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February 18, 2012

Win shows progress being made

Anyone who watches (or covers) University of Alabama basketball this season can't complain about one thing: a lack of variety.

The Crimson Tide hasn't been a single team this season. It has been a constantly changing cavalcade of players and lineups, as unpredictable from one day to the next as a San Francisco jam band during the heady days of Flower Power. "Who's playing bass today?" "I don't know, man, do you have a bass? Then you play it and I'll jam on the maracas."

Things haven't been quite that chaotic, but it seems that way. Once, there was the Alabama team everyone dreamed of, one that probably made its only appearance of the year in San Juan, rolling past Purdue and Wichita State.

But even with the same players, Alabama wasn't always the same team - see South Carolina - and for the last few weeks, there has been mystery in every pregame introduction and an identity crisis in almost every game.

That was no different Saturday, but give Anthony Grant credit. Given a reasonable four-day stretch of practice time, instead of the two-suspension Saturday/Tuesday whirlwind that preceded it, Grant and the Crimson Tide staff remade the Crimson Tide yet again, fielding a team that didn't exactly resemble the early-season expectations, but did play hard.

What's more, the Tide was something it has not been very often this year: fun to watch. On top of that, UA won, beating a hot Tennessee team. That sort of remaking-on-the-fly isn't always easy, or successful. (Seen "Two And A Half Men" lately?)

There was still no JaMychal Green or Tony Mitchell, the suspended duo whose fate remains unclear. There was no Nick Jacobs, either. The freshman - Alabama's second option in the post behind Green - wasn't out because he did anything wrong, other than put his teeth on the receiving end of a teammate's elbow in practice last week. By the way, I don't think one needs to read too carefully to figure out, between Jacobs' dental issues and Trevor Releford's Friday concussion test, just what sort of practices Alabama has been having for the past week.

But Alabama didn't simply shrug and try to plug players in for Green - still Alabama's best offensive option - and play the same way. There was a reinvention, made possible in part because its two novice giants - Carl Engstrom and Moussa Gueye, blessed with size but cursed by limited experience - have progressed. Against Tennessee, the Tide used one or the other, along with an array of perimeter players led by the two Trevors, Lacey and Releford.

Engstrom and Gueye combined for 39 minutes, scored nine points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked six shots (all by Gueye) and changed a half-dozen more.

Before getting giddy about those numbers, a nine-point, nine-rebound effort wouldn't be a great night for Green, but there was never an effort to make the Foreign Legion (Engstrom is from Sweden, Gueye from Senegal) into the focal point of the offense.

They attempted only five shots, but set screen after screen to help free their teammates. Their contribution was tangible. It also may have provided a glimpse of Alabama basketball in 2013, but 2012 isn't over yet. Backstopped by the big men, Alabama was able to press aggressively and eventually to pressure Tennessee's guards into their worst game of the year.

It was just one game, and Alabama still has work to do, and February is no time to be a work in progress. But Saturday's win did show that there is still work going on - and there has been progress.


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