Tuesday, March 8, 2011

basketball thoughts, pre-tournament

I was thinking of ways I might open my 2011 retrospective of Alabama's basketball season (barring a spectacular run in this week's SEC Tournament, this team is likely bound for the NIT) when I remembered something I wrote a couple years ago about an Alabama team.
(T)his team was never really that great. A month of back-slaps and high-fives ... was just enough to take away that chip-on-the-shoulder edge Alabama had played with all season. And without that edge, Alabama had flaws that any quality opponent could expose and expose repeatedly ...

Those words are significant because I penned them right after Alabama's football team lost in the Sugar Bowl to Utah. The '11 Tide basketball team shares some traits with that '08 team: both came out of nowhere and came within an eyelash of winning the SEC title (both ultimately lost out to Florida), both were mean and physical on defense and both played with an edge that enabled them to transcend some of their flaws.
But both were teams that needed that edge to have a chance to win. The '08 Alabama football team didn't have a great quarterback, wasn't particularly deep and needed to take early leads in order to dictate the style to its opponents. The 2011 Tide on the basketball hardwood has one very obvious flaw — a complete and total dearth of perimeter scorers — and it tries its damnedest to cover that up with defense and athletic ability. For most of the season, it's been good enough.
(If you think I just wanted to post that video again, you're absolutely right.)

Trouble is, when Alabama had chances to prove it belonged in the field of 68 — and transcend those bad losses early in the season — it's failed. It failed on the road against Arkansas in a game that could've been won with better game management. It failed on the road vs. Vanderbilt in a game that could've been won with better officiating.
And when we had clinched our division — after that game vs. Arkansas — and had a 3-game stretch that might have really impressed the committee, we turned in a stinker of an effort vs. Auburn (the cheapest win in Alabama history), surrendered a double-digit lead on the road vs. Ole Miss (another bad coaching/bad officiating combo) and got our doors blown off in Gainesville (the most predictable thing that's happened all year). From that perspective, it's tempting to look at this season and be disappointed.

But that perspective is a micro-view of the season. On the whole, here is what this team accomplished this year: it won 20 games for the first time since 2007; it finished with the best record in its division and was playing for a regular-season conference championship for the first time since ... I don't know when (last SEC title was 2002); it beat Kentucky, Tennessee (on the road) and Auburn (twice) and will play in some kind of national tournament for the first time since an NIT trip to Massachusetts in 2007.
And it accomplished all that with an offense that is both poorly conceived and completely lacks outside shooting, almost like winning a National League batting crown with half an arm.
Come to think of it, that's actually pretty good.

Some other thoughts ...
— The parallels between Anthony Grant's and Nick Saban's abilities to coach defense are downright scary. It's just such a joy to see this team on the defensive end: between their individual effort and the way Grant constantly shifts his formations (sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically) it's a real treat for people who really like basketball. It doesn't make for particularly interesting action — Alabama typically thrives on grinding games that end with scores like 65-58 — but it's tough and hard-nosed, and those are two attributes I appreciate, particularly from a team that isn't particularly talented.

— If there's been a great individual story on this team, it's the "breakout" season by Jamychal Green. For most of his first two seasons, Jamychal looked like someone who was used to being the biggest kid in his middle school, the one who suddenly becomes a high school freshman and is shocked to find out everyone else is as big as he is. Green finally figured out a skill-set for himself — he's a decent jump shooter and has a pretty good handle — and it's translated into a 16-7.5 season for him, good enough to warrant some outside consideration as Player of the Year. You get the sense when you watch him that he's still something of a head case; his teammates are cognizant of any pushing and shoving in his vicinity all the time, and coach Grant takes him out quickly if any trouble starts. But he's playing his best basketball this season, and that's one of the reasons we're winning.
— The most frustrating player on the squad is the mercurial Tony Mitchell, who won SEC Player of the Week honors after the Arkansas game and promptly disappeared for the next 10 days before making a brief cameo in the UGA game. I'll say this and this only about Tony (and only because I don't want to criticize the character of someone who's still in college): When Tony attacks the rim like he means it, he's unstoppable. I mean it.
— Realize I'm a little late to the party here, but Alabama should be commended for the job it did renovating Coleman Coliseum (which I hadn't seen up close until this winter. It's a good looking, comfortable setting ... and this year, at least, it was deafening in there.

Which may be the best news of all out of this season. Roll Tide, guys, and good luck in Atlanta. Go be champions.

No comments: