Posted by MATT JONES
Tonight is respect night for the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide come into a road game at Vanderbilt in first place in the SEC, sitting 7-1 in conference and holding impressive victories over Kentucky and Tennessee on its resume. But to the average college basketball fan, Alabama is completely unknown and exist as nothing more than an oddity on the college basketball landscape.
“You mean to tell me Alabama is in first place in the SEC? Well that’s not going to last.”
When I have brought up the Tide’s success on radio or in writing over the past couple of weeks, disbelief has been the near unanimous response. Even when confronted with the best arguments for taking Alabama seriously, and there are quite a few, excuses are made as to why they are not worthy of consideration. Well they play in the ultra-weak SEC West. They lost six games out of conference, mostly to weak teams in the other major conferences. If they hadn’t caught fire from three-point range and taken out Kentucky, no one would care about the Tide whatsoever. No matter what the response, some rationale will be created to leave Alabama in its rightful place in college basketball…as a football school on a bit of a hot streak.
But tonight’s game in Nashville may be a chance for Alabama to change those perceptions. With no real prior road victories of substance to speak of, the Tide went into Knoxville last weekend and took out Tennessee. However the game wasn’t on national television, the Vols’ best scorer Scotty Hopson was out and Bruce Pearl’s suspension ensured that all victories over Tennessee were tainted. But this game is different. Vandy is ranked, the game is on ESPN2 and Memorial Gym may be the most underrated difficult road environment in college basketball. Win here and even the most passionate disbelievers have to be impressed.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant (right) knows this. He told me this week that “the Vanderbilt game is the most important we have faced thus far and will tell us a lot about our team.” The cool, calm and collected coach (who incidentally has the best starched shirt collection in all of college basketball) isn’t quite sure what to make of his team at this point either. But he likes that they have become a team that fits his personality and coaching philosophy. Just the way Grant wants it, Alabama is all about defense.
Coming into Thursday night’s game, Alabama stands fourth in the nation in overall defense according to kenpom.com, behind only Ohio State, Texas and Florida State. The Tide are second in the nation in opponent’s field goal percentage and stand first in the nation in steal percentage, cementing their status as potentially the best overall defensive team in the half court in America. Grant says that “the consistency in the way we defend no matter what the score” is the trait he is most proud of with his team and it has been the impetus for Alabama’s unbelievable turn around in conference play.
Going into the SEC schedule, there was no reason to assume that Alabama would even be a factor in the league race, must less the leader at halfway. Grant’s team started the league schedule at 8-6, with no marquee wins and an 0-5 record against the teams from BCS conferences. But Grant says the early problems, specifically in the Virgin Islands holiday tournament where the Tide went 0-3, were a key to the success in conference.
“We went into that part of our schedule wanting to know about our team and sometimes you don’t necessary like what you find out. We found out what we needed to change both on and off the court, and we did that. And now we are playing much better.”
Grant didn’t elaborate on what needed to be changed, but an observer of Alabama can now clearly see a team that is much more committed to defense and shares the basketball significantly more on offense. The Tide often looked early on like a group of players who had just met moments prior to the game. Each player attempted to score off the dribble individually and taking poor shots seemed to be a communal disease. But now their passing has improved significantly and the better shot selection has enabled them to set up their stifling half-court defense more effectively. The result has been players like JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell reaching their vast offensive potential, while also showcasing leadership that previously had been non-existent.
Still, the doubters remain. Many see Alabama as an unworthy conference leader and a team ready to crumble as the season comes to a close. But the haters may not get their desire. Alabama’s schedule is favorable after Thursday’s game in Nashville, with five straight games against SEC West opponents in which the Tide will be heavily favored. Win those games and Alabama could go into its final two games at Florida and home against Georgia needing only one win to steal the most surprising conference crown in league history.
That storybook finish is still a long way away, but first Alabama would just settle for some national respect for its league-leading record. Thursday night at Vanderbilt is a chance to make it happen. While many in the country expect them to falter, the Tide’s top 5 national defensive status suggests that they will be in every game through the rest of the season and aren’t prone to a late collapse. Even with a loss in Nashville, the smart money is on Alabama being a factor in the SEC race until the end. But if they were somehow able to steal another impressive win in Nashville…well at that point, even the biggest Tide critic will have to show them some respect.