The curious defensive excellence of Alabama's freshmen
Since becoming head coach at Alabama in 2009, Anthony Grant has developed the Crimson Tide into one of the nation's best defensive teams. Though the squad had its troubles in non-conference play a year ago, it increased the intensity when conference play began. By the time the season came to a close, Alabama's in-conference defensive efficiency was far and away the best in the SEC. With defensive studs JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell returning in 2011-12, it is not surprising to see the Tide ranked No. 2 in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency through five games.
Or is it? Grant's already relying heavily on freshmen for contributions alongside Green and Mitchell, and that's not usually a recipe for defensive excellence. And as Oakland coach Greg Kampe told the media after a loss to Bama last week, "It's hard to teach freshmen to defend. I can't teach freshman to play that good defensively that fast." Indeed, the Alabama freshmen have been playing defense in a manner that is not necessarily standard for most first-year players.
While we can't determine the individual defensive efficiency ratings of these freshmen yet, we can make an illuminating comparison between the team's early-season results from this year versus last year. Alabama's 2010-11 and 2011-12 schedules pair nicely for such a comparison. The squad started each season with two home games against mid-majors before playing in a neutral-site tournament that featured games against two major-conference teams and one mid-major. Let's take a look at a comparison of the team's points allowed per possession and the percent of minutes played by freshmen through the first five games in each year:
Tide defense through first five games
Opp. PPP 0.87 0.79
%Min. Freshmen 27 44
Alabama is playing better defense compared to the same point a year ago, despite the fact that freshmen are playing 44 percent of team minutes. Last year's four-man freshman class played just 27 percent of available minutes, and a majority of those minutes belonged to stud point guard Trevor Releford. In 2011-12 there has been a rather equitable playing-time load shared by four newcomers. Though they may be in the earliest stage of their collegiate careers, they're performing like players with much more seasoning.
Matt Stainbrook is a Dude
If you casually perused the college basketball standings today, you might come away unimpressed by Western Michigan, which is currently 0-4. After an opening weekend loss to South Dakota State, the Broncos traveled south to participate in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, where they received a lot of TV time but also a lot of losses. After being outmatched by Temple in the opening round, Steve Hawkins' squad lost close games to Iona and Colorado in the consolation rounds. So while they were unable to pick up a resume-boosting win, we learned a few things about this team that should translate to wins in the MAC.
Through four games sophomore center Matt Stainbrook is connecting on 70 percent (!) of his two-pointers while taking about 27 percent of Western Michigan's shots from inside the arc. His most impressive outing came against an under-manned South Dakota State frontcourt where he went 14-of-16 on his twos. I watched that game and came away impressed with Stainbrook's soft touch around the basket and ability to face up for a shot on occasion. Those observations are a bit more stunning after you've seen the 6-9, 290-pound Stainbrook, who is far from your prototypical Division I athlete:
Stainbrook is a quality candidate for cult-favorite status in college basketball circles. Not only is he incredibly efficient from the floor, but he accomplishes such efficiency while sporting a floppy hairdo, flashy glasses, and an ample frame. It's still early in the season, but his conditioning hasn't hindered him from playing major minutes for the Broncos, as he's currently on the floor for 79 percent of the time. Stainbrook should help give Western Michigan an edge throughout conference play.
Then again this is far from a one-man show. In games against South Dakota State, Temple, and Iona, the Broncos posted better offensive and defensive rebounding rates than their opponents. Between Stainbrook, senior Flenard Whitfield, and junior Nate Hutcheson, the WMU boasts a formidable frontcourt that has shown it can rebound with some of the elite mid-major teams. That should track well with what they will see against top MAC members like Kent State and Akron.
No more dreads at Morehead
We should know a bit more about Morehead State after it plays three games in three days at this weekend's Legends Classic subregional in Pennsylvania, but through its first few games one thing is certain. The Eagles miss their Dreadlocked Duo.
Last year, MSU was one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, due in no small part to Kenneth Faried, the NCAA's all-time rebounding leader in the modern era. But Faried was just one part of this Duo. He was aided on the glass by Sam Goodman, a bulldoggish 6-2 guard who also happened to don dreads. Watching Faried and Goodman battle for rebounds was a sight to behold. Now that both players have graduated, the Eagles are allowing opponents to grab a whopping 46 percent of their misses.
So while Morehead could use an injection of some muscle around the rim, the college basketball viewing public is also in need of a new Dreadlocked Duo for which to root. I've come across two such pairs in this young season: Oral Roberts forwards Dominique Morrison and Steven Roundtree and Milwaukee guards Ja'Rob McCallum and Paris Gulley. Voila:
The Oral Roberts pair is the more likely of the two to produce in a similar vein as the Faried-Goodman duo, but the Milwaukee twosome might have the more versatile 'dos. With that said, there must be more dreadlocked duos out there to track this season. If you happen to spot one, let me know. Meanwhile, I'll be watching to see how Morehead State fares after the loss of its own Dreadlocked Duo.
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