Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
After a strong 6-0 start to the season that included winning the 2K Sports Classic, things have gone downhill for the Alabama Crimson Tide since the calendar flipped to December.
It all started on December 1st against then 17th-ranked Cincinnati on the road. Many of you probably don’t remember this game because it was conveniently scheduled on the same day as the SEC Championship Game.
The Crimson Tide played very well against the Bearcats, but ultimately came up just short when Cincinnati’s Cashmere Wright hit a jumper at the buzzer to give Alabama its first defeat of the season.
A loss to a Cincinnati team that remains undefeated and has climbed up to 11th in the polls is certainly not a bad loss by any means. But, Alabama followed up that gut wrenching loss at Fifth Third Arena with one of the flattest performances of the Anthony Grant era as they were beaten at home by Dayton 81-76. While they only lost by five, the game was not as close as the final score indicated with the Crimson Tide trailing by double digits for the majority of the second half before making a feverish comeback at the end to make the final score more respectable.
The hits have continued to come for the Crimson Tide the last couple of days. Yesterday it was announced that 7-foot junior center Carl Engstrom tore his ACL and MCL and would miss the remainder of the season.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it was announced today through a University release that senior guard Andrew Steele underwent surgery on a sports hernia and would be out for four to six weeks.
Losing two guys to injury for a significant period of time is bad news for a team with as little depth as the Crimson Tide. Alabama now has 8 healthy scholarship to call on until Steele returns.
The loss of Engstrom is particularly troubling due to the lack of depth on the interior, and with how much the Crimson Tide have struggled to rebound to date, ranking 242nd in the country in rebounds per game. Alabama is now left with one true center in 7-foot junior Moussa Gueye. The Tide will need sophomore forward Nick Jacobs to step his game up, particularly on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor. 6-foot-8 freshman Devonta Pollard may be called upon to play more minutes on the inside, and he’ll need to get comfortable down low as quick as possible to alleviate some of the depth concerns.
Of course, you cannot understate the loss of Andrew Steele over the next few weeks. Steele isn’t an All-SEC type player, but he has long been considered a “glue-guy.” Also, Steele is the only senior on the roster, and his leadership on the court will surely be missed until he is able to get back on the hardwood.
A lot of Alabama Basketball fans are ready to hit the panic button, and I’ve even heard some say they are beginning to sour on fourth year head coach Anthony Grant, which is completely ridiculous at this point.
Making the NCAA Tournament seemed like a safe bet after the 6-0 start, but it looks to be an uphill battle for the Crimson Tide to break into March Madness this year with their depth, scoring, and size issues.
The Crimson Tide has three potent scorers on the roster in Trevor Releford, Trevor Lacey, and Rodney Cooper, who all average over 14 points per game, but far too often the Crimson Tide get in 5-minute or longer scoring droughts. Alabama doesn’t rank in the Top-100 in any major statistical category offensively.
Once again this year, Alabama has hung their hat on the defensive end of the court, which has become a staple of Anthony Grant coached teams in Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s full court pressure defense has been a thing of beauty at times this season, but other times they have struggled in halfcourt sets and transition defense when their press breaks down.
Never was that more evident than in their loss to Dayton last Wednesday where the Crimson Tide allowed the Flyers to score 81 points on 49% shooting from the field. Alabama’s transition defense was atrocious, and they allowed wide open shot after wide open shot.
Even still, Alabama has given up only 58.1 points per game this season, which ranks 37th in the country. Alabama also ranks in the Top 50 in blocks (30th) and steals (46th).
I would say that it is too early to push the panic button just yet, but admittedly my optimism for this season has shrunk since the beginning of December.
But, it is important to note how similar this season has been compared to last, where the Crimson Tide won 21 games and was selected to the NCAA Tournament as a 9-seed.
On December 1st, exactly a year ago to the date of their buzzer beating loss to Cincinnati, Alabama was beaten at the buzzer by Georgetown’s Hollis Thompson. Even more eerie, Alabama followed that loss up with an uninspiring performance against the very same Dayton team they lost to last Wednesday.
We will find out what this team is made of on Saturday when they travel to VCU to take on Anthony Grant’s former team. Alabama played and beat VCU in Coleman Coliseum last season, but they will make the trek to Richmond for this matchup.
The Rams are 6-3 on the season, but their three losses have all come against ranked teams with a combined record of 26-1. They lost to Wichita State by two, Duke by nine, and Missouri by three. They beat Memphis in late November, and they will provide a big test for the Crimson Tide on Saturday at Stuart Siegel Center.
Alabama hasn’t played a game since they lost to Dayton on December 5th, and they should be well rested up for the game against VCU; a game the Tide really need to win to avoid dropping their third straight game.
So, Tide fans, keep your hand off that panic button for now. If the Crimson Tide fall to VCU on Saturday, although it wouldn’t be a bad loss, you can start inching your hand closer to that panic button.
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