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December 31, 2012

HURT: Thin roster to blame for struggles

These are hard times for University of Alabama men's basketball, mired in a slump, losing the sort of nonconference home games that used to be certain wins. A season that started with promise, including a pair of nice wins at Madison Square Garden, is on the brink.

How did it happen? Theories abound. Some blame injuries. Some blame coaching. Some blame a thin roster that limits Alabama's options for turning things around, and that theory deserves a closer look. How did Alabama, in Anthony Grant's fourth year, end up with eight scholarship players available for action?

Part of the answer lies in the unique nature of college basketball recruiting, with its November signing period. Part of the answer seems to derive directly from Grant's character and how it applies to roster management, some of it to injury, some of it to gambles that haven't paid off.

The roots of today's Alabama roster situation go back to November 2011, when the current roster was being formed. At that point, Alabama was at a full allotment of 13 scholarship players, with only one senior. JaMychal Green would be departing and the UA staff had clearly targeted Mississippi prep star Devonta Pollard to fill his spot. The rest of the roster, it must have been assumed, would return.

The concept of "oversigning" is debated occasionally in college football circles. But the practice is common enough in college basketball that it attracts little attention. Basketball is a vagabond sport. Players transfer frequently. Coaches often count on such attrition in assembling their recruiting classes. Grant, whether through a personal ethos or the fact that his staff missed on a player or two, chose to stand pat in November 2011.

Was that wise? Should the coaches have assumed that everyone would come back, healthy, for the next year? Should anyone have assumed that the volatile Tony Mitchell would mature enough to return as a senior, when the two likely outcomes seemed to be that he would have a good season and turn pro, or, as was the case, that he would have a career-ending meltdown?

A good freshman class, along with point guard Trevor Releford, formed a strong nucleus. Pollard (who ultimately signed in May) was a strong recruit. But much else in the outer orbit went spinning out of control as last season ended. Mitchell proved unsuitable for team play. Two reserves, Charles Hankerson and Ben Eblen, decided not to return for their own reasons. Suddenly, a 13-man roster was down to 10, and it was spring, with most of the best talent having been gleaned (most top basketball players sign in November).

Rather than reach for players that were not SEC-talented, or character-suited (the suspensions that marked the 2011-12 season had to take a toll on Grant), Alabama came into the season with no signees other than Pollard, and a 10-man scholarship roster. That group included three foreign players. There is nothing wrong with that, except that all three (Carl Engstrom, Moussa Gueye and Retin Obasohan) are still, to be frank, projects. Engstrom seemed to have come along in the early part of the season but sustained a knee injury in the UA loss at Cincinnati and is gone for the year. The injury-prone Andrew Steele was injured yet again, this time with a sports hernia. And Alabama is left with a very limited roster, in terms of inside scoring and ability to pressure the ball, two good ways to spark an otherwise stagnant offense.

Should Alabama have pursued more players, had better fall-back options when it missed on recruits? Should it have looked at junior-college transfers? Did viable options exist? Grant had no way to see the future, but is paying the price for, depending on your viewpoint, sticking to principles, or failing to have insurance.

HQ: All-American Games: Video interviews, news and notes, and behind the scenes scoop from Orlando and San Antonio

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

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