Last season, Alabama became the first SEC team to win more than 10 games in league play — the Tide went 12–4 — and not make the NCAA Tournament. Anthony Grant’s club was done in by a bloated RPI (No. 80) that was a product of some bad losses in non-conference play and a very weak SEC West. This season, Alabama shouldn’t have to worry about an NCAA snub. With a strong nucleus that includes three All-SEC candidates — point guard Trevor Releford and forwards Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green — joined by a top-flight recruiting class, the Crimson Tide figure to be among the better teams in the SEC and appear to be a safe bet to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Key Crimson Tide Stat: 19
Alabama finished the 2010-11 season undefeated at home, winning all 19 games. The Tide haven't lost at home since February 2010.
The Tide’s front line is led by Green, a 6'8", 225-pounder from Montgomery who bypassed the NBA Draft for his senior season in Tuscaloosa. Green, a former McDonald’s All-American, led the Tide in both scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg). He responded to an early season suspension by playing the best basketball of his career over the final four months of the season. His size and athleticism make him a difficult cover for opposing big men.
Mitchell emerged as one of the better players in the league during his sophomore season. The 6'6" small forward averaged 16.4 points in SEC games. During one six-game stretch in February, Mitchell averaged 21.5 points while shooting .596 from the field. He has the ability to be a first-team All-SEC performer.
Bama expects an immediate contribution from freshman Nick Jacobs, a 6'9", 250-pound power forward from Atlanta. “He brings a good deal of size and physicality to our frontcourt,” Grant says. “As he continues to develop, he’ll be a guy at the power forward spot for us that brings the physicality and interior scoring that we need.”
Grant also dipped into the junior college ranks for some help, signing Moussa Gueye, a native of Senegal who spent two seasons at Lake Land (Ill.) College. The 7'0" Gueye is raw on the offensive end but should help defensively and on the boards.
Fan favorite Carl Engstrom, a native of Sweden, played in 21 games last year but averaged only 5.3 minutes and did not score against SEC competition.
The youth movement at Alabama began last season as Grant let Releford run the offense from Day 1 as a freshman. The Kansas City native started 36 of 37 games and proved to be a solid scorer (11.0 ppg) and distributor (3.4 apg). He isn’t much of a threat from outside — he hit only 19 3-pointers for the season — but he made over 50 percent of his 2-point field goals because of his ability to get to the basket. Releford also proved to be a pesky defender, ranking third in the league with 1.6 steals per game.
Releford will be flanked on the wing by two freshman shooting guards who come to Alabama with outstanding credentials. Both Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph were top-50 national recruits who had offers from established national powers.
Lacey, a two-time Mr. Basketball in Alabama, is not a high-level athlete, but he plays with a high basketball IQ and has a nice stroke from the outside. The 6'5" Randolph can handle the ball and, like Lacey, fill it up from the perimeter. Both freshmen should play significant minutes right away.
Ben Eblen played 9.2 minutes per game backing up Releford at the point last season. He isn’t much of a threat offensively. Swingmen Charles Hankerson and Rodney Cooper will battle for time in the rotation. Hankerson played sparingly as a freshman before breaking into the rotation late in the year. He averaged 14.4 minutes in the Tide’s five NIT games.
Alabama will be young and talented — and very exciting to watch. Grant’s team lacks proven depth, but when you’ve got three of the better players in the league on your team, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.
If the Big 3 remain healthy and one of the two freshman guards — Lacey and/or Randolph — emerges as a scorer, the Crimson Tide could be poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
SEC Prediction: 4th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16