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March 27, 2013

HURT: Next year key for Grant, program

There was certainly disappointment for Alabama basketball fans as Trevor Lacey's final shot against Maryland made contact with the rim and the backboard, but not the net. The loss ended a frustrating season, but it didn't end the journey for any of the Alabama players. It was a finale, but not a farewell.

Every player who suited up and saw action against Maryland - probably the best visiting team to play at Coleman Coliseum all season - will be back next year, if he chooses to return.

There is no indication right now that anyone won't, even though attrition is fairly normal in the college basketball world. Alabama lost two players after the end of last season in decisions that were not entirely expected, although neither departure (Charles Hankerson or Ben Eblen) was shocking. The eight players who made up Alabama's postseason squad all got ample playing time, so that shouldn't be an issue. Some might face more competition for those minutes, but that is a good thing.

The head coach's departure isn't likely, either. Anthony Grant's name has been linked with the vacancy at Minnesota, and there is one factor that might make that a more feasible step than Illinois, where Grant's name also surfaced a year ago. In this case, it would mean that Grant would go from working for an athletic director he doesn't know very well (Bill Battle) to working for one he worked for in a three-year stretch at Virginia Commonwealth (Norwood Teague). But Grant didn't seem inclined to a move in his postgame comments Tuesday night, and Alabama officials are both confident and hopeful that he will return.

Grant spoke extensively about next season as one when Alabama needs to "implement the lessons it learned" this season, and he did not exclude himself from that judgment. He also spoke about continued recruiting and the need to add "additional pieces" to the Alabama roster. Only Andrew Steele has to be replaced, and because of his ankle injury, he was unable to play in the postseason, when the nucleus of next year's expected team was on display.

Optimists look at the last few weeks, with improved play from Trevor Releford, Levi Randolph, Nick Jacobs and Retin Obasohan, and hope for big things, especially with the added inside presence of Carl Engstrom (if his knee heals and he does not decide to play in Europe) and freshman Jimmie Taylor. Pessimists predict the recurrence of some of the problems that plagued the Crimson Tide this year. Both sides predict that 2014 will be decisive in some way - they just disagree on what that decision will be.

Alabama did improve over the course of the 2012-13 season, in incremental ways. Some of its problems, particularly interior scoring, were persistent. Compare the offensive prowess of Maryland's Alex Len (a likely first-round NBA draft choice, to be fair) - not just his scoring and offensive rebounding, but his ability to pass out of double teams or skip the ball from one side of a zone to the other - and you will get an idea of what sort of difference that can make.

Next year, Alabama will have plenty of experience, and personnel recruited by Grant without a transition year involved. And if the end of this season was mildly disappointing, a finish at Coleman Coliseum next year will be much more so.

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



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