Auburn and Alabama renew their rivalry on the basketball court Wednesday night at Auburn Arena. A couple of the new writers over at Roll 'Bama Roll, bammer and Jeremy_RBR, took a break from hoarding the country's best football recruits to answer a few of my questions about this year's edition of the Crimson Tide. You can find my answers to their questions here.
Coming into this season, I heard plenty of 'Bama fans talking about the genius of head coach Anthony Grant. Then, when the Tide lost five of six to inferior competition, it sounded like a bunch of fans were ready to show him the door. What's the consensus on Grant right now?
I think most the fan base approves of the job Coach Grant has done so far. Yes, there were grumblings after the 5 game skid, but most reasonable fans (yes, there are reasonable ‘Bama fans out there) understand injuries and a lack of depth played a huge part in those losses. The head scratcher is how the team continues to blow big 2nd half leads and how the offense just disappears for minutes on end. Coach Grant gets a lot out of his players, particularly defensively, and the effort is night and day compared to previous years *cough*Gottfried*cough*. If he can fix those issues, this team could really be special.
This Alabama team could prove just how much slack the NCAA Tournament selection committee gives teams for injury troubles. The Crimson Tide were decimated during that awful stretch that included home losses to Mercer and Tulane, but now they look like they'll finish SEC play with a solid record. How do you think the season plays out? Will the Tide go dancing?
Tough question. Certainly the SEC is down this year, but that also means less teams taken. Conversely, those injuries can't be overlooked. Engstrom's injury affected our depth inside - which is our most glaring weakness this year - and the loss of Andrew Steele, our senior leader, for a 7 game stretch was a big blow. If Steele stays healthy we could make a serious run at an NCAA bid. This team is not spectacular on offense, but we know how to win close games; last 5 games have been decided by a total of 13 points and we are 4-1. That's important as we aren't going to blow anyone out and will need that experience in close games to be successful long term.
So, right now I would say our chances are less than good. The Kentucky win helped but that loss to Tennessee really hurt. Obviously, beating Vandy increased our chances but we will need to probably win out and go deep into the SEC tournament to solidify our shot at making it to the Big Dance for the 2nd year in a row.
When Alabama fans are engaging in, ahem, passionate relations, I assume they're thinking of great defense in athletic arenas. Everyone knows about Nick Saban's "D" on the football field, but Grant has his team limiting opponents to 58.3 points per game, 22nd-best in the nation. What does 'Bama do so well on defense? What is Grant's preferred style?
The defense is built around Bama's ability to press and force bad shots, while keeping big plays to a minimum. The last two games they have shut down the opposing offense and recaptured momentum in the last few critical minutes. Another key word you hear thrown around is "discipline" and I think it's probably the most accurate description you can give this defense.
Conversely, we continue to struggle inside. We are last in the league in rebounding and we lack that dominating presence on the interior. My concern is we don't improve in this area down the stretch and it costs us an NCAA bid.
On offense, it's another story. The Crimson Tide average 63.9 points per game, which ranks 258th in the country. What issues have contributed to Alabama's offensive woes, or are they a result of the lumbering style Grant likes?
A lack of a strong inside presence has greatly hurt the offense this year. Offensive rebounding is 12th in conference at just 10.3/game. We rely on our perimeter play as we don't have a player who can dominate the paint. Jacobs has shown flashes, but nothing consistent.
Last season ‘Bama struggled with shooting 3's (28% for the year) but did reasonably well driving and getting points inside the paint. This season however has been the complete opposite. Three point shooting has improved greatly, (now averaging 35%) but the inside game has seen a dramatic drop off.
Who is playing well for 'Bama right now? If you had to guess, who do you think will have the best game against Auburn?
The Trevors - Guards Lacy and Releford - are having outstanding years. Releford, the team's top scorer, leads the league in free throw shooting and (in league play) field goal percentage. Lacy leads the team in 3 pointers made and assists.
But the most important player, however, has to be G Andrew Steele. While a bench player, he is the team's senior leader and has provided the spark that seems to will us to wins.
Are any players failing to meet expectations? Who desperately needs to break out?
C Moussa Gueye needs to play more physically. I hesitate to use the term "desperately", but we "desperately" need him to step up. While he is 5th in the league in blocks/game (1.5), he isn't quite the dominate presence we need.
Does anything about this Auburn team or this game worry you?
Every game worries me this season. We should have beaten Tennessee and we should have beaten Vandy by a much larger margin. That's too many shoulda, woulda, coulda's. On paper we should win fairly handily, but it's a rivalry game and that raises concerns regardless of Auburn's current 6 game skid.
How do you think the game plays out? What's your prediction?
I think this one will be a bit different than the previous three games, in that it won't come down to the last shot. I'm not sure where the Tigers players' heads are right now, but I'm not confident Barbee's comments will help. I predict somewhere in the 63-55 range, with Bama coming out ahead.