And here we go again...
Alabama opened 2009 SEC play with a gutty 65-59 victory over LSU at Coleman Coliseum on Sunday afternoon.
While it is no secret that I have been more than a little bit critical of Mark Gottfried's coaching in recent years, the game on Sunday left me with renewed hope.
By no means was this a dominating performance by the Tide, though they never trailed in the game. What set this game apart from others this season, and what impressed me the most, was the defensive effort.
Believe it or not, I must credit Gottfried with his game planning. It was obvious from the beginning that Alabama would attempt to get the ball to the rim and force LSU's thin front line into foul trouble. The plan worked (wow, that doesn't even sound right when referring to Gottfried).
Alabama enjoyed a huge free throw disparity, attempting 36 of them while LSU was only able to get 10 shots from the line. The fact that Alabama only hit 23 of 36 is another problem entirely, but the fact that they were able to get there so many times shows an aggressive nature that I was not aware that this team possessed.
While I am attempting to draw positives out of negatives, I will mention that Alabama managed the win without much help from point guard Ronald Steele. In the post-game interviews, Gottfried admitted that Steele has been battling some sort of heel injury, and it was obvious that he was somewhat hobbled during the game.
Without much production from Steele, Alabama relied on the suddenly dependable play of swingman Alonzo Gee. Gee has been a force so far this season, and he turned in another double-double and extended his streak of double-figure scoring efforts to 13. He has also morphed into some sort of rebounding machine, grabbing 13 more in this game.
If you watched the game, you couldn't help but be impressed by the play of sophomore guard Senario Hillman. While his skills are still very raw, he is amazingly quick on defense, and his leaping ability is nothing short of unbelievable. He sparked an important run in the late going with a steal and a thunderous dunk. To add to the accolades, he hit four pressure free throws late in the game to ice the win.
Hillman still lacks a dependable jump shot, and certainly teams will adjust to exploit that weakness. He also lacks above-average ball handling skills, which leaves Steele to break presses mostly on his own. But Hillman appears to be improving by the game, and he could prove to be the tipping point of a team that desperately needs one more scorer.
A point of concern is the front line play of Knox and Green. Alabama has been unable to generate much production from the starting pair, and as conference play gets into full swing, this weakness must be improved.
Justin Knox has shown signs of improvement, though. He had a couple of early put-backs and managed to play fairly solid interior defense. Fouls continue to plague freshman JaMychal Green, and he was held to 0-3 shooting, though he did make 6-8 from the line.
From here, Alabama heads to Starkville to face an unpredictable Mississippi State team coming off an upset win at Arkansas. Starkville has proved to be a place that Alabama has had trouble stealing wins, so a victory Wednesday would be a huge bonus.
I'm not ready to leap back onto the Gottfried bandwagon. Road games in the SEC have befuddled him throughout his career at Alabama, and unless we see at least some improvement in that area, I will continue to shout for his replacement.
Somehow, though, the game on Sunday left me wondering if he could manage to turn this team around. Unlike last year, the players seem to be playing hard for him. He seems to have renewed focus on defense and rebounding, two keys to a winning SEC record. If the Steele injury proves to be a small hiccup instead of a crushing loss, I believe there is a chance.
I hesitate to put too much weight on this first road game, but we should have a clear picture of the direction of the team at game's end. With a trip to Auburn looming this weekend, I believe Alabama must split these games, at worst, to set themselves up for a competitive run through the conference.
As you can probably tell, I am starving for something positive out of our basketball program. This season is Gottfried's last "last chance," and while I think the long-term improvement of the program is more likely to happen in someone else's hands, I would love to see him make a winner out of a team that we had all written off.
So Mark, see if you can prove us all wrong and give us something to cheer about this winter. Good luck—you are going to need it.