I attended the annual Tide Pride/Tuscaloosa Tip-off club preseason open practice yesterday afternoon. We arrived about 10 minutes early and could hear that practice was already under way. Upon attempting to enter the arena, we were stopped by an administrator and informed that the coaches did not want anybody to come in until 4:30. If they are going to have this event, in my opinion our $10 should entitle us to watch an entire practice.
As usual I tried to focus mostly on the new guys, since we have a good sense of what most of our returning players are capable of. Unfortunately, Kessons and Tarrant were dealing with minor injuries and not able to play.
They started off working on set inbound plays from the baseline against a man to man defense, then against various zones. Next they ran several 5 on 5 half-court sets, mostly against zone, starting at the top of the key. They did some 5 on 5 full court, usually 2 possessions at a time, and concluded with a 4 on 4 half court drill with 2 wings and 2 big men in man to man situations. Practice concluded with free throws, each player shot 2 until a certain number in a row were made.
With Tarrant out, Coleman and Retin ran the points. Justin Coleman is very quick, and strong for his size. I was concerned that his lack of size could be a problem defensively, but his quickness allows him to maintain position and be disruptive. I thought he looked great for a freshman running the point. He will also be able to score, as he makes up for his lack of size by having a very quick release on his shot.
Riley Norris was much better defensively than I anticipated. He was matched up against Shannon Hale most of the practice, and he more than held his own, at one point he denied Shannon the ball by deflecting passes and causing turnovers on 2 or 3 possessions in a row. He's big enough he can guard the 3 or some smaller 4s. I can see him playing a valuable role on this team. He has a decent looking shot, but not a very quick release, and he appeared to be somewhat off during most of the practice.
Devin Mitchell is quicker and more athletic than I expected, but at least in this practice does not appear to be the shooter that I was hoping for. He definitely has the capability of being a great defender at the 2 spot, and is the type of player that should thrive in a full court type of system.
Speaking of which, we didn't really work on the press at all during practice, which surprised me.
Jeff Garrett also has good strength for a freshman. He's another guy who can play as a big 3 or small 4. I don't see him as much of a scorer, but he was very aggressive in going after rebounds, which is an area we desperately need to improve.
I am happy to report that we appear to be making adjustments to our offensive sets to better suit the talent on hand. We did not run any of the high ball screen pick and rolls that was our "go to" play last season. We ran a lot of 3 out motion offense with various off ball screens, cuts to the basket, and flashes to the elbow and wings. I felt like we moved the ball better as a team in this practice than we did most of last season.
All of that being said, with the exception of Levi Randolph nobody really shot the ball very well, and we still struggled to score. Coach Grant is still heavily emphasizing defense. He really got onto Shannon for failing to switch on a couple of screens and not closing out on shooters. He seemed more pleased by Rodney Cooper taking a charge during the 4 on 4 drills than anything else.
Overall, this team seems to enjoy playing together and they are clearly working very hard to improve. Jimmie Taylor appears to have gained some much needed strength in the off season, but his post moves are still a little raw. Early in the practice he was slow to react to a double team, which would have resulted in a turnover, but he did a better job against the same defense after speaking with the coaches. Levi had a great day, and I think he is going to have a special senior season for us. He was not afraid to shoot the ball, and he knocked down several threes, played outstanding defense as usual, and was effective driving to the basket.
Keep in mind all of these observations are based upon about an hour or so of watching the drills described above, and play was generally stopped after each possession to set up the next one, etc.
Coach Brannen did the bulk of the coaching, while new coach Witherspoon probably did not offer more than 5 minutes of instruction throughout the practice.
After the practice, Coach Grant spoke and took questions from the crowd. He began by introducing the players by class, and then dismissed them to take care of "academic obligations." Last season I speculated there might be some friction between Coach Grant and Coach Brannen based on their demeanor during games on the sideline. Perhaps I am reading too much into things, but when Coach Grant introduced his staff, he said a nice blurb about each staff member and assistant coach and what they bring to the program, but for Coach Brannen he only gave his name and title as Associate Head Coach. Coach Grant said that Coach Witherspoon brings years of head coaching experience to the staff that we've been missing without Coach Hipsher, and also said he has brought some new ideas to help our offense.
Coach Grant seemed more relaxed and confident at this event than he has in years past. He actually cracked a few good jokes in response to some of the questions . He spoke of the schedule and said he wants to challenge his team early on. He believes the SEC can be much improved this year, and said he thinks we can get 5 or 6 teams into the NCAA tournament. He specifically mentioned Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, and LSU as teams to watch.
About half of the questions came from little kids asking things like "who is the tallest player?" and "how do you pick the starters?" It was cute the first time, but quickly got old after the 5th or 6th such question. One guy asked if we've used any of the software programs to improve our free throw shooting like Duke utilizes. Coach Grant responded that we do not, but tried to describe some of the things we do to work on free throws. If the players would not have made a certain number in a row, each shooting 2 at a time, they would have had to run at the end of practice. I like the peer pressure drill because it sort of simulates a game situation, where you need to make 2 shots at the line with your teammates counting on you. He also said they do a "rapid fire" drill where they try to shoot as many as they can in one minute to work on muscle memory. Honestly, I don't like that at all, while repetition is important, I believe free throw shooting is as much about mental technique and consistency as it is physical. Successful free throw shooters have a routine, and I believe all practice should involve the entire routine, rather than just quickly throwing up shots.
Coach Grant also said that for the first time we have a team captain. The team unanimously voted Levi Randolph to be the captain. He said Levi is a great leader, but there are plenty of other guys taking leadership roles on the team. Coach Grant seemed genuinely pleased with the leadership roles the upperclassmen have assumed as well as the new guys eagerness to learn and work ethic.
The event was well attended, but maybe only slightly down from last year. My takeaway is that we have a great group of guys who are working hard as a team every day to get better. At the end of the day, that's really all you can ask for. Hopefully everybody will be healthy and ready to go November 10th against Montevallo.