Monday, April 01, 2013

2013 End of Season Manifesto

Let's take one last look at this season, the state of the program, Coach Anthony Grant, and the future.  You guys know how long-winded I can be, and this is going to be exceptionally long even by my standards, so you've been warned.  I'm going to insert a jump here so as not to take up the whole front page of the blog.  Please forgive any typos, as I'm going to publish this without proofreading.





Season Recap

After making the NCAA tournament for the first time in what felt like decades last year, we lost our two leading scorers but returned a very talented group of sophomores.  The "experts" picked us to finish 6th in the SEC.  I expected us to be a bubble team, and was hopeful that we could just make the tournament in order to maintain the momentum we gained from last year.  Of course, we finished tied for 2nd in a down SEC, received the 4th seed in the SEC tournament, and came up short of the big dance.

We all knew that our post play would be a huge question mark coming into the season.  I posted (or at least I think I did) that the keys to the season would be Nick Jacobs continued development and Devonta Pollard being able to contribute as a true freshman.  Unfortunately, neither of those materialized with any consistency.

Things started off promising, with a 6-0 record and a championship in the pre conference tournament in New York.  After that tournament, I cautioned about getting too optimistic based on those results, as none of the four teams in NY looked like NCAA tournament teams to me.  Of course, I was proven wrong, as Villanova, who didn't even look NIT worthy in those games in my opinion, went on to earn a bid.

Some may say bad luck in close losses at Tennessee, Cincinnati, LSU, and others ultimately kept us out of the tournament, but that ignores the buzzer beaters that went our way at Vanderbilt, South Dakota State, Texas A&M, and Georgia.  At the end of the day, we ended up about where we deserved to be.

A turning point in the season was the injury to Carl Engstrom against Cincinnati.  He was actually developing into a serviceable big man when he went down.  We still managed to play the Bearcats close to the wire, but it seemed to take us a few weeks to adjust to playing with Jacobs and Gueye as our only centers.  December was an unmitigated disaster with 3 home losses in a row to Dayton, Mercer, and Tulane, not to mention the absolute beat down in Richmond at the hands of VCU.  At that point, I was not even sure we would make the NIT, and the NCAA seemed like a pipe dream.

Fortunately, our defense kept us in most games, and our guards played very well to overcome our deficiencies in the post, and we were able to get back on track.  Our perimeter shooting was exponentially better than it was last year.  Gueye improved a lot defensively, when he managed to stay out of foul trouble, but we still sorely missed Carl, if for no other reason we desperately needed at least another large, warm body to give us some minutes and fouls.

We could win a few games in a row, just enough to get our hopes up, but couldn't land that big "signature" win we needed to get over the hump.  We were still in contention for the SEC championship until blowing a 10 point lead in the final 11 minutes in Gainesville.

Nevertheless, this season had its moments.  Exciting buzzer beating victories over South Dakota State to start the season, Texas A&M in SEC play, and Releford's halfcourt shot to close out the regular season against Georgia.  I'm appreciative of the fact that I finally got to see us win in $tarkville, of course the 5 of us who write on this blog could have probably beat $tate that night.  I'm very grateful to this team for finally ending Vandy's 22 year reign of terror over us in Memorial Gym.

Ultimately, missing the NCAA tournament and then losing in the NIT to Maryland was a disappointment.  On the other hand, one can argue that going as far as we did with only 2 centers, one of which can't play offense, and the other can't play defense, was actually overachieving.  I think it's more a testament to how bad our league was this year than anything else.

STATE OF THE PROGRAM

As I feared, the momentum from making the tournament last year is long gone.  There is a sense of negativity and apathy around the program, and I hope it does not impact our recruiting efforts.  Attendance was down this year, and the atmosphere in Coleman pretty much sucked for most of the season, with the exception of the final two NIT games.  We need to create some hype about next year's team, and more importantly, next year's team must live up to that hype if we are going to progress.  

Certainly losing the games in December was a big part of that, but we have a number of issues that go beyond wins and losses.  Everybody, from the marketing department, to Coach Grant, and others involved, do a very poor job of marketing the program.  We are not Kentucky, UCLA, UNC, Indiana, or Duke, as much as us die hard basketball fans would like to be.  Alabama is a football first school, and we aren't going to fill up Coleman just because we put 5 guys on the floor wearing Alabama jerseys.  I can't tell you how many times I've been in Tuscaloosa on gameday, and spoken to locals and/or students who did not even realize we were playing on that day.  

