Monday, March 8, 2010

some basketball thoughts, post-mortem

I've avoided discussing Alabama basketball in this blog space this season for two big reasons. The first was that I was giving my brother — a basketball enthusiast — his own platform and didn't want to step on any of his posts. The other was this: any kind of post would've seemed like an overly negative knee-jerk and probably would've included multiple snarky lines like, "Too bad we don't have a men's soccer team — the way we kick it around, we'd be pretty good!" or "I'd give $10 to hear Chris Stewart say, 'Brock was open there, but he sucks.'"

In the wake of Saturday's season-ending win over Auburn — meaning our boys closed out a frustrating season on a two-game win streak — it seems appropriate to offer some scattered thoughts about the first year of Anthony Grant at 'Bama.
(Note: All notes about the end of the season should come with the disclaimer: "pending something truly bizarre happening in this week's SEC Tournament." I don't foresee this team making anything resembling noise in Nashville this weekend, but we do have a touch of momentum and we do have a string of agonizingly close losses this season against many of the same teams we'll be facing. I'm not sure if that counts as "hope," but it's something.)

• It's fitting, I think, that the season ended vs. Auburn, if only because Auburn and Alabama are so damned similar to one another. Beyond the records and the tournament seeding, both hung tough all year against superior competition, both have multiple losses on their resume that could be described on a scale from "tough" to "painfully tough." From a coaching standpoint, both have head coaches who hail from impressive backgrounds (Grant cut his teeth with Billy Donovan at Florida; Jeff Lebo is a Dean Smith disciple) AND both appear to be sound from a scheme perspective, only the players on the floor aren't always capable of executing that scheme.
The big difference: Grant just finished his first season at Alabama. Lebo has been doing this dance for nearly 6 seasons now on the Plains.
Which is why the Lebo Era at Auburn is something of a cautionary tale for 'Bama fans. During Saturday's broadcast, I heard Joe Dean Jr. say something to this effect: "Once [Grant] gets a few capable offensive players in his system, this will be a dynamic team." The classic, "Coach is fine — he just needs some players!" argument. And of course it would be foolish to argue otherwise when Grant's coming off his first season.
All I'm saying is that Auburn has been waiting on Jeff Lebo to make that big splash for 6 seasons. It hasn't happened (unless you think 24 wins in a watered-down league and an NIT appearance counts as "happening"). And now they may be looking for a new coach.
(Note: Jay Tate's blog post today is an example of the dumbest kind of argument for keeping a basketball coach. I know this because multiple people advanced it last season when Mark Gottfried's fate was on the line. What does it matter how Lebo measures up to other terrible basketball coaches in Auburn history? What does that have to do with anything? Jeff, in 6 years at Auburn you've produced exactly nothing and this year's team got housed at home by Sam Houston St. ... but, what the hell? All our other coaches have been lousy, so let's just stand pat. Give me a break.)
• The giant secret about this Alabama team that isn't remotely a secret: there isn't a soul on this squad that can reliably be expected to make a jumper. As a team, the collective field goal percentage is a tick under 45 percent; from 3-point range, it's an abominable 35 percent. The best individual shooter on the squad, percentage-wise: Andrew Steele, who's been sidelined with an injury since the first month of the season. The worst offender is Senario Hillman, who has somehow managed to average under 1 point per shot this season and should probably be benched and possibly suspended every time he takes a 3. You're not a shooter, Senario. You're not. So stop.
(Note: the alleged "shooters" on this team are Charvez Davis and Mikhail Torrance — I say "allegedly" because they took a combined 232 3s this year, way more than anyone else on the team. By the way, neither of them made could even hit 40 percent of those.)

My point: if you're looking for a reason this team squandered so many winnable games and couldn't hold onto leads away from home, you can stop now. Teams that don't have at least one reliable shot-maker simply can't win. It's actually pretty simple.
• Of course, the key to everything this year has been defense — specifically, coach Grant read correctly that his team, which lacks anyone who might be considered a polished basketball player, is ideally suited to the pressure-defense game. And it shows: every regular on the roster save one (Justin Knox) registered at least 20 steals this season; for the season, 'Bama forced an eye-popping 14 turnovers per game (of course, we committed nearly 13 per game, but that's neither here nor there). Opponents averaged less than 42 percent vs. 'Bama this season, and less than 40 percent from 3, as well.
(Note: Evaluating defensive stats is one of the hardest things to do in basketball; if we're playing 1-on-1, and you make 1-of-15, did I do a great job defensively or did you just stink? You really don't know unless you watched the game.)
Here's the thing: because of its lack of shooting acumen, Alabama needed to lock people down defensively and earn those free points off turnovers and fast breaks to even have a chance. Grant definitely deserves credit for that part of it.
• The two most improved players — as well as the two who may have a shot to make us pretty good next year — were Tony Mitchell and Chris Hines. Mitchell went from "I'm not sure what he does well" in January to "dominating on both ends" last Saturday. As for Hines, he was a spot player until late January (when he began averaging over 20 minutes per game). Offensively, his game doesn't stand out, but he's a brawler in the post, someone who fights for rebounds and plays physical defense at 3 different positions. It was because of Hines that 'Bama didn't even remotely miss JaMychal Green in the final two games of the season (well, that and the fact that JaMychal plays like a sissy — I'm begging you, JaMychal: throw an elbow at somebody this week ... show us you care a little ... please).
• My wife's take on the home grays we wore vs. Auburn: "It looks like someone threw two pairs of dark socks in with our whites. Gross."
• There are some fair parallels between this season and Nick Saban's first season at Alabama: a few big wins early to get our attention, an exciting style of play that ultimately frustrated us all even as it gave us hope for the future. There may not be any chance of a postseason in this case, but things definitely look brighter than they did.
(I just don't want to be saying these same things over again this time next year.)

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