NEW YORK – Last season, Alabama had plenty of preseason expectation.
There weren’t exactly picked to run through the SEC — that won’t happen for anyone as long as Coach Cal is stockpiling first round picks up in Lexington — but the Crimson Tide were a trendy pick to finish second in the conference in 2011-2012. That didn’t happen, however, as Alabama watched their star upperclassmen manage to get themselves suspended in the middle of conference play. Tony Mitchell went so far as to get himself kicked ou of the program.
As a result, the Tide floundered, limping into and out of the NCAA tournament with an opening round loss to Creighton. With a very young team returning for this season — the core of Anthony Grant’s team are freshmen and sophomores, with the exception of junior point guard Trevor Releford — the tidal wave of hype hitting the gridiron this season did not find its way into Coleman Coliseum.
But after starting the season 3-0, including last-second wins over South Dakota State and Oregon State, all of a sudden the Crimson Tide look like a group that might be able to make a run at an at-large bid. And their doing it while bringing arguably their most important player off of the bench.
“I just felt like it’s the right thing for our team right now,” Grant said of bring Releford off the bench. “He understands what we’re trying to do and I think he’s been really, really good for us, if you look at the numbers he’s putting up, the leadership he provides, the spark that he gives us. I think it’s good for our team.”
Releford certainly is putting up numbers. In the two games against Division I competition, Releford is averaging 16.0 points while shooting 12-23 (52.2%) from the floor and handing out seven assists to just a single turnover. More importantly, however, when Releford is on the floor, Alabama’s offense simply runs more smoothly. He’s a point guard. He’s a facilitator. He gets the Tide into their offensive sets and he breaks down the defense if that doesn’t work.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Alabama’s sixth-man has been their MVP through the first week of the season.
“He’s a good kid and I think he understands what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” Grant said. “He understands the bottom line is that he’s going to be out there and have an opportunity to make plays. If you look the games we’ve played, he’s out there. I think too much is made sometimes of whether or not a kid’s starting or not.”
Grant’s thinking is that early in the season, he needs to start developing his younger and more inexperienced players. He needs to build a rotation and develop a bench. He needs to get the guys that are going to be counted on in March into games early and allow them to get a sense of what it means to play basketball at this level.
“For us to be where we want to be, we have to build confidence in our young guys. We have an extremely young team,” Grant said, and Thursday’s 65-62 win over Oregon State was the perfect example in his eyes. After extending the lead to as much as 15 points on the Beavers, Alabama allowed them to claw their way back into the game. This is how close the Beavers were to coming all the way back — Ahmad Starks hit a three that would have tied the game with just a couple ticks left on the clock if his head coach hadn’t called a timeout a second before he released the shot.
“The mark of a young team, we thought “clock run out” as opposed to going and finishing the game,” Grant said. “The thing I told our guys is we gotta learn from this game how to stay aggressive and compete and do the things that allows us to build the lead from an offensive and a defensive standpoint, and we kind of got away from that.”
Alabama has some pieces this year. In addition to Releford, sophomores Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper join freshman Devonta Pollard to give Grant a talented perimeter rotation loaded with potential. Throw in a trio of big bodies in the paint and senior swingman Andrew Steele, and this is a group that can ruffle some feathers in a top-heavy SEC if they can manage continuing to learn how.
“I think it’s an opportunity to learn, and I think the best way to do that is to win,” Grant said. “I’d rather learn through winning than learn through losing and have to take some heartbreaking losses to clear things out.”