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November 17, 2011

Green, Alabama aim to break out this season

Alabama has every reason to believe this season's trip to the Caribbean will end better than last season's.

Actually, this season's trip couldn't be much worse than the Crimson Tide's visit to the Virgin Islands a year ago.

In the 2010 Paradise Jam, Alabama lost to Seton Hall and Iowa, both of whom finished with losing records, and Saint Peter's, the fourth-place team in the MAAC.

On the return home, no one was happy, to the point where Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant suspended star forward JaMychal Green three games for "conduct detrimental to the team."

"What we talked about was the maturity that needed to take place," Grant said. "He's grown and learned. I like what I've seen out of him. ... Anytime there's change, an adjustment is going to take place. You've got to develop trust. The biggest thing was understanding that I wanted the same thing he wanted."

This season, Alabama returns to the Caribbean - this time for the Puerto Rico Tip-off - with its goals in order. The Crimson Tide, which has opened this season with wins over North Florida and Oakland, faces Maryland today, followed by a potential rematch of last season's NIT final against Wichita State.

That brings up a talking point for the Tide this season: While the season once again is beginning with a trip to the Caribbean, the Tide is convinced it has the tools to end this season in the NCAA tournament.

[Weekly storylines: Upsets begin early]

Start with Green, Alabama's top player for two seasons and the leading rebounder for the past three. Although Alabama continued to struggle in the non-conference portion of the schedule after his return last season, losing to Purdue, Providence and Oklahoma State, Green played great once the calendar changed to 2011; he averaged 16.8 points and 7.8 rebounds in SEC games.

Last month, he joined Grant to represent Alabama at SEC media day.

"[The suspension] was a humbling experience for me," Green said. "Coach and I sat down and got my head together. He just told me I have to be a leader out there."

His resolve was tested after a disappointing Selection Sunday. The Tide finished 12-4 in the SEC, winning the weaker West Division, but the poor non-conferences showing led to the Tide's banishment to the NIT.

[More Alabama coverage: TideSports.com]

Still, the NIT was an exampled of how the Tide had matured. Rather than going through the motions, as bubble teams sometimes do in the NIT, Alabama reached the tourney final before losing to Wichita State.

United we stand
The SEC eliminated basketball divisions this season. The divisions may have caused an image problem for the West Division teams in the past, Alabama coach Anthony Grant said.

"We feel like that the perception of our league was almost that we were two leagues," Grant said. "Going to one division, the hope would be the perception of our league might be a little different."

Here's what the SEC would have looked like in 2010-11 if there were no divisions.
TeamSEC recordRPIPostseason
Florida (E)13-38thNCAA Elite Eight
Alabama (W)12-480thNIT runner-up
Kentucky (E)10-67thNCAA Final Four
Vanderbilt (E)9-727thNCAA round of 64
Georgia (E)9-747thNCAA round of 64
Mississippi State (W)9-7119thNone
Tennessee (E)8-834thNCAA round of 64
Ole Miss (W)7-983rdNIT first round
Arkansas (W)7-9127thNone
South Carolina (E)5-11134thNone
Auburn (W)4-12254thNone
LSU (W)3-13227thNone
"We went in with a chip on our shoulders," Green said. "Even though we didn't get it, we could still go there and compete. Some of us wanted to give in, but Coach Grant pulled us together and told us we still have things to compete for."

After last season's poor start in the Paradise Jam, the Tide ramped up its defense and became one of the top defensive teams in the SEC. Alabama led the SEC in scoring defense (59.4 points per game) and in field-goal percentage defense (opponents shot just 39.6 percent from the field). But Alabama also finished at the bottom of the SEC in 3-point field goal percentage, shooting a miserable 29.8 percent from beyond the arc. Improving its outside shooting was an offseason priority for Alabama.

"Last year, teams went zone on us and packed it in on the inside," Green said. "If they do that to us this year, they're going to have to pay for it."

Green is part of one of the SEC's best frontcourts. Forward Tony Mitchell also returns after averaging 15.2 points and 7.1 rebounds, and he and Green should make up one of the top frontcourt duos in the SEC.

"He's been a guy who can swing back and forth for us," Grant said. "Tony is a playmaker. You put him on the floor and he has a chance to impact the game on both sides of the floor, no matter where he is. His versatility is a strength of his and our team."

The key to Alabama's emergence last season, though, may have been the development of freshman point guard Trevor Releford. His confidence grew as the season progressed, and he averaged 15.4 points during the NIT. His turnovers were high (96), but his assist-to-turnover ratio was only a fraction lower than that of Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight (1.3-to-1).

"I want to see him understanding the value of each possession and value the ball when it's in his hands," Grant said.

[March picks: Huguenin: Projecting the NCAA field of 68]

Two touted freshman guards - Alabama natives Trevor Lacey, a five-star signee from Huntsville, and Levi Randolph, a four-star prospect from Madison - are expected to add some outside pop. Both are 2-of-5 from 3-point range through the first two games.

Alabama also has the schedule to prove its mettle.

After the Puerto Rico Tip-off, Alabama will face VCU on Nov. 27; Grant coached at VCU before moving on to Alabama. After that, Alabama has Georgetown, Kansas State in Kansas City and Oklahoma State in Birmingham. The non-conference schedule won't be a hindrance this season, assuming Alabama wins a few of those games.

Alabama is counting on ending its season in a good place this season.

"We've got to get that this year," Green said. "We've got to."

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David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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