"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."
Then, the off season happened. Trevor Lacey decided to go play for Gottfried at NC State, Gueye left for Valpo, and Pollard's mom got him into some legal trouble. On top of that, the rules were changed in a way that had a very negative impact on our physical defensive style of play. So, instead of entering the season with the lofty expectations outlined above, once again we had a short bench and a lot of uncertainty. I think most fans were just hoping to be a bubble team and maybe sneak into the tournament at best.
Instead, we went 13-19, and didn't win a game outside of Tuscaloosa for the first time since 1960. In fairness, I don't think this team was as bad as the record indicated. We played the 2nd toughest schedule in the country. That schedule gave us some great opportunities to win games that could have really been a springboard for the program. Unfortunately, we couldn't complete the come back against Duke in New York, we lost to UCLA after tying the game in the final minutes, and we couldn't protect our turf against still undefeated Wichita State despite having a lead late in the game. If we played a 40-50th ranked schedule I think this team probably has a winning record.
While we didn't have the embarrassing losses at home to awful teams that has plagued us in recent years, all hope for a successful season was seemingly lost after we dropped the Xavier game at home, having already lost to Drexel and South Florida. If we win just those 3 winnable games, we are a .500 team and possibly preparing for the NIT right now. Drexel was a double overtime loss to a team that we should have beaten, although they were a bad matchup for us. While the USF game was on the road, it was another team that we should have beaten, but we could not overcome our weak post play. The failure to win those two games epitomized this team's lack of the necessary intangibles to win on the road.
There were some positives as Bobby pointed out in his post below. It should also be noted that Levi Randolph had a preseason injury and was dealing with some difficult personal issues for much of the season, but played much better down the stretch. With Hale and Taylor's development, I think we were a much better team at the end of the season than we were at the beginning, so that is an encouraging sign.
STATE OF THE PROGRAM
It's not good. I went back and read my post at the end of last season, and I could pretty much copy and paste it here and it would still be applicable. We have no momentum, no enthusiasm, and as Bobby illustrated below we've been largely an afterthought for the last two decades. Coach Grant has lost the fanbase. That's evident not only from the majority of comments at this blog and other sites, but the dwindling crowds at home games. I disagree with Bobby's contention that apathy has reached the level of the late Hobbs era, but it's certainly getting close. When people like Bobby and Alias, who are dedicated enough to regularly contribute to a blog like this, are close to throwing up their hands and walking away, things are pretty bad. Most fans have already made up their mind, and the only way to get them back is to win, win big, and win quickly. It is imperative that we do exactly that next year, or we will continue to spiral towards permanent irrelevancy. We should have five scholarships available next year, so it is very important for Coach Grant to find a way to overcome this air of negativity that currently surrounds the program on the recruiting trail.
I had originally planned on setting out all of the reasons why Coach Grant should be retained and all of the arguments for why he should be dismissed here, but with today's statement from Bill Battle that argument is moot, as Coach Grant will return as our coach. There are a lot of good arguments to be made for giving him another year, just as there are for making a change. To me, it all boils down to two questions: What are the goals of the program, and do we believe Coach Grant is capable of getting us there (or at least to the next step)? After reading the "Battle Plan" I fear the administration does not share the same goals for this program as us fans. For me, the answer to the first question, is that we should at least make the NCAA tournament more often that not, and eventually one day make a run to the final 4. I hope Coach Grant can get us there, and I am rooting for him, but I have my doubts. However, when I read that "Battle Plan" it came across as a load of excuses for a bad year plus a lot of pontificating about his high character and the team's great academics. While I am sure we are all proud of the team's academic accomplishments, this indicates to me that winning basketball is not the priority within the administration that any of us would like it to be. A simple, "Coach Grant will be retained under the terms of his contract, and we expect and look forward to much improved results next season," would have sufficed. Frankly, this statement came across as a load of BS and a slap in the face to those of us who make significant financial, emotional, and time investments in the program.
Coach Grant is not nearly as bad as his detractor's make him out to be. He has the 3rd best league record in his tenure behind Kentucky and Florida. Yes, the league has been down, but he is facing the same challenges every other program, sans the Cats and Gators, are facing right now. The league as a whole must improve, and until it does, it's going to be very difficult for any coach to build up a program in this conference in the current environment. Mike Anderson had been successful everywhere else he's been, and seemed like the perfect fit at Arkansas, and even they haven't been able to get off the ground. Coach Grant is not a horrible X's and O's coach. He's infinitely better than Gottfried was, we actually make some adjustments from time to time and at least 95% of the time we manage to get the ball in bounds coming out of a timeout. I think he has improved his clock and timeout management abilities. While the offense isn't impressive, we run basically the same system Florida runs. The problem with our offense is we have a bunch of slashers and nothing else. Of course, the roster goes back to the head coach, he must do a better job of recruiting our needs.
Next year is a make or break year for Coach Grant (of course, I said the exact same thing at this time last year). We lose our best player, who is at the very least one of our all time top 5 best point guards, and replace him with a transfer from Tulane and a true freshman who is under 6 feet tall. I think it's probably safe to assume that Nick Jacobs is gone, and rumors are that Carl is going home. That leaves us with very little depth, once again, in the post. Jimmie Taylor will be back and much improved, I was very happy with his development over the course of the year. Kessens will be able to help down low, but again, he is a transfer from Longwood, and an unknown at this point. In theory, the perimeter shooter should be much improved with the incoming recruiting class. Mitchell and Riley Norris, in addition to Coleman, are known for being able to fill it up. That will help the inside game as well and at least give us more scoring options, but still, we are relying on true freshman that we've never seen play at this level. Getting a full, good year out of Levi will help and Shannon Hale should average double digits per game and be a force on both ends. Cooper will come back and hopefully be able to play more of his natural role, and focus on rebounding and defense.
In a perfect world, everybody expected to come back does so, and all of the freshman and transfers live up to their hype. We could have a decent inside game with Kessens/Taylor, and enough offense from the Levi/Hale/Mitchell/Norris, while Tarrant and Coleman take care of the basketball and distribute it to the scorers, while adding 5-10 ppg themselves. If all that happens, we could make the tournament, but I still think we are likely a bubble team. I suspect there will be at least one more transfer in addition to Jacobs and Carl. Hopefully we can sign another warm body who can play in the post during the late signing period. It's slim pickings right now, and there are rumors that we may even be looking into the possibility of bringing Pollard back.
Regardless, we should probably be a little less ambitious in our scheduling next year. As much as I love to play the big boys, we didn't have the team for this year, and I don't think we will next year either. We should just avoid the 250+RPI teams and shoot for a strength of schedule around 45 or so. We've already got a tournament with Arizona State, Iowa State, and Maryland, a home game with UCLA and a trip to Wichita State as obligations. I could see one more top 50 type non-conference game, and I think that would be good enough.
I would also like to see Coach Grant bring in somebody on staff who has some AAU connections. I'm not saying go full on $tansbury, but someone who can maybe pull some kids from out of the region.
It was a horrible season, but that can happen to even the best of programs from time to time. There are reasons to believe it was an anomaly and not a trend. We must get back on the right track next year, and in a big way otherwise the talent level, fan support, and everything else will continue to deteriorate.