Coming into this season, it was easy to find reasons why Alabama would improve in 2011-12. After all, the Crimson Tide went 12-4 in the SEC last year, they made it all the way to the NIT title game, and Anthony Grant was bringing back his two biggest stars in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. What's not to like?
It's still early, of course, but to this point Alabama's season has not gone entirely according to the script written by conventional wisdom. After last night's 62-54 win over Detroit in Tuscaloosa, Grant's team sits at 8-2. That's not disastrous, by any means, but in the past two weeks the Tide lost a nail-biter at home to Georgetown and dropped a 12-point decision in their first true road game, at Dayton. Those two losses coming so close together have many observers taking another look at Alabama. For our purposes, let's focus on the Tide's performance and isolate what will need to change if this team's going to make any noise at all come March.
Defense plus Green and Mitchell equals...?
Mind you, Alabama's two stars have been everything that anyone could have expected. At the moment both players are averaging precisely 15.4 points a game, and, more importantly, they're both doing so very efficiently. Green, a 6-8 senior, is draining 61 percent of his twos, while 6-6 junior Mitchell is hitting 56 percent of those same shots. Both players account for 28 percent of this offense's shot attempts during their minutes. Ask any coach if he'd like just one guy with those numbers, much less two. In Green and Mitchell, head coach Grant has a scoring nucleus that can compete with just about any such duo in the country.
That's fine, but Grant no doubt wishes he could get more minutes out of said duo. Green's main problem is the same one he's faced throughout his career: foul trouble. Once again this year he's averaging five fouls per 40 minutes, a figure he's consistently bumped up against all four years in Tuscaloosa. Perhaps as a last-ditch attempt to shrink that stubborn number, Grant debuted a new starting lineup against Detroit last night, one that now includes 6-8 freshman Nick Jacobs. The presence of another big (foul-drawing) body on the floor may help keep Green in the game, but the larger issue facing Alabama is that Green, Mitchell, and even a player like 6-0 sophomore Trevor Releford are all good at more or less the same thing: making shots inside the arc. What this team really needs is not only more minutes from Green, but also some new and different ways to score points.
Has this defense maxed out?
Alabama will have an outstanding defense this season, and in fact I'll go out on a limb here and now and predict that, when all is said and done come March, this will either be the SEC's best or second-best D (after Kentucky's). So what I'm about to say concerns the potential for improvement that was widely assigned to the Tide entering the season.
First we have to acknowledge that this defense last year really was a wonder. The fact that the Tide played in what was then called the SEC West (the conference has dispensed with divisions this year, at least in terms of brackets for the SEC tournament) likely robbed Grant of the full measure of credit that was due to him. You simply don't see a defense defend the rim and force turnovers like Alabama did last year. SEC opponents coughed the ball up a whopping 24 percent of the time against this D last year, but even when those teams held on to the rock it's not like there was a lot they could do with it. Conference opponents missed an awful lot of shots from both sides of the arc against this defense last season.
At first glance this year looks like more of the same on defense, especially if you write off the road loss to Dayton as simply an off night (the Flyers scored their 74 points in just 60 possessions). Alabama's official web site notes that just "three of UA's opponents have even reached the 60-point mark this season and three have failed to score 50 points." True enough, but two important caveats need to be added here. First, the team has played at a slower tempo in their first 10 games (62 possessions per 40 minutes) than they did last year in 16 SEC games (65) -- and that's unusual. November and December are customarily the times when teams are racing up and down the floor, relatively speaking, before all those grim defensive struggles that we usually associate with conference play. For whatever reason Grant appears to have made a conscious decision to slow down the pace. This helps keep per-game point totals down, but that's not the true measure of how well a defense is performing.
Second, Alabama simply isn't forcing as many turnovers this season. Opponents this year have given the ball away 21 percent of the time. That's still pretty good, of course, but typically that number will shrink when conference play rolls around. Scoring against this team is still very difficult, but it looks likely that SEC opponents will have more chances to do so in 2012 -- and more chances equals more points.
The elephant in the room: perimeter shooting
You've no doubt heard that Alabama is not a good perimeter shooting team, and this is indeed the case. But what you may not realize is just how bad this team really has been when it comes to making shots outside the arc.
There are 74 major-conference teams nationally, and at the moment Alabama ranks No. 74 in three-point accuracy at 25.3 percent. But even that number may overstate the Tide's degree of perimeter prowess. Toss out the three games played against teams from outside Division I's top 14 conferences and we find that Grant's group has made just 23 percent of their threes against "quality" opponents.
One thought coming into the year was that 6-3 freshman Trevor Lacey might be able to help on this front. Recruited as a shooting guard, Lacey averaged 31 points a game his senior year in high school and is one of just two two-time winners of Mr. Basketball recognition in the state of Alabama's history. But apparently Grant's emphasis on defense is so thorough that even blue-chip shooting guards are turned into lockdown defenders once they get to Tuscaloosa. "His defense has really stood out," teammate Charles Hankerson has said of Lacey. Most coaches would love for their top freshman recruit to earn that sound bite, but Grant will be forgiven if he yearns for just one player who'll selfishly focus on perimeter offense for a change: Lacey's shooting just 26 percent on his threes.
To be sure, all of the above needs to be seen in context. After all, Grant was hired after a three-year run where the Tide went just 19-29 in conference play. But relative to the expectations the team carried coming into this year, it appears that Alabama has some work to do before they can be considered a threat to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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