Size was always an issue during the Anthony Grant era. Grant and his staff were never able to adequately replace the talent and toughness up front they had the first two years with guys like Chris Hines, Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green. The result was a team that struggled on the glass, allowing too many second chance opportunities and not creating enough of those opportunities for themselves. Never again did Grant have the defensive 1-2 punch inside that he had with Hines and Green. The absence of guys like Mitchell and Green on the offensive end also led to an inconsistency of scoring at the 4 and 5 positions. As a result, a team that struggled from the perimeter was forced to rely on perimeter shooting and paint scoring from their guards. This led to a lack of offensive balance and, subsequently, a lack of consistent scoring.
The 15-16 version of the Crimson Tide may not be intimidating in the post, but there will be a little more length up front. Guys like Jimmie Taylor and Mike Kessens showed the potential to score points around the basket at times last season, while guys like Shannon Hale and Riley Norris give Bama potential match-up advantages with each player's ability to play inside/out. The hope is that Alabama will be much more consistent at the 4 and 5 this season, allowing for some much-needed balance that will take pressure off a rebuilding backcourt.
Shannon Hale - 6'8, 233 lbs - In my opinion, this is a big year for Shannon. He has teased star potential during his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, but he's been unable to sustain it. Last year in particular was tough for Shannon. He never seemed to be in sync. Whether his problems were mental, physical, issues with the staff or his teammates is unknown. What we do know is what we saw: he seemed to lack the confidence in his game, and how he performed early in a game would go a long way towards how he performed for the remainder. Maybe the most frustrating aspect of Shannon's 14-15 season was that, just when he seemed to be improving his play (he scored double digits in six of his final eight games), he suffered the injury to his foot that ended his season. My belief since Shannon stepped foot on campus is that he can be an All-SEC guy if he can ever put it together. Perhaps the new coaching staff, bringing in a new system and philosophy, will benefit Shannon. Ultimately, Shannon has to want to be that guy. If he can do that, I believe he will play a crucial role in Avery Johnson's attempt to rebuild this program.
Michael Kessens - 6'9, 228 lbs - Have we seen the real Michael Kessens? I believe it's a fair question when reviewing Mike's two seasons so far at Alabama. There were whispers that Mike was the best player in practice the season he sat out after transferring from Longwood. Unfortunately, he has also been plagued by injuries since before last season. While Mike played in 32 of the 34 games in the 14-15 season, it's likely he wasn't in the best condition last season due to sports hernia surgery (among other minor injuries) before the season that cost him practice and conditioning time. Despite those hurdles, Mike did have some positive moments last season, finishing second on the team in field goal percentage and he also led the team in rebounding 10 different times. He had some nice post moves and shot a decent number from the FT line (65.6%). Unfortunately, a lack of consistency dogged him. You were never sure what to expect from Mike on a given night. He was also a liability at times on defense, and didn't always play with an edge you need as a competitor. However, due to the injuries that limited Mike so far during his career, it's difficult to draw a conclusion on what to expect from him this season. Consider him an x-factor for this team.
Jimmie Taylor - 6'10, 248 lbs - For the better part of two seasons, it appeared that Jimmie Taylor would provide a shot-blocking presence, but little else. His freshman numbers were modest, and for a majority of his sophomore season, not much had appeared to change. Jimmie was a raw athlete, with a long way to go regarding his basketball fundamentals. And then, in the last few weeks of the season, a light seemed to go on for Jimmie. He had a three game stretch against Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Florida in March in which he averaged 13 pts, 6.6 reb and 2 blks. It was the first time that you saw what Jimmie was capable of when aggressive on both ends, and he could stay on the floor. Unfortunately, staying on the floor was a problem for Jimmie. Foul trouble has been an issue throughout his first two seasons. Last year, he averaged 2.8 fouls per game, and the timing of his fouls was an issue, often occurring early in the game, robbing Alabama of what little post presence they had to begin with for long stretches of a half. The ability to stay on the floor will be a point of emphasis for Jimmie this season, as his presence inside will be crucial to this team's chances. On the positive side, Jimmie's scoring, rebounding, assist, block and steal averages were all improved from his freshman season. Even his free throw shooting, a real struggle for him, improved from 40% in his freshman year to 49% last season. Baby steps maybe, but it's always encouraging to see a player improve, if only incrementally. Continued improvement is key for Jimmie's ability to play a valuable role for this team.
Riley Norris - 6'7, 203 lbs - Of the four freshmen on the Bama roster last season, Riley was by far the most consistent. He played in all 34 games and had a solid year with averages of 4.7 ppg and 4.2 rpg, and brought an element of toughness and hustle to the team that was absent at times the year prior. While he's naturally more suited for the 3, Riley spent most of last season at the 4 due to the overall lack of size on the team, and the fact that he was willing to play physical. Undersized most nights Riley held his own, chasing loose balls, rebounds, and being a general nuisance to opposing teams. He showed the ability to knock down 3-pt shots (33%), but his shot faded as the year progressed. Along with Shannon Hale, he fits the mold of a "combo forward", a player who can be productive inside as well as on the perimeter. Needs to become more consistent shooting from 3, plus he needs to show that he can consistently guard on the perimeter. That could have also played a part in why he spent more time at the 4 last season. Like a majority of this roster, Riley is an enigma. It's impossible to tell if he will take a step forward under the new coaching staff, or regress. Maybe the most exciting aspect of this upcoming season is seeing how everyone responds to the new coaching staff and their system.
Christian Clark - 6'6, 210 lbs - A sophomore walk-on, Clark earned a spot on the roster after taking part in tryouts last season. While he didn't play in any games last season, he did dress for the final 10 games, and is listed on the current roster, leading me to believe that he will remain with the team. According to the official Alabama website, Clark was a four-year letter winner at Thomas Dale High School in Virginia, was selected to the Virginia all-star game in 2014, while also running track and field.
Donta Hall - 6'9, 224 lbs - Donta was recruited by Coach Pettway while Grant was still the head coach. Following the change, Hall decided to honor his commitment to the new coaching staff. Like Dazon Ingram and Brandon Austin, Antoine Pettway remaining on staff probably played a large part in that. While this 14-15 class hasn't exactly been ballyhooed, I believe they could be an underrated unit due to the type of players all three young men could develop into over the course of the next four years. Hall may be the most intriguing. His stock really rose during his senior year of high school at Luverne where he averaged a triple double of 22.6 ppg, 18.1 rpg and 12 bpg. In doing so, he was rated in the Top 100 by ESPN. While some may point out that Hall perhaps did not play the top talent in the state at the 2A level, averaging a triple double is impressive no matter how you slice it. Oh, and he also held his own in the Alabama/Mississippi All-Star game, where he scored 15 points. He has also excelled academically. He was the Class 2A District 3 winner of the Bryant-Jordan Student Achievement Regional Scholarship, which is awarded each year to the top student athletes in the state. He's also the first student-athlete from Luverne High School to earn a D1 scholarship. This guy has achieved a hell of a lot so far before he plays his first college game. Does this mean he will be an instant impact freshman? I don't know. With a few exceptions, the freshman transition to the college game is always a mystery. We simply won't know how Donta will do until we see him step on the court. If he can even come close to replicating his high school numbers while at Alabama, watch out.