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Know Your Non-Conference Opponent: Alabama

Last year, Xavier traveled to Alabama to win a thriller. This year, the Crimson Tide come to Cincy to finish the home and home.

Anthony Grant's team will again slow the pace and defend.
Anthony Grant's team will again slow the pace and defend.
Kevin C. Cox

One of the markers of a high quality team is its ability to beat good competition at neutral sites or on the road. Of course, one of the markers of a program that has been successful for a number of years is that teams generally come to play them rather than forcing them to go trekking across the country to get an early schedule in. After four home games and three neutral-site contests, Xavier will be back home on the first Saturday of December to play the Cintas leg of a home-and-home against Alabama. The Muskies beat the Tide by three at their place last season; here's what Alabama will bring to Cinci this year.

Coach/style:
I've liked Anthony Grant since back when he was making VCU cool; that was true last year and it's true again this year. Success has been a little more difficult for him to come by at 'Bama, as he has finished in the top 100 of the KenPom rankings 5 times - and the top 66 4 times - but has just one NCAA bid to show for his troubles. He still loves to play slowly; even upping the pace last year by two possessions over the year before wasn't enough for Alabama to crack to top 300 in adjusted tempo.

Grant's Alabama teams had been excellent at forcing bad shots and turnovers, leading to three straight years in the top 20 in defensive efficiency. They took a big step back last year, though, landing at 76th thanks in large part to a horrible showing on the defensive glass. They were still a very good defensive team, but I suspect Grant will have spent his summer working out how to shape their defense back into a dominant force.

Offensively, Alabama has been barely above average. They manage a solid EFG%, take care of the ball pretty well, and have come in at or a tick below average on the offensive glass for the past three years. Basically they don't do anything too well or too poorly, which is the blueprint for a mediocre unit that will rise and fall with the success of the defense. When the D isn't clicking, they post 13-19 seasons like they did last year.

Departures:
Alabama lost four scholarship players from last year's team, and I'll address them in decreasing order of importance but increasing order of weirdness.

Guard Trevor Releford graduated, having simply exhausted his eligibility. He put up 18.5/3.5/3.1 and 2.2 steals per game on a shooting line of .496/.393/.848 while leading the team in minutes, field goals made, three-point baskets made, free throws made, assists, and steals. Forward Nick Jacobs left the team in February last year on a "leave of absent." He has gotten even more absent since then, transferring to Georgia Tech to play out his eligibility under Brian Gregory. He averaged 8.4/3.5/0.3 with Alabama. He said he was looking for a place where he could "step out and shoot it" more often, which is exactly what you want from a guy who is 6'8", 260.

Getting progressively more unusual, guard Algie Key departed for Division 2 Washburn University. There are nearly 350 teams in NCAA Division 1, and Key apparently wanted no part of them. On some level, it's not surprising that a guy who averaged 3.7/2.3/1.4 on .404/.143/.667 shooting would transfer down, but he was a JuCo All-American before coming to Alabama. I'm guessing playing out his eligibility at a D-2 school was not what he had in mind when he accepted that honor 18 months ago. Finally, forward Carl Engstrom left the team despite having a year of eligibility remaining so he could play professionally in Sweden.

Returnees:
Nobody coming back for Alabama averaged double digits, but they do return four guys who averaged at least 7.5. The top returning scorer is 6'5" rising senior guard Levi Randolph, who put up 9.6/3.8/1.4 while shooting .420/.347/.705. That shooting line is nothing to write home about, but it's clinical compared to the .381/.246/.667 put up by rising junior Retin Obasohan. Obasohan is a 6'1" guard who - despite shot selection that would suggest he is the coach's kid at a small high school - averaged 9.5/3.0/1.6. His steal% of 4% (33rd in the nation) makes up a little bit for all the empty possession he accounted for with his shooting.

Six-foot-eight rising sophomore Shannon Hale made a big impression in his first year in college, tallying 8.8/3.6/1.0 on .433/.352/.632 shooting. Improved shooting from inside the arc might see Hale poised for a breakout season this year. Rising senior Rodney Cooper is listed as a 6'6" guard, but he is also the team's leading rebounder with a 7.5/4.9/1.9 line from last season. His shooting line of .349/.264/.742 rivals Obasohan's and he actually shot even more. It can't make Grant feel good to know that those two guys accounted for 46% of the shots taken last year by players who are returning this season.

Incoming players:
Did Grant bring in someone who can actually hit a jump shot this season? Let's find out together!

Graduate transfer Cristophe Varidel certainly fits the bill. The 6'3" guard was on the "Dunk City" Florida Gulf Coast team, burying 177 of the 460 (38.5%) threes he shot for that school. He transferred to Chaminade last year, where he was averaging 21.2 PPG in five games before succumbing to injury. I'm guessing he'll have the green light to lift early and often for Alabama.

ESPN100 PG Justin Coleman is 5'10" and comes in with a reputation for having extremely good handle and an irrepressible first step. He can hit jumpers if left open, but his shooting range is not a huge threat at this point. He is a good penetrator and playmaker who just needs to add strength to his 155-pound frame. Six-foot-four Devin Mitchell is a shooting guard who earns his scholarship with his ability to knock down shots off the catch or the bounce. He has range out behind the arc and just enough ability off the dribble to keep defenders honest. If he can defend well enough to not be a guaranteed bucket for the opponent, he figures to be able to get minutes.

Riley Norris is a 6'7" forward who can play as a face-up four or a wing. He earned ESPN100 honors largely on the versatility of his game, being able to score from beyond the arc, finish like a big man inside, and rebound in tight spaces. He is long and athletic and just needs to add some muscle to transition into the college game. Finally, 6'7", 210-pound forward Jeff Garrett comes in from Oldsmar, Fla. He averaged 18/10/4 with 2 blocks per game as a senior and has the size and athleticism to play right away inside.

Outlook:
Anthony Grant is widely considered to be on or near the proverbial hot seat this year, but that is kind of harsh for a coach just a season removed from a three-season run during which he averaged 23 wins. Alabama certainly took a step back last year, but Grant has addressed the team's biggest need in the transfer market and then brought in a top-25 recruiting class. He may be on the hot seat now, but I would be surprised to see Alabama struggle this year the way they did last season. With a month to get things sorted before coming to Cintas, I anticipate that Alabama will be Xavier's first tough test at home.