Alabama has played 17 games and has two big ones coming in the next three days. Yet Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant is still having a hard time getting a handle on his team.
"The biggest thing we need to do is make a decision on what we want to do and who we want to be," Grant said earlier this week.
That statement seems rather odd when taken at face value. Alabama is 13-4 overall and 2-1 in the SEC. The Crimson Tide is also No. 20 in the RPI and No. 14 in the Pomeroy Ratings.
So why exactly does Grant feel his team has an identity crisis?
"I don't like the tempo," Grant said. "We need to be willing to play at a different tempo. We have to understand when we have the numbers in our favor and attack the basket. Our tempo is too slow. We've got to manufacture points in more different ways than how we've been scoring them. We limit ourselves too many times with the choices we make."
Alabama's offense isn't exactly inept. The Crimson Tide has a 107.4 adjusted offensive efficiency, which is 64th in the nation, and junior forward Tony Mitchell (14.5), senior center JaMychal Green (14.2) and sophomore guard Trevor Releford (12.5) all have solid scoring averages.
Despite running the point, Releford's 116 offensive rating is sixth in the SEC among players with at 20 percent of their team's possessions. He is also seventh in the conference with a 63.3 true shooting percentage and ninth with a 57.2 effective field-goal percentage.
While Grant can't complain about Releford's offensive production, he would like to see him push the ball more. Alabama is 295th nationally in adjusted tempo with 63.8 possessions a game, a pace far too slow for team with a roster full of high-caliber athletes.
If Alabama decides to pick up the pace, now would be a good time as it faces a pivotal two-game stretch in the next three days. The Crimson Tide hosts Vanderbilt (13-4, 3-0) tonight then has a quick turnaround with a noon ET Saturday game at Kentucky (18-1, 4-0). It is three days that could help determine whether Alabama returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 after losing in the NIT championship game last March.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings respectfully takes an opposite view from Grant and believes Alabama has already established its identity.
"They are one of the very elite defensive teams in the league and in the country," Stallings said. "It's their activity that makes them so difficult to play against. They play with great effort and energy. They always cover for each other and they have great athletes but what really strikes me is how they've bought into what Anthony is selling from a defensive standpoint."
Alabama is fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency with an 84.9 mark. The only teams better are Ohio State (79.1), Wisconsin (81.4) and Kansas (83.4). Releford is seventh in the SEC with a 3.5 steal percentage and freshman forward Nick Jacobs is ninth with a 6.2 block percentage.
Alabama's four losses have all been to quality opponents--Georgetown, Dayton, Kansas State and Mississippi State all rank in the top 45 of the RPI. The Crimson Tide also has plenty of upside as Grant brought in a great freshmen class that includes three of the top fourth high school players in Alabama last season in Jacobs and guards Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph. Lacey is averaging 7.5 points a game and Randolph 6.1.
"All of our freshmen have gotten better with experience," Grant said. "They continue to get more comfortable in their roles and I continue to be more comfortable calling on them."
That could spell trouble for the rest of the SEC.
"Their freshmen are very, very effective," Stallings said. "You put those freshmen together with the players Alabama already had and that makes for an impressive basketball team."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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