I would completely revamp our marketing efforts.  It starts on campus.  Coach Grant needs to realize that part of his job is selling the program, and doing so will actually make the more important part of his job, winning basketball games, a little bit easier.  I would like to see Coach Grant go to some fraternity/sorority houses and speak at residential halls before the season.  Sort of as a motivational speaker type of thing where he can also solicit support for the basketball program.  Next, I would figure a way to move the student seating closer to the court.  Yes, you are going to displace some season ticket holders and step on a few toes, and it may cost you some money in the short term, but long term, you are creating a better atmosphere that will lead to winning.  You are also going to get more students to come to the game this way, who will in turn be more likely to be fans/season ticket holders/donors in a few years.  Throw in a free hot dog, drink, and bag of chips for them like they did when I was a student too, while you are at it.  Finally, I would send out campus wide emails to every single student, faculty, and staff member reminding them of games.  I would reach out to the local media, both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, and offer the occasional exclusive interview with coaches, invite them to a practice or two, anything to keep the brand in the news and in a positive light.  Also, Tuscaloosa  does not have the size or demographics to support the program alone.  Birmingham is 45 minutes away, it sounds cliche and cheesy, but I would consider some billboards in the metro area, maybe send some merchandise, such as posters and what not to popular sports bars and restaurants here in Birmingham for display.  Being highly visible is half of the battle of staying in the minds of the more casual fans.  Everywhere you look in this town you see Alabama football stuff and UAB basketball stuff, why not Alabama basketball?  If at all possible, I would try to play at least one game per year, ideally during Christmas break when the students aren't on campus anyway, at the BJCC.  I know Bryant, Jr. will probably never go for it, but with Gene Bartow now rotting in hell, it is time to revisit the idea of playing UAB.  If we did all of these things, and we had a little better atmosphere for those December games, who knows, maybe it's enough to give the team just a little more motivation and we are able to mitigate some of that damage?

A lot of people feel we may have "missed an opportunity" with the SEC being down, but there are reasons the SEC is down and we are not immune to those factors.  We all want a Final Four/National Championship caliber team, but that is a pipe dream right now.  We have several steps to complete before we can even contemplate being at that level.  In order to compete at that level, you must be able to recruit the top prospects nationally on a regular basis.  We aren't UNC, Duke, Kentucky, or UCLA.  The only way we are going to bring in 3 or 4 McDonald's All Americans every year is if we take the $tansbury Mississippi $tate approach.  I think you all know what I mean, and understand why we should not do that.  Historically, we are at our best when the state and region are producing top talent.  That is not happening right now.

Some like to make the distinction between "basketball players" and "athletes."  Obviously, you want prospects who fall into both of those categories.  Alabama, and the south in general, no doubt produces a number of good athletes.  There are a number of reasons why many of those athletes are not also good basketball players.  With only a few exceptions, football is the most important sport at most high schools here just as it is perceived to be at the college level.  Schools make more of an investment in their football programs.  High school athletes are either pushed to play football over basketball, or choose to because they know it will bring them more local notoriety.  Climate also plays a part in it.  We don't have ridiculously long, cold winters like the Midwest  so kids are able to get outside and play football or baseball, whereas they are limited to indoor sports for half of the year up there.  Thus, we are drawing from a smaller pool of students who are dedicated to hoops.  Finally, and most importantly, the level of coaching kids receive at the lower levels pales in comparison to that of other parts of the country.  This is not an indictment of any individual high school coaches in Alabama, there are some VERY good ones, but those are the exception.  It goes back to the investment that schools are willing to make in the sport.

In order to take the next step and become a consistent NCAA tournament team, we need to keep what little elite talent the state is producing at home.  When we have the talent on hand to make a run, as we might next year, we must make the most of it, keeping our name in the news so to speak, and use that success to hopefully be able to supplement the local talent with one or two national type recruits.  The last couple of years the state has not produced much talent, but we did manage to keep Levi and Lacey here a couple of years ago, and next year's class is shaping up to be a pretty good one as well.

Bottom line, we can demand a final four all we want, but right now we sound like delusional Ole Miss football fans in doing so.  We need to change the basketball culture around here to start making the tournament on a regular basis.

COACH GRANT

When Coach Grant was first hired, I made this post outlining my hopes and expectations.  While he has not implemented a lot of the things I hoped for, he met my expectations for years 1-3 before taking a step back this year.  On the one hand, I think Coach Grant did a pretty good job to win 23 games while basically playing 4 on 5 at one end of the court or the other at all times.  On the other hand, poor roster management led to those shortcomings.  He failed to anticipate the departures of Eblen and Hankerson, missed out on some top national recruits, and seemingly had no plan B.  I do not believe this is a fire-able offense, as long as it does not become a recurring problem.  It is important to remember that Coach Grant is still a relatively young coach, and I trust he will learn and grow from this experience.

As much as I have complained about his use and management of timeouts, that is one area that I believe he greatly improved on this year.  I see no reason to believe he cannot improve in other areas as well.  Nobody can question the defensive intensity, and I do believe he generally gets the most out of his players available.

