Monday, September 01, 2014

2014-15 Roster Preview: Post Players

With the release of the 2014-15 schedule, we can now start looking forward to a new season. Things can obviously change, but it also appears that the Alabama basketball roster is now in place for the 2014-15 season. While Alabama did not avoid the attrition bug altogether following the departures of Carl Engstrom, Algie Key and Nick Jacobs, this off-season has been relatively tame compared to what we saw last summer when Bama lost two starters in Trevor Lacey and Moussa Gueye as well as a promising young player in Devonta Pollard.

Anthony Grant and his staff recruited very aggressively this past year, bringing in four promising freshmen while also adding Florida Gulf Coast/Chaminade transfer, Christophe Varidel. These players, along with the now-eligible Ricky Tarrant and Michael Kessens, will combine for a total of seven new players in the program this season, not counting walk-ons. The hope is that an infusion of new talent and energy can help turn around the fortunes of a program whose momentum came to a grinding halt following a 13-19 season.

The coaching staff also underwent some changes as former Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon joined the staff. Witherspoon had a solid 14 year run at Buffalo and will bring some much-needed experience to a staff that arguably lost some cohesion after Dan Hipsher left for the head job at Texas Pan-American. Grant has played a lot of hands in the aftermath of that 13-win season that saw a growing number of Tide fans calling for change. If Grant is going to turn things around, it must happen this season or it's not likely to happen at all. Another disappointing year and fan pressure will most likely be too great to retain Grant for another season. What is defined by a "successful season" is up for debate, but it is this writer's opinion that Grant has to find a way to return the program to the NCAA tournament in order to reduce the temperature under his seat.

There were multiple reasons for Alabama’s rough season in 2013-14, but the biggest culprit may have been a lack of rebounding. Alabama finished dead last in the conference in overall rebounding numbers and a disappointing -2.1 rebounding margin. Many, including myself, pointed out Alabama’s poor shot defense numbers throughout last season. However, upon repeat viewings of those games, it was evident that Bama’s first-shot defense remained as solid as ever, but it was rendered moot by the fact that Bama frequently gave up 2nd and 3rd chance opportunities to their opponents, which frequently led to baskets and hurt Bama’s overall defensive numbers. In order for Bama to reverse their fortunes this season, they must rebound better.

Unfortunately, while Grant and his staff had a very productive recruiting year, they were unsuccessful in filling one important need, and that was post depth. As a result, Alabama will still be thin in the post, putting a larger emphasis on the play of guys like Jimmie Taylor and Michael Kessens. Also of importance will be guys like Shannon Hale and Rodney Cooper, who are typically more comfortable on the perimeter, but have shown the ability to mix it up inside and rebound when necessary. Freshmen such as Jeff Garrett and Riley Norris could also be counted on to provide help on the boards.

Let's take a look at what Alabama will have in the post. Check back later for previews for the wings and guards.

Jimmie Taylor – Pressed into service last season due to a lack of depth and production in the frontcourt, the 6’10 freshman had the expected highs and lows you would expect of a freshman campaign. Despite that, he did show continued growth throughout the season and was arguably the lone bright spot in the season ending loss to LSU as he finished with 9 pts and 5 rebs against a talented group of LSU big men.
Like the rest of the team, his rebounding numbers were modest as he only averaged 3.3 rpg. In his defense, he was in and out of the starting line-up all season and, despite being listed at 240 lbs, he was simply not strong enough most nights to win the battles against quality competition. A summer or two of strength and conditioning will do wonders for Jimmie as a player.

On the positive side, he did show flashes of becoming a force on the defensive end as his length frequently put him in good position to block and affect shots. He was also much better on the offensive end than expected, displaying a good hook shot and even a solid short-range jumper. Free throw shooting needs work, but you can say that about a lot of players following their freshman season.

With post depth once again at a premium, Jimmie’s continued improvement will be key for this team. His rebounding numbers must improve and he must continue to grow as a shot blocker. In order to do that he must get stronger so he can become more effective in establishing position on both ends of the floor. If he improves as a scorer all the better, but it's the defensive end where he can serve this team the best.

Michael Kessens – He sat out last season after transferring to Alabama from Longwood University, where he averaged 13.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg and 1.2 spg, being named the Big South conference Freshman of the Year as a result. At 6’9, he brings some much needed length to the team. He was only listed at 215 lbs last season, but I expect he will be a little stronger come November after a full year of practice and conditioning.

Kessens is definitely an x-factor for this Alabama team. Depending on how much credence you give to whispers and rumors, the word out of practice last year was that Kessens has next-level ability. Most of the time, those rumors are mere hyperbole, rendered invalid once the kid starts banging against unfriendly competition. The hope here is that hyperbole will become fact. If Kessens can come close to posting his Longwood numbers against SEC competition, Alabama’s chances for a successful season will be raised significantly.

Yet, how will Kessens be utilized? Based on the limited amount of video that is obtainable, Kessens doesn’t come across as a back-to-the-basket kind of guy, more of a face-up player. He played around the basket quite a bit at Longwood, but more because he was frequently on the floor with four guards, not because he was a natural post player. He certainly displayed some skill, handling the ball very well for a guy his size, and he’s a better-than-average athlete; it’s easy to see why the Bama coaches were intrigued by him. But it’s not so easy to gauge how effective he will be against a higher caliber of competition.

The hope is he’s capable of being an effective low post scorer because this team will need him to play the 4 and, more likely, the 5 exclusively. My gut feeling is that Kessens is going to be a good addition to this team, filling several roles such as post scorer, rebounding and shot blocking.

John Gibson - Some of you may have noticed Gibson on the bench with Kessens and Tarrant last season. Like those two, Gibson is a transfer, previously playing one season for NAIA Xavier (La.) University. He practiced with the team last season, but had to sit out per NCAA transfer rules. He is listed as a walk-on.

Gibson is 6'7, 215 lbs. In one season at Xavier (La.), he posted good numbers: 11.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 2.7 bpg. Obviously the level of competition at the NAIA level is nothing like what he will see at the SEC level so it's fair to wonder if he's just a warm body for practice purposes or will he actually be pressed into some form of duty? With the lack of size for this team, he could put himself into position for playing time in the event of injury, foul trouble, etc.

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