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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Alabama

Alabama had a down year least season, but Anthony Grant's blend of new faces and a familiar scheme is set to put them back in the tournament.

I'm guessing Anthony Grant would win most coach fights, if those were a thing.
I'm guessing Anthony Grant would win most coach fights, if those were a thing.

The basketball season is nearly upon us (finally), and we are getting down to the very end of the non-conference schedule breakdowns for the Muskies. Up next on the docket is Alabama (if you're following along on your schedule, don't worry about UC; we save them for last), another big-conference foe and one of the better teams left out of the NCAA tournament last year. The Tide has reloaded for the upcoming season under Anthony Grant, and they figure to be a potential big scalp for Xavier.

I've liked Anthony Grant since back when he was making VCU cool, and he has been able to transfer a good portion of that success to the SEC in his four years at Alabama. A couple of things jump of the page about Grant's style of play as a coach, and the most obtrusive of those is his preferred pace. Grant prefers to play slowly in the same way the Goliath was tall or Marshall Henderson is crazy, which is to say to the extreme. His fastest Alabama squad was 247th in the nation, and that was his first year with the Tide. His teams have just kept getting slower, falling all the way to 320th at a meager 61.6 possessions per game last season. It's an absolute grind to go up against 'Bama.

Every possession matters when you're playing that slowly, but nothing comes easily. Grant's last three teams have been 6th, 5th, and 20th in the country in defensive efficiency. It's a tapestry of pain for opponents on that end, as the Tide have been very good in forcing both bad shots and turnovers. They also don't send opponents to the line or allow three-point attempts any more than an average team does. About the only chink in their armor is the glass, where they allow offensive rebounds at a slightly elevated rate.

The defense more or less carries the offense in Grant's scheme, with Alabama's offensive efficiency coming in just a tick above average in each of the last three seasons. Shooting has been fairly bad, with an EFG% of 47.9% (210th in the nation) last year. They also turn the ball over slightly more than an average team and get to the offensive glass slightly less. Three-point shooting has been a consistent weak point for Alabama, but they have compensated for that by by and large eschewing the long-range game.

Alabama is kind of an odd case in that they lost more players to transfer (3) than they did to graduation (1). That grad was Andrew Steele, whose 3.8/2.0/1.6 on .355/.214/.667 shooting barely warrants mention, particularly as it came in just 21 games played. He did have just a hair over a steal per game and will be leaving with a degree that someone else paid for, so good on the young man.

It's hard to know what went down in any transfer situation, but the case of 6'3", 215-pound guard Trevor Lacey is especially intriguing. He played 77.5% of the team's minutes and averaged 11.3/3.8/3.2 on .392/.373/.718 shooting. Lacey had the team's second-highest usage rate and highest assist rate before departing for NC State. Forward Devonta Pollard departed after just one season, taking his 3.9/3.1/0.6 on .371/.125/.614 shooting line to East Mississippi Community College. He was highly-rated coming out of high school and will use the year in JuCo to try to bolster his stock. Moussa Gueye took his 10.8% block%, 20.5% DReb%, and 10.6% OReb% to Valpo for his final year of eligibility, thereby rounding out the summer's exodus from the Tide.

Softening the blow is the return of 6'0", 195-pound guard Trevor Releford. The rising senior posted an excellent ORtg of 116.5 on his way to a game line of 14.9/2.7/2.5 on .476/.407/.824 shooting. Releford is a slasher by nature, taking almost 40% of his shots at the rim, but he is able to knock down the three if given the space. He's also a menace on defense, ending 4% of opponents' possessions with steals.

Wing Rodney Cooper is also back; the 6'5", 215-pound rising junior put up 10.2/4.5/0.9 with .401/.301/.639 shooting numbers. He wasn't nearly as efficient as Releford, but he took a higher percentage of the team's shots when on the floor than any other Tide (Tideman? Tider? How do I refer to a single Alabama player by the team's nickname like I would when calling an X player a Muskie?). His efficiency at the rim (71.2% shooting at the basket) was undermined by the fact that he only took 21.5% of his shots from that location. He is purely a catch-and-shoot guy from behind the arc, with only one of his 40 3PM coming without an assist. He is also the team's leading returning rebounder.

Levi Randolph is another rising junior wing back on the roster. He stands 6'5" and weighs in at 205 pounds and averaged 8.1/4.2/1.6 on .431/.341/.716 shooting. Randolph is another guy who hits his threes off the pass and doesn't get to the rim often. He rounds out his contributions by averaging over a steal a game and - like Cooper - rarely turning the ball over.

Nick Jacobs is a bruising 6'8", 265-pound forward entering his junior year at 'Bama. He led the team's major contributors with an 8.9% OReb%, and more than 1 in every 5 of his shots at the rim came off of offensive rebounds. He put up 7.6/4.1/0.1 on .539/.000/.603 shooting and also blocked more than a shot per game. Jacobs rarely strays from the paint, with every shot he took last season charted as either at the rim or a short jumper.

Incoming players:
Jumping into the fray in the backcourt is highly regarded JuCo transfer guard Algie Key. Key averaged 17.6/6.2/4.4 as a sophomore last year and holds the top two seasons in Barton Community College history in terms of free throws attempted and is fourth in both career points and career assists. At 6'4", 180 he has the length to create matchup problems on the perimeter. He figures to come in and be an instant part of the Alabama offense.

Coach Grant has chosen to shore up the middle with a pair of ESPN100 freshmen. Shannon Hale is a 6'8", 210-pound power forward with good athleticism and a high basketball IQ. He has a good mid-range touch and the length and drive to block shots from the weakside and be a force on the boards at both ends. His defensive positioning and physical strength are areas in which he will be looking to improve.

The other big man is 6'10", 210-pound center Jimmie Taylor. Taylor is all energy right now, with a knack for shot blocking and a desire to challenge everything that goes up in and around the paint. His speed in transition will be a challenge to similarly sized players, and he does a great job going after rebounds. He is going to need to add low post strength and come up with some more moves than just a jump hook to his stronger right hand, but scouting reports indicate his work ethic and passion for the game are off the charts.

Between Releford and Key attacking and Randolph and Cooper looming on the wings, this team is going to be able to put up some points from the outside. Anthony Grant's scheme is going to make life miserable on the other end for opponents; the real battle is going to come down to the paint. If one or both of the newcomers can step up and offer some immediate help to Jacobs's bulk inside, this team has the weapons for a second-weekend tournament run. If not, they still figure to be a team that nobody is going to want to face, and that defense and slow pace will keep them in a lot of games.