Obviously the offensive production has not been as good as we would like.  Coach Grant's teams have never been known for lighting up scoreboards, but the issues were especially aggravated this year by the lack of a post game.  Coach Grant's system relies heavily on perimeter screens and guards being able to penetrate or create space.  With no post play, opposing defenses were able to over extend on the perimeter, come over the top of our screens and over play the passing lanes.  We also lacked a great rebounder who could get some garbage points on put backs for us.  Relatively speaking, our offensive woes are not quite as bad as they may seem.  Scoring was way down all over college basketball this year.  I don't remember another season where I saw as many games in the 40s, and some even in the 30s.  I read an article not long ago that attributed this to technological advances in scouting.  Now, teams can get instant access to every game an opponent has played going back several years, often with multiple angles, etc, so there are few surprises.  I don't doubt that plays a role, and also players are generally larger and more physical and thus harder to score against.  It also seems that officials are allowing more contact by the defense in terms of hand checking and calling more charges and moving screens against the offense.  Of course, we still have some offensive problems, but I point out that scoring is down overall to illustrate that it might not be as bad as it seems.

This year marked the second time that bad early season losses ultimately kept us out of the tournament.  The last 20 games of the season, we used the same starting lineup, and clearly played much better during that time.  I hope Coach Grant is able to figure out his best lineup and rotation earlier in the season going forward.

I know there is a segment of our fan base who wants Coach Grant gone now, and I recognize that I am likely not going to convince you otherwise.  I would like to respectfully ask those of you who hold that viewpoint to recognize that Coach Grant will be our head coach next year.  I think we can all agree that if next year is not a success, then Coach's future here will be uncertain.  For now, can we all agree to disagree, and just wait and see how it plays out?  The public calls for his termination and the negativity are not good for recruiting.  If you are correct and he's not the man for the job, it will be evident soon enough.  Until then, let's give the team, and that includes Coach Grant, our full support.  It's a free country, and I am not trying to censor anybody, but I think we all want the same thing and that is what is best for Alabama basketball.

THE FUTURE

Next year will be a defining season for the future of the Alabama program.  We lose only Andrew Steele.  Assuming no major injuries or attrition, we should have a very talented group returning with the additions of Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale.  Obviously, it's difficult to make predictions or set expectations this far in advance without seeing schedules, having a final roster, etc, but my initial thoughts are that we should make the tournament fairly easily next year.  I think it's reasonable to expect us to be anywhere from a 6 seed at best to a 10 seed.  Offensive production in the post will still be a problem, I'm afraid.  Jimmie Taylor is a defensive and rebounding specialist, but not really a scorer.  Shannon Hale is 6'8" but not really a back to the basket type of player, but I do think he will help our offense with his shooting ability pulling our opponents bigs away from the basket.  More importantly, with Carl back, we will now have 4 or 5 bodies to throw down there instead of trying to get by with 2.  

We will have a very good senior PG in Releford.  I would like to see him work hard in the offseason and take on a leadership role.  It would be ideal if he would stay in Tuscaloosa rather than returning to Kansas City.  I would like to see Pollard add some weight and start living up to his expectations.  Nick Jacobs needs to have another good offseason and tone up some more.  I think our added depth next year will both help to motivate him and make him more productive by having a true PF on the court with him in the games.  Hopefully Carl will make a full recovery and be serviceable.  I think Cooper will be able to play the 3 spot more next year which will help his game.  Retin played very well late in the game, and should be able to give us some good minutes in the back court, and hopefully allow Lacey to play almost exclusively at the 2.  We need Lacey to get more consistent, and I would like to see our offense designed to get him more shots.  

The competition in conference should be tougher next year, which will be good for our RPI.  I expect Ole Miss to fall back to reality after losing their bigs, and I will still be surprised if Marshall Henderson is still there next year, for one reason or another.  Kentucky could be the best team in the country.  Florida will reload and be solid.  $tate will improve, as they have most everybody back, and they can't get much worse.  LSU and Vandy should be much improved, and look for South Carolina to be better in Frank Martin's second year.  Believe it or not, auburn may even be worse, if that's possible, as they are losing Sullivan and Chubb.  Playing them twice will not be good for our strength of schedule rankings.

If we can make the tournament next year, get a good draw and win a game or two, that will be solid progress that we should be able to build upon.

CONCLUSION

We had a disappointing season, but a lot of reasons for optimism next year.  Next year is a make or break year that will determine the direction of the program for the near future.  

Thanks to Bobbyjack for allowing me to post here and for doing a great job with the blog.  I think the changes implemented this year are fantastic.  Thanks also to the other writers and frequent commenters.  We don't always agree on everything, (and the world would be a pretty boring place if we all had the same thoughts), but I enjoy the discussion with other knowledgeable Bama basketball fans.  If I run across any recruiting news or scheduling tidbits, I'll be sure to pass them along.  Otherwise, enjoy the offseason and Roll Tide!

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