'Bama rides defense to top of SEC
Crimson Tide have won eight of nine to lead conference
The Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Alabama’s not typically going to flirt with triple digits, launch 3-pointers all night or dazzle anyone on offense.
The Crimson Tide isn’t likely to let opponents do any of that either, though.
Playing stingy defense has helped coach Anthony Grant and the Tide win eight of its last nine games and forge a surprising, if tenuous, lead in the Southeastern Conference.
“We have to,” Grant said. “Our guys understand that, that our defense gives us a chance to win. For us to have a chance against the caliber of competition that we’re playing, we’ll have to continue to play well defensively.”
The Tide has so far done that better than any other SEC team. Alabama ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense, giving up 56.8 points a game, and is allowing opponents to hit just 36.1 percent of their shots, second-best in the country. Both numbers lead the league by a solid margin.
The Tide is coming off a 70-46 win against LSU when it relied more heavily than usual on a full-court press and forced 12 second-half turnovers.
Alabama enters Wednesday night’s game with Mississippi State with an 11-0 record at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, where opponents are averaging just 49.6 points.
The current surge includes a 68-66 home upset of No. 10 Kentucky. The Tide (13-7, 5-1) is the only SEC team without at least two league losses.
And Grant doesn’t let his players forget what got them to that point: defense.
“We take a lot of pride in it,” Alabama guard Charvez Davis said. “Our coach tells us every day our offense is not going to beat anybody, we’ve got to rely on defense. We just really try to take our opponents out of their offense as much as possible.”
Grant knows it’s way too premature to celebrate Alabama’s current perch atop the SEC, especially with Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee having only two league losses apiece in the East Division. The Tide is the only West team with fewer than three losses in league play, though.
This week will put that to the test. After Mississippi State, the Tide visits Tennessee on Saturday.
“I think we understand the caliber of competition we play in this league,” Grant said. “The league has shown you probably from the first week of the league that anything can happen in our league.”
Still, Alabama has held SEC opponents LSU and South Carolina below 50 points. It’s a considerable step forward for a team that had early-season losses to Saint Peter’s and Seton Hall. It didn’t help matters that leading scorer and rebounder JaMychal Green was suspended for the first three games for breaking team rules, including that Seton Hall loss.
Davis insists the Tide isn’t surprised to be in this position.
“From early on in the season it was just a learning point of what we have to do night in and night out,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, we knew what to do but we would just make little mental mistakes. Right now, everybody really knows what to do and everybody has a good feel for the game. Now that we’re winning, everybody’s confidence is up.
“I know we’re defending night in and night out.”
Alabama has only two players among the SEC’s top 30 scorers. Green is eighth at 15.87 points a game, while Tony Mitchell’s 14.5-point average is 12th.
But the Tide has five players ranked in the top 13 in steals, with Mitchell and Senario Hillman ranking second and third, respectively. And Green and Chris Hines are both among the SEC’s top seven shot blockers.
“Alabama is just fun to watch,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “Terrifically athletic. I think probably the most athletic frontline in the league. They’ve obviously dominated their opponents on the inside.”
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury also praises the athleticism of the Tide’s post players. The Bulldogs dropped the first meeting 75-57 on Jan. 8 shortly after Alabama’s hot streak began.
“Those guys are really athletic, and they’ve done a good job getting them to play hard for them,” Stansbury said. “That’s kind of their identity right now, and they’re playing very well.”