Alabama Basketball: The State of the Program


Spruce Derden–USA TODAY Sports

There’s no denying that the 2012-13 Alabama basketball season was a disappointment. The Crimson Tide entered the season with NCAA Tournament aspirations, but ended up seeing their season end in the NIT Quarterfinals on Tuesday night at Coleman Coliseum against Maryland.

Expectations may have been a bit too high for this undermanned and young Tide squad. The team only had one senior, and Andrew Steele missed 15 games with various injuries including the season ending injury to his ankle that required surgery.

You can take that lightly if you want due to Steele’s mediocre stat line, but he was a major contributor to the team when healthy. He didn’t often do it by scoring, but he was considered the glue-guy of Alabama basketball over the last two seasons with his ability to do whatever it took to help the team win games.

It’s no coincidence that the team went 7-8 without him and 16-5 with him in the lineup this year. That’s a little skewed as well because in losses to Florida and Ole Miss Steele played a combined 22 minutes. He was clearly gutting out the injury, and the decision was made to shut him down after that.

An early season knee injury to Carl Engstrom was also detrimental to the Crimson Tide’s cause. Engstrom played in the first seven games before tearing his ACL early in a road game against Cincinnati. The Swedish Hammer had shown some progression early in the year, and looked to be a meaningful contributor to the team. Losing his size in the middle was tough for an already undersized team like Alabama.

With Engstrom out, that put extra pressure on Moussa Gueye, who played well at times on defense, but simply didn’t give the Crimson Tide any threat on the interior on offense.

6-foot-8 sophomore Nick Jacobs was Alabama’s only true threat to score on the inside. The loss of JaMychal Green, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder from a year ago (14.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG), was a big loss. When Alabama needed a basket last year, they could just throw it to Green on the block. They didn’t have that luxury this season.

Jacobs struggled early in the year, but improved over the course of the year and became a threat on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.

Jacobs played his best basketball when SEC play got started, and really had his coming out party against Kentucky in Tuscaloosa. He scored 14 points and had 5 rebounds while going against Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel for most of the evening. He more than held his own against the future lottery pick. He averaged close to 10 points per game in SEC play.

If Jacobs would have played the way he did when the calendar flipped to 2013 all season long, then chances are the Crimson Tide would have made the NCAA Tournament. The lack of a consistent post threat plagued the team early in the season.

After Alabama’s loss to Maryland on Tuesday night, I saw far too many people talking about how they hope Anthony Grant leaves or that new Athletic Director Bill Battle moves in a different direction. I think that’s foolish considering the basketball program is moving in the right direction, even if it didn’t seem like it this year.

The struggles on the offensive end were admittedly frustrating this year. Too much passing around on the perimeter, not enough moving without the ball, passing up open looks early in the shot clock, etc.. Something has to change offensively next season, and I believe it will as the Crimson Tide brings back everyone but Steele and adds some needed depth in the frontcourt.

Four-star forward commitment Shannon Hale recently won a three point shooting contest that highlighted his versatility. If he can consistently knock down open looks from the outside, he could be a stretch-forward that Alabama desperately needs to help spread the floor.

His ability to spread the floor should open up the lane for Trevor Releford to do what he does best: get to the rim. It could also force teams to give Alabama more man-to-man looks, which would be a major help considering the Tide’s struggles against the zone.

6-foot-9 Jimmie Taylor will help with depth on the inside as well, and Anthony Grant said after last night’s loss that he will look to add a couple more guys to this class.

Grant was openly questioned by the fanbase on why he only took one recruit last year (Devonta Pollard), with so many open scholarships available. But, Grant has shown that he isn’t going to take just anybody just to fill an open spot. He wants his guys; guys who will get it done on and off the court and represent the program in a first class way.

Last season, Grant showed that he will absolutely put the character and future of the program ahead of instant success when he benched Trevor Releford, Andrew Steele, JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell for a February road game against LSU.

That’s what you want in a coach. One that knows some things are more important than winning a few basketball games. As Living Crimson pointed out on twitter last night, Alabama has the second highest Academic Progress Rate in the SEC, and no coach in the conference has a higher career APR than Grant.

Continue building the program the right way and the wins will come. They’ve already been coming as well with Grant leading the Crimson Tide to three consecutive twenty win seasons after a rough transition year in his first year as the coach.

He led the team to a 25-12 mark in 2010-11 as they barely missed the NCAA Tournament and went on to make it all the way to the NIT Championship game before losing to Wichita State. He led the team to their first tournament berth since 2006 last year. The Tide was a 9-seed and lost by a single point to Creighton in the first round.

And then this year, Alabama went 23-13, narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and then lost in the NIT Quarterfinals to Maryland. In reality, Grant is one or two plays away from having led Alabama to three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Obviously, being close doesn’t count, but it is worth noting.

Alabama has also had a lot of success in the SEC since Coach Grant arrived in Tuscaloosa. He has led the Tide to 33 wins in conference over the last three years, a mark only surpassed by Florida and Kentucky. Alabama won the Western division title in 2010-11, and finished tied for second behind the Gators in the conference this season.

In the two years Alabama went to the NIT under Grant, the team won 12 conference games, which would normally be enough to earn you a bid to the Big Dance in a  power conference. But, the SEC has been down as a whole in recent years, and that certainly hasn’t helped Alabama’s cause.

The early season losses to Dayton, Mercer and Tulane, all at home, cannot continue to happen. Alabama has to take care of business against the teams they are supposed to beat, and it would be nice if every once and awhile they could win a game they weren’t supposed to, which hasn’t seemed to happen in a long time.

Still, I feel like Anthony Grant is an excellent coach and that the program is moving in the right direction. Next year is the litmus test for Grant with everyone but Steele returning and then the addition of a pair of four star prospects, and potentially more. This will be the most talented and experienced group Grant has had to date.

There should be no bubble talk in 2013-14. Alabama should comfortably be an NCAA Tournament team, and I expect them to be. Trevor Lacey predicted the Crimson Tide will make the Final Four next year, and while that may be unrealistic, next year’s team should be able to make a decent run.

I have all the faith in the world in Coach Grant, and I’m ready for him to make everyone eat their words next season.

I’m fully prepared to eat mine if I’m wrong.

Follow John on Twitter.