I want to take the time and chime in on the recent struggles of the team. Like many of you, I am frustrated with the losing. However, I'm trying to retain my objectivity when it comes to the realities facing this team. The first reaction to losing is always to criticize the coaching staff even if it's not always the right reaction. I was watching a documentary the other night about the North Carolina/Duke basketball rivalry. I found it amusing knowing what we do now that both Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski came under fire early in their careers and were almost fired before their subsequent successes made them into Hall of Fame coaches. Not that I'm comparing Anthony Grant to those two coaches, but I do think it's important to remember that sometimes patience is a virtue.
Let's look at this situation objectively. Let me first say up front that I'm a fan of Anthony Grant. I was a fan of his before he came to Alabama and was pleasantly surprised that the university made the effort to hire him. When Anthony Grant took over this team I think most of us can agree that Gottfried had really let it go in terms of discipline and the talent level. I'm not going to turn this into a Gottfried bitch-fest, but a change probably should have been made a year or two before it happened in order to keep the program competitive. It wasn't, and Anthony Grant walked into a difficult situation with a team that was lacking discipline, talent and toughness.
Despite this lack of talent, Alabama went from being one of the worst defensive teams in the conference to one of the best. And Mikhail Torrance finally had a chance to shine under Anthony Grant, becoming one of the top guards in the conference who would have been drafted if not for the heart ailment that has, at the very least, severely stalled his career. The team notched 17 wins and appeared headed in the right direction. Coming into this season, there was still much work to be done but there was a feeling this team could still compete. Despite no returning point guard experience, the team would return a potential star in JaMychal Green, an improving player in Tony Mitchell and depth in both the back court (with the return of Hillman, Steele and the incoming class) and front court (Justin Knox and a healthy Demetrius Jemison).
Unfortunately, summers in Tuscaloosa where it concerns basketball rarely go as planned. At the 11th hour both Justin Knox and Demetrius Jemison opted to leave the program, thus stripping away the depth in the paint that the coaches were anticipating. The coaching staff seemed surprised by their decisions and had no time left to recruit for the positions. By that time, the best recruits were signed anyway. Jason Carter had been signed, but was not expected to play many minutes. In fact, my opinion is he would have been redshirted if Jemison and Knox had not left. They did bring in Engstrom for some size and depth, but the kid is a project who has some upside but needs time to develop. The result is Green and Hines were the only reliable post players the team had coming into the season. And they were without even Green during his three-game suspension.
Depth in the backcourt also hasn't gone as planned. Senario has been solid for the most part, but he's never developed much past being a great athlete. Charvez got off to the slow start after hernia surgery, and has yet to become the consistent perimeter threat needed. Andrew Steele has yet to play a second due to an injured foot. Steele's absence in particular really hurts because of his ability to defend plus he could have been counted on for 5-10 points a night. On a team struggling to score points, you'll take any production you can get. A book should be written detailing the injuries to the Steele brothers and their impact on the Alabama program and coaches.
A lack of floor leadership has also hurt this team. Last year, Mikhail Torrance stepped up and became the de facto leader of this team. With his departure, none of the upperclassmen have opted to take on the role, which has left the team floundering at times.
It remains to be seen if the first recruiting class for Grant will be productive over the long haul. Releford has been solid. In fact, once he gets stronger, I think he could become one of the better point guards in the SEC. Nevertheless, he's still a freshman and that shows from game to game with highs and lows. I thought as good as he looked at times on Saturday getting to the basket and passing the ball, he played too fast at times when Alabama needed to slow the game down. In time he'll learn how to control tempo.
The rest of the class though has been iffy. As mentioned, Engstrom and Carter are not yet ready for major minutes. Charles Hankerson has shown a flash here and there, but to say he's off to a slow start would be an understatement. Unless he can make major improvement, he's going to be buried on the depth chart when the 2011 class arrives. Kendall Durant is a player I thought would play more minutes than he has up to this point. He appears to have struggled with the transition from JC but I still expected more minutes. He was not dressed on Saturday, ostensibly due to an injury, so it's possible that he has not been healthy enough to play more minutes.
Finally, there is Ben Eblen. A lot has been said about Ben Eblen. I've said a lot about Ben Eblen. Seems like a good kid, but to date has not shown that he's capable of playing at this level. A lot of fans have wondered why he's getting the minutes he has. Unfortunately, there is no one else to play. Seriously, who else can Grant put out there? Releford isn't physically able to play 30-40 minutes a game. Eblen is proof positive that the talent level of this team is far below what it needs to be in order to win consistently. If it was better, Eblen would only see limited minutes. At this point it seems like a case of what it is is what it is. And, frankly, Eblen isn't the only problem this team has.
There’s nothing wrong with expecting your team to win and win now, but I think we're all being a little unfair to this coaching staff. You could take 95% of the coaches in the country and they would likewise struggle with the talent level that Alabama has right now. That's not to imply the coaches don't deserve some criticism, but there's only so much they can do until the talent level increases. Talent will make some into geniuses. Just look at Gene Chizik. Take Cam Newton away and he's still that 5-19 coach that Auburn fans hated upon his hire. With Cam, he's a coach of the year and a part of the "Auburn Family" (A lot like the Manson Family, but without the creativeness). Regarding the Alabama basketball talent: that is being addressed through recruiting. I think we need to wait and see how that pans out before we pass too much judgment.
As far as this season goes: I'm not ready to pack it in just yet, but at this point the best we can possibly hope for is a .500 finish. If there is a silver lining, the team has played better since the Virgin Island debacle. The effort has been better and guys like Tony Mitchell and Chris Hines have attempted to step their games up. You also have to like how JaMychal played coming off the suspension. He's not exactly been a double-double machine in his three years so the fact that he posted one after missing three games is promising. There are still some tough games left before conference play so hopefully the team can finish on a high note. If Mitchell and Green continue to play at a high level, they have a chance