench player.

The Tide are far less set on the wings, however.  The incumbents, Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper, both struggled shooting the ball last year, particularly Cooper (26.4 percent from three), and the latter was especially bad because Cooper attempted more three-pointers than anyone else on the team except Releford.  With neither being a particularly good defender, either, Grant may look to replace either or both with a pair of freshmen: Devin Mitchell, who's 6'4" and can shoot the ball, and 6'7" Riley Norris.  The question for both is whether they can play the kind of defense that Grant wants.  The Tide were expecting to have Christophe Varidel, who previously played at Florida Gulf Coast and Chaminade, but he won't play this year due to an injury (and may be done playing college basketball.)

Another option would be to move sophomore Shannon Hale to the wing.  Hale is more of a natural four but at this point in his career, he's more effective as a three-point shooter than a rebounder or post defender, and that skill set would seem to suggest that he'd be more suited to playing the three.  That would make room for Michael Kessens, who averaged 8.8 rpg as a freshman at Longwood and could give the Tide the rebounder they need.  More likely, though, Kessens will come off the bench to spell both Hale and Jimmie Taylor.  But Hale's versatility should allow the Tide to go big at times, as he should be able to coexist on the floor with Kessens and Taylor.

Taylor, as a freshman, showed potential as a shot blocker, but struggled at rebounding (3.3 rpg) and staying on the floor (16.9 mpg), in addition to being very raw on the offensive end.  But he also has endless potential and if he can stay out of foul trouble and get better at rebounding, he should make a good anchor for Alabama on the defensive end.  Freshman Jeff Garrett has potential but looks like depth at this point, though he could play if any of the three primary bigs get into foul trouble.

The nagging question with this team, though, is whether all the newcomers (and, to be honest, some of the holdovers) will buy into Grant's defensive philosophy.  In previous years, even if Grant's teams weren't great on the offensive end, they could at least be counted on to put together a good-to-great defense; that wasn't the case last year.  The pieces are there for this Alabama team to be pretty good on the offensive end, and it's unusual for defense to be a question mark for an Anthony Grant team.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/10 Montevallo (exh.)
11/14 Towson
11/17 Western Carolina
11/20 Southern Miss
11/24 vs. Iowa State
11/25 CBE Hall of Fame Classic
12/2 South Florida
12/6 at Xavier
12/13 Tennessee Tech
12/16 at Wichita State
12/19 Stillman
12/21 Appalachian State
12/28 UCLA
1/2 North Florida
Conference Home-and-Home

Texas A&M, South Carolina, Kentucky, Auburn, Vanderbilt

Conference Home

Florida, Missouri, Georgia, Ole Miss

Conference Road

Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State

The non-conference schedule looks like it's designed to impress the NCAA Selection Committee, with neutral-court games against a tough Iowa State team and either Maryland or Arizona State, as well as a home game with UCLA and road trips to Xavier and Wichita State.  To be fair, though, the early-season matchups with Towson and Southern Miss both look stronger on paper than they really are; both of those squads figure to be rebuilding this year.  But if Alabama is on the bubble, the Selection Committee probably won't find much fault with their non-conference schedule.

The conference schedule, too, should provide some opportunity to impress the committee: getting two shots at Kentucky and a home game with Florida, and road games with Arkansas and LSU, provide plenty of opportunities for good wins to impress the committee.  In addition, drawing likely cellar-dwellers Tennessee and Mississippi State just once, and on the road, means that those two won't do much harm to the RPI (unless Alabama loses those, of course.)  There's also enough fluff, with Texas A&M, Auburn, and Vanderbilt on the schedule twice, for Alabama to build a nice record.  In any case, this seems like a good schedule all around for Anthony Grant's team, with enough "easy" games to pad the record a bit, but also plenty of heft if Alabama is threatening for an NCAA bid.

Outlook

Anthony Grant needs to win this year, and probably needs to get to the NCAA Tournament to save his job; that much is obvious.  Perhaps more than anybody, Grant has been a victim of the SEC's recent down cycle: in the past, a team that won 12 games in the SEC (as Grant did in 2011 and 2013) would make a team a virtual lock for the NCAA Tournament, but in bot of those years Alabama wound up just on the wrong side of the bubble -- though Alabama also hurt its own cause in those years with too many losses to the likes of Tulane and St. Peter's.

Last year, it was tough to tell exactly where things went south: while the Tide entered SEC play with a 6-7 record, Alabama was competitive in losses to Duke, Xavier, Wichita State, and UCLA (all NCAA teams.)  But that was the same team that later lost by 19 to Auburn.  You got the sense for much of last season that the Crimson Tide weren't that far away from being a good team... and yet, the final record was 13-19.

And so it is as Grant enters his sixth and possibly final year in Tuscaloosa.  Grant is actually in a fairly similar situation to Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss, in that he's generally been able to put good teams on the floor (last year excepted) but only once has he been able to get over the hump and get the Tide to the NCAA Tournament.  With an experienced and talented roster, if Grant can't win with this team, then you've basically run out of arguments that he's going to get it done at Alabama.

If there's worse news for Grant, one need only look to the other side of the state.  With Bruce Pearl already impressing on the recruiting trail at Auburn and bringing excitement to a program that hasn't had anything to be excited about in over a decade, Alabama certainly won't want to be left behind.  Grant's incoming recruiting class for next season doesn't look that great, and you can bet that Alabama brass won't hesitate to pull the plug if this season doesn't go well -- if for no other reason than that they don't want to risk being the second-best program in the state.