TUSCALOOSA _ For those wondering how anxious the University of Alabama men's basketball team was to start practice for the 2010-11 season, consider that the players were counting down the days.
We're not talking about a dozen or even a couple of months, either.
"One hundred and seventy-five," junior forward JaMychal Green said. "Very excited."
Year two of the Anthony Grant era officially got under way last Friday when the Crimson Tide hit the court for the first time this season and began preparations for the exhibition with Talladega College on Nov. 2, and the regular-season opener ten days later against Florida A&M.
Just like the facilities being upgraded at Coleman Coliseum, things are looking better, but have a ways to go.
"We worked hard during the offseason," Green continued. "We all have a year under our belts, we know what to expect."
That experience may be the biggest reason for optimism heading into the fall, and why in the recent coaches' preseason poll the Crimson Tide was predicted to place third in the SEC West, barely edged in the vote count by Ole Miss. Mississippi State is considered the team to beat in the division and Florida the conference.
Although Alabama finished 17-15 (6-10 SEC) last season, its problems were multifaceted. Shooting woes, injury issues and little depth led to numerous second-half loses, and even though the Crimson Tide was able to overcome an 18-point second-half deficit to defeat South Carolina, 68-63, in the opening round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, that was the extent of its postseason "run."
Disappointing defections (Demetrius Jemison to Manhattan and Justin Knox to North Carolina) didn't help matters either, but they created openings and opportunities for other players.
"We're more of a team this year," Green said. "We have a lot of chemistry. We're been together for the whole summer.
"We're just a better fit for each other."
With the exception of guard Mikhail Torrance, three of the top scorers are back with Green (14.1 average), sophomore forward Tony Mitchell (9.2) and senior shooting guard Senario Hillman (7.9). Green also led the team in (52) and rebounds (7.2 average).
A year together in Grant's system could do wonders, in addition to the return of redshirt sophomore guard Andrew Steele after missing all but six games last season due to surgery to fix a stress fracture in his ankle, and things like the high-flying Mitchell hitting the weight room and getting his weight up to 210 pounds.
But what can't be undervalued is the simple fact that Grant finally has some bodies to work with.
"Knock on wood we'll stay healthy," he said. "We played with nine scholarship guys last year."
When asked how many healthy players it takes to run his system effectively, Grant couldn't help but answer five (with a coy smile), but the real answer is more like 11. Ideally, he likes to go at opponents in waves and try to run them out of the arena.
"A lot of people have to play," senior guard Charvez Davis said. "Last year we had guys who had to play multiple positions, and not just their true position.
"We feel like we're going to be a lot better," senior forward Chris Hines said. "We're an up-and-down team. We like to press. We like to go full-out for the whole game."
Additionally, there actually some seniors on the roster, four to be exact, and Grant called their leadership "critical."
"I'm a senior so I'm just trying to be a leader, keep everyone on the right path," Hillman said. "Buying in with what the coaches want us to do to become a great team."
Mixed are a number of key additions, like point guard Trevor Releford, the brother of Kansas sophomore guard Travis.
"I think he's got a chance to be a very good player," Grant said.
The frontcourt depth will be inexperienced, but at least Alabama will have some. Two newcomers to especially watch are 6-foot-8 Jason Carter and 7-1 center Carl Engstrom, a handball standout from Sweden who has only been playing organized basketball a couple of years. Both will have to play immediately.
"I'm really impressed with his work-ethic and his ability to learn and get better," Grant said about Engstrom. "He's an athlete, and he's a very intelligent young man."
Rivals ranked the physical Carter and Releford as four-star recruits. Guard Kendall Durant, who averaged 16 points last season at Weatherford Community College in Texas, was a three-star.
"Hopefully the experience we gained last year, I don't think there's any substitute for that," Grant said. "Sometimes those lessons can be hard and the lessons we learned last year were hard.
"A lot of time you see guys make big jumps from their first year to their second year. For us, that's everybody on our team."