Wednesday, October 22, 2014

BBQ and Basketball

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.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

2014-15 Schedule Preview: UCLA Bruins

One of the blue bloods of college basketball will make their first trip to Tuscaloosa as UCLA highlights the non-conference home schedule for Alabama. UCLA had a very solid season in Steve Alford's first year as head coach, reaching the Sweet 16 before falling to Florida. They lost some key players to the NBA draft, but at UCLA they don't believe in rebuilding seasons so the expectation is once again to compete for the PAC 12 title and reach the NCAA tournament. In a non-conference schedule for Alabama that features the majority of their toughest tests away from home, this game could prove to be Bama's last chance at a quality non-conference win.

Despite losing 3 of their top 4 scorers to the NBA draft, along with seniors David and Travis Wear, UCLA will still have a very talented roster. In addition to experienced returning players in Norman Powell, Tony Parker and Bryce Alford, UCLA signed a very impressive recruiting class highlighted by Kevin Looney, Thomas Welsh and Isaac Hamilton (originally signed with UTEP, opted out, and sat out last year as a result). Jonah Bolden was another highly-rated recruit, but he did not qualify and will have to sit out this season. Two other returning players who could have a greater impact this season are Wanaah Bail and Noah Allen.

There is a lack of depth in the Bruin backcourt, and who will man the point guard spot is still up in the air, but one thing UCLA will have plenty of is size. Alabama's biggest weakness on paper appears to be its lack of size so UCLA will present a serious challenge. UCLA by comparison has five players at 6'9 or taller who will likely be in the rotation. Alabama's big men will have to hold their own, while the perimeter game will have to be on target.

The only unfortunate aspect of this game is that it was scheduled for 12/28, which falls during the holiday break for the students. Nevertheless, the hope is that with a team of UCLA's history and stature, the fans will turn out in force and help our guys notch a big win.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hoops on the Quad.

The men's and women's team hosted the first ever "Hoops on the quad."  First the coaches spoke, introduced the new players and generally talked about how excited they were for the season and encouraged the fans to lend their support.  There were a number of competitions where teams consisting of a male and female would compete at scoring from different points on the court and also some dribbling/passing/shooting drills.  I was a little surprised there was no dunking competition.  There was a 3-point shooting competition, that was won by one of the girl's players with 11 points.  Shannon Hale and Levi have the best looking perimeter shot from what I could see.  I was disappointed that Norris and Mitchell did not fare better.  Norris threw up a couple of air balls, and Shannon, despite having the highest score amongst the men at 10, started things off by hitting the side of the backboard from the corner, twice.  To put the low scores into perspective, I won the intramural 3 point shooting contest my sophomore year with a score of 14, and I'm no Steve Kerr.

In fairness, these guys aren't used to playing outdoors. The events ended with a short, defense optional scrimmage that featured a lot of ridiculous alley-oop attempts.

The weather was perfect and it drew a large crowd from those tailgating nearby for the football game.  You couldn't tell much about the team, but that wasn't the purpose of this event.  Everybody seemed to have a good time, it was well organized and put together, and perhaps they piqued the interests of some more casual fans.  All in all, this was a success and something that should have been done a long time ago.

It was nice to see our fearless leader, Bobbyjack in attendance.  Hopefully he will post his impressions as well.

I plan to attend the annual Tide Pride BBQ/practice Tuesday afternoon and will hopefully have something more substantive to report at that time.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Christophe Varidel has left the team for medical reasons

I wish him the best of luck.  Frankly, I think people's expectations for him were inflated based on one fluke game against BYU.  He averaged 6-9 ppg at FGCU, which despite their tournament run is not the highest level of competition, and then he went to Division 2 Chaminade where he averaged 19 ppg.  Expecting him to be an impact player in the SEC was probably a stretch.

That said, losing him does hurt our depth, but with Devin Mitchell, Riley Norris, and Justin Coleman coming in, plus Shannon and Levi returning, we have plenty of guys who should be able to make the 3.


2014-15 Schedule Preview: Stillman Tigers/Appalachian State Mountaineers

With the days passing quickly, I'm going to have to start doubling up some of these previews in order to finish them before the first game tips.

After a tough road trip to Wichita, Alabama will return home for a four-game homestand to close out the non-conference schedule. The first of these games will be against their neighbor, Stillman, a member of NCAA Division II. These two played last season as part of the NIT Season Tip-Off, with Alabama notching a 102-65 victory.

Stillman made a coaching hire in the offseason, hiring Donte Jackson who was previously the head coach at Central State University in Ohio. He compiled a 68-42 record in four seasons at Central State. Stillman returns 3 of their top 8 scorers form last season (plus an additional player who averaged 5.1 ppg). The leader of the pack should be Markeith Madison, a senior from Tuscaloosa who averaged 16.8 ppg and 7.5 rpg last season.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Dazon Ingram commits to Alabama

Dazon Ingram, a 6'5" combo guard from Theodore, AL chose the Tide over Wichita State, Houston, and UAB.  It is rumored that he will not sign until the late signing period in April.

2014-15 Schedule Preview: Wichita State Shockers

Alabama will hit the road again, this time for Wichita, Kansas. Charles Koch Arena (capacity: 10,506) will not be a welcome venue for our guys. The fan support for this Wichita State program is enviable, and with an SEC school coming to town, Alabama should expect one of the most intimidating environments they will likely see all season.

There's been plenty for Shocker fans to cheer the last four seasons as the program has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success. In 2011, they defeated Alabama in the NIT final to win that tournament. In 2012 they returned to the NCAA tournament, but were knocked out by a VCU team that reached the Final Four. The following season, Wichita would be the upstart, knocking off Pitt, #1 Gonzaga, LaSalle and Ohio State before losing a tough, close game to eventual national champ, Louisville. Last season, Wichita proved that run was no fluke by going 35-0, before losing by two points to eventual runner-up, Kentucky, in the second round.

Head coach Gregg Marshall has done a fantastic job with this program (and Winthrop before that), and at this point has to be considered, at least, one of the top 10 coaches in the college game. And, as one would presume, Wichita State is the early favorite in the Missouri Valley conference, and expected to be a top 25 program yet again. 

Wichita State will return 4 of their top 8 scorers from last season. The three that will garner the most attention coming into the season are Fred Van Vleet (the 2013-14 MVC Player of the Year, 11.6 ppg, 5.3 apg), Ron Baker (13.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.1 apg) and Tekele Cotton (10.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Cotton could be primed for a breakout season with star player Cleanthony Early moving on. Wichita State will also have to count on some new guys to produce. Marshall brings in a 6-man class (two jucos and 4 freshmen), plus returns two redshirt freshmen. All of them will need to produce on some level to help keep Wichita among the nation's elite.