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March 8, 2012

HURT: Tide on roller coaster

More: Rivals100 ATH names leader | Indiana's No. 1 eyes Tide

The Southeastern Conference doesn't give an award for the most profound understatement at the SEC basketball tournament, but South Carolina coach Darrin Horn would be a viable candidate if there was such a trophy - even if he was saying more than he knew.

"They're a team that's a much different team than the first time we played them," Horn said when asked about Alabama.

The fact is, Alabama isn't just a different team since then. It is a different team every time it takes the court, so much so that it is surprising there has been enough continuity for the Crimson Tide to have reach the cusp of an NCAA Tournament bid, probably secure already and sure to be forthcoming if UA reverses its earlier defeat against South Carolina in this afternoon's game.

How tumultuous has this season been, personnel-wise? Alabama has used 14 different stating lineups in its 30 games. Eleven different players have started. By comparison, South Carolina - the worst team in the league, one that should be searching frantically for answers, has used seven different lineups.

Even the 14-lineup statistic doesn't completely describe the instability. For the first part of the season, Alabama had a relatively stable lineup, starting JaMychal Green, Trevor Releford, Tony Mitchell, Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper. But by late January, that stability was gone. Alabama has not started the same five players in consecutive games since the back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky on Jan. 19 and 21. In the 11 games that followed, starting, appropriately enough, with South Carolina, Alabama has changed its starting lineup every single time out. That has included several different combinations - big lineups, small lineups, even a desperation lineup at LSU - so it's not just that Alabama is different than it was six weeks ago, but that it has transformed itself repeatedly in that time.

One might argue that a starting lineup is more symbolic than crucial, that Anthony Grant is taking a pointillist approach in which the first tick of the clock in the first half is just a single dot in the game, no more important than, say, the 12:37 mark of the second half. There have been cases over the last 11 games where starters have seen less than 10 minutes of total game time. But Grant does seem to use the staring lineup as motivation, or a reward, at times, so there must be some value to it.

There are other statistical clues to the roller-coaster ride of the Crimson Tide. Even looking at the original starting lineup, with two freshmen and three veterans, it is obvious that the core of the team was Green, Mitchell and Releford.

Anyone looking at Alabama in the preseason, even conservatively, would have thought that trio would be worth 40 points per game, an average of 13.3 points per game. Over a 30-game season, that would total 1,200 points. But between injury, inconsistency and suspension, that trio hasn't come close. if you just look at per-game averages, you don't see the gap. But in total points, the three-man veteran core of the team has just 954 points - and in 16 SEC games, when you could have expected 640 points, they have just 402. That's nearly 15 points per game that Alabama has to find from players with less ability and less experience, and they haven't always found it.

Horn is definitely right about one thing - he will see a different Alabama team than the one he saw in January. Those who follow Alabama closely, though, know that you are likely to see a different Crimson Tide every single time it plays.

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Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.


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